Pahlavi was the old name. The coastal town on the Caspian Sea is now called Anzali. It’s fairly typical of port towns. Fish markets, beach hotels, pizza joints, smell of deisel, seaside apartments and lagoon boat tourism. Nothing strikingly memorable here including the much touted lagoon tour. Ten years of severe drought in Iran has drastically depleted water levels. This lagoon may well have been home to rich bird and plant life, but my boat ride through the narrow grass-collared channels stopped long before the much promised beauty of the lagoon. “Not enough water” says my guide.
Say the name Pahlavi to any Sybirak and you will witness instant recognition. This was the promised land- Persia (now Iran). A beacon of hope. Freedom from years of imprisonment and starvation. Many thousands of Poles did not make it dying of disease and exhaustion along the way. Thousands more were simply too far away or too weak to begin the exodus. Others were too late. Stalin shut the border in September 1942. Anyone remaining was trapped. Declared a Soviet citizen.
The lucky ones disembarked off the filthy overcrowded ships and fell on their knees to kiss the sandy shore, tears of gratitude streaming down their exhausted faces. On shore, rows of white tents stretched along the sandy beach ready to deal with the Polish refugees. Freedom under the star studded sky, according to my mother, was sheer lifegiving beauty.
The British and Iranian authorities were unprepared for the severity of malnutrition and disease. Over six hundred died from disease, exhaustion and sadly, the shock of food on their bodies. By the second evacuation in August 1942 a quarantine camp had been set up with separate tents. Arrivals were stripped naked, deloused, issued new clothing and slowly introduced to food. Anyone suspected of typhus or infectious disease stayed in quarantine for recovery. To my surprise, our hotel was right next to the site of the quarantine camp.
From Pahlavi the deportees were transferred to camps in Tehran. Many recall the harrowing, heart thumping journey speeding along steep narrow roads with hairpin turns. At the bottom of the cliffs, overturned vehicles showed their bellies. We, however, drove comfortably on a ten lane divided highway with the most inviting cycling shoulder I have encountered this entire trip. I say ‘comfortably’ but really I am unsure I could ever ungrip my white knuckles. The highway has changed. Iranian driving has not.
In 1942 Iran provided refuge for over 115,000 Poles. In Tehran’s Dulab cemetery you will find almost 2000 graves of men, women and children all bearing the same dates…1942-1943. Meeting up with Gosia and Michał from Poland, a young 20-something couple, provided a strange realness for me. We chatted, flipping between English and Polish (half na pół) and swapped stories. I told them about my mother. Gosia told me of her grandfather’s uncle – deported and ended up in Canada. Standing among the row upon row upon row of Polish children’s graves in the middle of Tehran, we shared our gratitude. No words necessary.
Some modern graves are at the back of the of the cemetery. Poles who remained in Iran. Married. Had families. Most of the refugees went on to join the allied armies in the Middle East. The rest remained guests of Iran (some for up to three years) their lives completely transformed in the process.
Of the 18,000 children arriving in Pahlavi, over 2000 found a new home in Esfahan. The search was on to find accommodation for these orphaned children. Eventually schools, hospitals and Polish social organizations were established and twenty-four areas of the city were allocated to the orphans. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi even opened his private pool to the orphans. Esfahan became known as Miasto Dzieci Polskich or The City of Polish Children.
Most of the refugees left Iran and were transferred to camps in British colonies, among them India, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika, Rhodesia and South Africa. My mother’s home was a simple grass and clay hut under Mount Meru in Tanzania. She ate mangoes, hiked, went to school, church and Polish harcerstwo (scouts). For the first time in years, she felt safe and nourished. Although she didn’t know where life would take her next, these were incredibly happy times for her.
When the war ended, few returned to Poland. The final blow. The Allied leaders had secretly agreed at a meeting in Tehran in 1943 to put Poland in the Soviet Union’s ‘orbit’ (as if it had its own Galaxy or something). After all the suffering- the loss of homes and land. The deportations. The disease. The gulag and deaths. The very homeland that Polish soldiers were fighting to protect – handed over to Stalin. My mother’s birthplace. Gone in a penstroke. No returning home.
Having no home and an all too real understanding of life under Stalin, the majority of deportees never returned to Poland. Eventually they ended up in Britain, New Zealand, United States, Mexico, Canada and Australia. In May 1948, my mother’s family boarded the MV Carnavon Castle and sailed to Britain to join my grandfather. They hadn’t seen him in five years. (I cannot believe I just realized this!)
The Sybiracy never forgot the debt they owed to the country that had so generously opened its doors to them. Ask a Sybirak what they remember about Iran. Likely it is exactly what I remember. The people. Huge generosity. Friendliness. Kind offerings. A pomegranate handed to me by a stranger. A ‘hello where are you from?’ A warm smile. The local history buff showing up unexpectedly with Polish stories. The curious teens who practice their English and share infectious laughter (while I struggle to follow their advice on head covering in gusty, hot winds.)
And so…our Sybirak Cycle expedition has ended. Many thanks to ALL OF YOU for your tremendous support, encouragement and musings. It has been quite the journey- made all the more powerful by allowing us to share it with you. Dziękujemy!
The next months will see us beavering away at home making the film. ( I get to say that- I’m Canadian after all). And alas…back to work I go.
Stay tuned for news about the film and…ahem…about the fundraising to make the project happen. (In the meantime feel free to help by donating at http://www.sybirakcycle.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org)