The grand, wrought iron gates of the Polish wartime cemetery have not been opened for decades and are permanently padlocked. Entrance can be gained using a smaller, more prosaic, gate at the western end of the compound. As with the other Polish war cemeteries in Iran, this site is cared for by the local Armenian community, a service for which it deserves a deep debt of gratitude.
Arrived with a bouquet of red and white flowers in my arms, I am welcomed at the door by the caretaker, Mr. Reza Moghadam, a slim, gentle, self-effacing man who leads me leisurely through what looks like a secret garden rather than a graveyard. We pass a couple of tiny Armenian churches turned into family mausoleums. They are surrounded by gravestones inscribed with beautiful Armenian lettering. The vegetation is lush and the air is heavy with the scent of roses, pomegranates, and various flowering bushes.
A few moments later we arrive at a low metal gate – the entrance to the Polish cemetery – and the contrast is immediately evident. There are few bushes or plants to be seen anywhere: only a few thin saplings struggling to survive the intense July heat. Apart from a few shaded areas close to the perimeter wall, all is bare, sandy, and almost desert-like.
At the centre stands a high rectangular column of white marble lavishly engraved with a Polish eagle. Below it, in English and Polish, are inscribed the words:
“This is the resting place of 639 Poles, the soldiers of the Polish army of the east, of General Władysław Anders and civilians, the prisoners of war and captives of the Soviet camps who died in 1942 on the way to their homeland. Peace to their memory.”
There is an earlier commemorative stone lying in the soil a few feet away, brown and disfigured by time. Its Polish inscription can still be made out, but only with the help of touch and imagination. In a few months time it will merely be another mysterious recumbent stone whose purpose has long been forgotten.
Laying down my bouquet of flowers, I sit down on the ground to mourn my fellow countrymen. Around me are the small, neat identical gravestones in long cemented rows close together. The names and dates on many of them are weathered or erased. Two have crumbled away altogether.
One of the graves stands out among the others. It is higher than the other stones, upright and proud in grey marble. This headstone is new.: erected by a young Polish couple who made the long journey to Anzali a couple of years ago to replace the crumbling headstone of their relative.
Mr Moghadam (who lives in the cemetery and tends all of the the graves) receives no salary or remuneration for his services other than the gatehouse he lives in, donated to him by the Armenian community. Together with his wife (whom I met on my previous visit to the cemetery) he survives solely on donations from visitors and well-wishers. In the last year only three visitors from Poland had come to the cemetery. And, as a result of the recent volatile political situation in Iran following the elections, he does not expect any more in the foreseable future. “They are frightened to come”, he says bluntly”.
“People sometimes ask me whether I am afraid to live in a cemetery,” he continues, head bowed low as we walk among the headstones. “But I always tell them this: why should I be afraid of the dead? It is the living I should be afraid of.”
In the course of our conversations he lets slip that he is an artist, and I somehow manage to persuade him to show me a few of his paintings. In a shed near the front gate he drags out a stack of large oil paintings, all of them executed in thick, vibrant colours. The themes range from scenes from Iranian history to Christian religious icons. Above us on the stone wall of his work shed he has painted a gigantic figure of Christ rising from the dead, his arms outstretched against a large yellow cross. “This one is purely for myself”, he smiles shyly.
Several years ago (he tells me) he received a commission to paint a number of icons for a church in Turkey. On the way to its destination the consignment disappeared (most probably stolen) and he lost everything. A short while later, the Iranian Government asked him to consider painting propaganda pictures. He refused, saying it was not the kind of work to which he was suited.
Eventually, I ask him about the sad state of Polish cemetery. He lowers his head slowly, and nods. Two years earlier, the winter weather was so severe that it brought down many of the mature pines in the graveyard. He planted new ones to replace them but only a few had taken root. He directs my attention to a vague stone structure in a distant corner of the plot. “We have a well for water here”, he says. “Can you see it? It has a motorized pump that still works. But the difficulty is getting the water to the trees. What is required is a long length of plastic piping and a few minor repairs to the pump. And the trees would grow.”
I begin to become heated. A year earlier, on a previous visit to the cemetery, I had written to the Polish Embassy in Tehran informing them of this matter. But they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. A few weeks later I wrote to them again, this time about the imminent disappearance of the important Polish wartime cemetery in Qazvin (Northern Iran), which was threatened by demolition from developers. The matter was urgent (I wrote) but the cemetery could still be saved if the embassy acted promptly and decisively. Again, there was no response whatsoever. A few weeks later, the Polish embassy quietly removed the name Qazvin from the list of Polish wartime cemeteries on its website. This was the sum total of their involvement with the problem. Shame on them!
Angry and exasperated, I went across the road and purchased the necessary plastic piping myself on behalf of the men, women and children who had died here in exile after enduring horrific conditions in the work camps of Siberia: citizens of a country whose government cannot even afford 25 metres of plastic tubing to sweeten the memory of their existence.