Echoes of Polish Isfahan

There was once a time when the streets of Isfahan echoed to the sounds of Polish songs, when thousands of little Polish girls made their way to school (or work) along the Chahar Bagh in their smart maroon jerseys and grey pleated skirts.

It is hard to believe today: but from 1942 to 1945 Isfahan was home to an army of young Polish orphans (mostly girls) who found safety and freedom in Iran after years of forced detention in Siberian labour camps. Many had arrived in the country suffering from typhus, cholera and dysentery. All were traumatized and emaciated by malnutrition. Isfahan welcomed these orphans and found room for them in over twenty separate areas of the city. The climate of the city and the beautiful surroundings did much to return the children to physical and mental health. A large number of these visitors remained in Isfahan for up to three years, earning it the name, “City of Polish Children”.

Traces of their presence can still be found in Isfahan, if you are prepared to look for them.

In an Armenian church in the Jolfa area, I discover a Polish relic: a highly ornate icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. It is propped up on the altar below a rather garish neon cross. As a mass is in process, I wait in the aisle before approaching the celebrant (and his elderly assistant) for information about the icon. Do they know how the church acquired the icon? Could the Polish exiles have donated it? After all, the children attended the church regularly on Sundays. Some may even have received their first Holy Communions here. The two Armenians smile apologetically and shake their heads. They are sorry, but they know nothing of the icon’s history. But of course (they continue) what I suggest is very possible. But they cannot say for certain. It is all, in the end, rather disappointing.

Later, as I wander through the bazaar next to the Jame Mosque, I stop to admire some tablecloths on display. The stallholder is very friendly, and after sharing a few words I am invited around the back to meet his grandfather, the patriarch of the family. He is sitting on a tiny stool almost level with the floor, a slim, kindly old man with a generous smile and several missing teeth. He is printing patterns onto the cloth using nothing more than a simple wooden block. As he talks, he smears the block with an inky sponge and presses it firmly to the cotton material over and over again. It is intricate work, but he makes no mistakes. The dyes are all his own, he tells me. He makes them out of such things as alum and pomegranate skins.

The old man begins to talk about his childhood. He used to play with the Polish children during the war years. He could remember many of them. In addition, his teacher used to instruct the Polish children in woodcarving, the making of wooden figures and ornaments. They were good students, he said, eager to learn. One day the teacher asked him if he would like to learn Polish (because he could arrange it). But he declined. He much preferred to play football on the streets with his school friends.

Suddenly, the old man remembers one of the places in Isfahan where the exiles used to live. It is a factory now. He writes down the address on a piece of paper for me.

As I am leaving, the grandson of the old man leans forward and informs me of several Poles who have recently arrived in Isfahan to work. Sensing my scepticism, he begins to tell me their names and then proudly recites two or three phrases in Polish. His Polish pronunciation is passable. These newly-arrived Poles like to sing and to laugh, he says. And also to drink, he adds finally.

The very next morning, I go to the address the old man had given me in Charbagh Street. The place is now a store called “Polar”, and deals in refrigeration devices. I talk to the owner, who is more than happy to let me to look around. I do, but there is very little to see. The rooms upstairs are completely gutted and the ground floors containing the shops extensively renovated. The only remaining feature of the original building is the exterior facade of the upstairs storey. I go out into the busy street and look up. Two ornate stone balconies can be seen and also a pair of bay windows containing the faintest suggestion of stained glass. What had once been an elegant, sought-after residence was now earmarked for demolition. It was propped up on all sides with temporary scaffolding and a metal curtain had been set up to protect pedestrians from falling masonry.

Traces of the Polish wartime exodus to Iran were fast disappearing from Isfahan. Would anything remain, I began to ask myself, in twenty, fifty, a hundred years? Perhaps only graves will remain. Only the graves.

Of all the Polish wartime cemeteries in Iran, Isfahan is one of the smallest, but also one of the most beautiful. It can be found on the south side of the river on a sloping hill between Mount Sofe and Jolfa. Shielded from the main road by a blue wrought-iron fence, it is surrounded by lofty pine trees, cool breezes and constant birdsong. Peace and serenity permeate everything here. As with most of the Polish cemeteries in Iran, it is cared for by the Armenian community.

The Polish section is marked by two large crucifixes cemented into square pedestals with a metal chain hanging between them. Beyond them, straight ahead, is an upright commemorative monument of white concrete topped by a little crucifix. A Polish White Eagle is emblazoned across its surface. It holds an image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa to its breast and the inscription below (in large black Polish letters) reads, “To the memory of the Polish exiles, from their fellow countrymen”.

Immediately in front of this monument is the oldest Polish grave in Isfahan, perhaps even in all of Iran. It is dated 1686, and marks the resting place of Theodore Miranowicz, an ambassador from the Polish King who died on a mission to the Iranian court. All about him, in three neat rows, are the 20 gravestones dating from the time of the Polish children. The majority are graves belonging to adults who cared for the orphans in Isfahan. Only seven actually belong to children. One merely reads, “She never saw the light of day”.

I sit down on a bench to consider all I have seen. In my hand I hold a copy of an old Polish newspaper printed in Tehran in 1943. One of the articles by a Polish visitor to Isfahan reads:

A new “Young Poland” is being reborn here in Isfahan. These thousands of young people will return to their own country soon with the atmosphere of Isfahan deeply imprinted on their hearts. They will return home imbued with ideas of Art uncontaminated by fashion, advertisement or self-interest. Anyone who experiences “Polish Isfahan” for even a single day must bow his head before this miracle and say (without exaggeration), “Isfahan will enter the History of Poland.” (1)

Unfortunately, the writer was wrong on both counts. There was to be no rebirth of the Polish nation. And after the war, virtually none of the children returned to Poland. Instead, they became casualties of British and US policy towards Poland post 1945. They were passed from one shabby resettlement camp to another, whether in India or East Africa. A large group of them settled in New Zealand, in a place called Pahiatua. Another group (the majority) ended up in Santa Rosa, Mexico. The USA refused to take any of them. Indeed, when their ship docked in Los Angeles en route to Mexico, the US authorities arrested the children and placed them behind barbed wire in an internment camp for Japanese citizens. When they were finally permitted to leave, it was only by sealed train and under heavy US military guard until they reached the border with Mexico.

It was all so very different, I thought, from their reception in Iran.

1). Mieczyslaw Piolun. “Polak w Isfahanie”. Tehran. 10.01.1943, No 26.

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