Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942
Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942
By: Ryszard Antolak, December 2004
Exhausted by hard labour, disease and starvation - barely recognizable as human beings – we disembarked at the port of Pahlavi (Anzali). There, we knelt down together in our thousands along the sandy shoreline to kiss the soil of Persia. We had escaped Siberia, and were free at last. We had reached our longed-for Promised Land. – Helena Woloch.
In Tehran's Dulab cemetery, situated in a rundown area of the city, are the graves of thousands of Polish men, women and children. It is not the only such cemetery in Iran, but it is the largest and most well-known. All of the gravestones, row upon row of them, bear the same date: 1942.
In that year, Iran stood as a beacon of freedom and hope for almost a million Polish citizens released from the Soviet labour camps of Siberia and Kazakhstan. After enduring terrible conditions travelling across Russia, 115,000 of them were eventually allowed to enter Iran. Most of them went on to join the allied armies in the Middle East. The rest (mostly women and children) remained guests of Iran for up to three years, their lives totally transformed in the process. They never forgot the debt they owed to the country that had so generously opened its doors to them. Their reminiscences, as well as the many graves left behind in Tehran, Anzali and Ahvaz, are testimony to a chapter of Iranian history almost erased from the public memory.
From Poland to Iran
In 1939, the Soviet Union had participated with Nazi Germany in the invasion and partition of Poland. In the months that followed, the Soviets began a policy of ethnic cleansing in the area to weed out what they called socially dangerous and anti-soviet elements. As a result, an estimated 1.5 million civilians were forcibly expelled from their homes in the course of four mass deportations. Thrust at gunpoint into cattle trucks, they were transported to remote labour camps all over Siberia and Kazakhstan.
Their fate was completely changed in June 1941 when Germany unexpectedly attacked Russia. In need of as many allies it could find, Russia agreed to release all the Polish citizens it held in captivity. Shortly afterwards, provision was also made for the creation of an army from these newly-freed prisoners. It was to be commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders, recently released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Stalin intended to mobilize this new army immediately against the Germans in the West; but Anders persuaded him to hold back until the Poles had recovered their health and strength after two years of exhaustion in the labour camps.
Swept onwards by the rumours that Stalin was about to allow some of them to leave his Soviet Paradise , these former prisoners of the Gulag system began a desperate journey southwards, some of them on foot, to reach the reception camps set up for them on the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. They travelled thousands of miles from their places of exile in the most distant regions of the Soviet Union. It was an exodus of biblical proportions in terrible conditions. Many froze to death on the journey or starved. Others kept themselves alive by selling whatever personal objects they had been fortunate enough to have brought with them. Exhausted mothers, unable to walk any further, placed their children into the arms of strangers to save them from certain death.
Arrived at the army reception camps in Tashkent, Kermine, Samarkand and Ashkhabad, the refugees attempted to enlist in the Polish army, for which the Soviets had allocated some food and provisions. There was nothing, however, for the hundreds of thousands of hungry civilians, mostly women and children, who were camped outside the military bases. Instead of increasing provisions to the camps, the Soviets actually cut them. In response, the Polish army enlisted as many of the civilians as they could into its ranks, even children (regardless of age or sex) to save them from starvation. In the baking heat, dysentery, typhus, and scarlet fever became rampant. Communal graves in Uzbekistan could not keep up with the numbers who were dying. By 1942, only half of the 1.7 million Polish citizens arrested by the Soviets at the start of the war were still alive.
Their salvation finally came when Stalin was persuaded to evacuate a fraction of the Polish forces to Iran. A small number of civilians were allowed to accompany them. The rest had no option but to remain behind and face their fate as Soviet citizens.
The evacuation of Polish nationals from the Soviet Union took place by sea from Krasnovodsk to Pahlavi (Anzali), and (to a lesser extent) overland from Ashkabad to Mashhad. It was conducted in two phases: between 24 March and 5 April; and between the 10th and 30th of August 1942. In all, 115,000 people were evacuated, 37,000 of them civilians, 18,000 children (7% of the number of Polish citizens originally exiled to the Soviet Union).
A makeshift city comprising over 2000 tents (provided by the Iranian army) was hastily erected along the shoreline of Pahlavi to accommodate the refugees. It stretched for several miles on either side of the lagoon: a vast complex of bathhouses, latrines, disinfection booths, laundries, sleeping quarters, bakeries and a hospital. Every unoccupied house in the city was requisitioned, every chair appropriated from local cinemas. Nevertheless, the facilities were still inadequate.
The Iranian and British officials who first watched the Soviet oil tankers and coal ships list into the harbour at Pahlavi on the 25th March 1942 had little idea how many people to expect or what physical state they might be in. Only a few days earlier, they had been alarmed to hear that civilians, women and children, were to be included among the evacuees, something for which they were totally unprepared. The ships from Krasnovodsk were grossly overcrowded. Every available space on board was filled with passengers. Some of them were little more than walking skeletons covered in rags and lice. Holding fiercely to their precious bundles of possessions, they disembarked in their thousands at Pahlavi and kissed the soil of Persia. Many of them sat down on the shoreline and prayed, or wept for joy. They were free at last!
They had not quite escaped, however. Weakened by two years of starvation, hard labour and disease, they were suffering from a variety of conditions including exhaustion, dysentery, malaria, typhus, skin infections, chicken blindness and itching scabs. General Esfandiari, appointed by the Iranians to oversee the evacuation, met with his Polish and British counterparts to discuss how to tackle the spread of Typhus, the most serious issue facing them.
It was decided to divide the reception area into two parts: an infected area and a clean area, separated from each other by a barbed wire fence. On arrival, those who were suspected of having infectious diseases were quarantined in the closed section for four days, or else sent to the camp hospital. 40% of patients admitted to the hospital were suffering from typhus. Most of these died within a month or two of arriving. At this time there were only 10 doctors and 25 nurses in the whole of Pahlavi.
In the clean area, the arrivals were channelled into a series of tents where their clothes were collected and burned. They were then showered, deloused, and some of them had their heads shaved in the interests of hygiene. As a result, women began to wear headscarves to conceal their baldness. Finally, they were given sheets, blankets and fresh clothes by the Red Cross and directed to living quarters.
Food provision was inappropriate. Corned beef, fatty soup and lamb, distributed by the British soldiers, caused havoc with digestions accustomed only to small pieces of dry bread. They could not tolerate the rich food, and a large number died purely from the results of over-eating.
Beggarly, unwell and dishevelled, the Polish refugees were nourished more by the smiles and generosity of the Iranian people than by the food dished out by British and Indian soldiers. Iran at that time was going through one of the unhappier episodes of her history. Occupied by the Russians and the British, her relations with the soldiers of these two countries were understandably strained and difficult. With the Poles, however, there was an immediate affinity which was evident from the moment they arrived and which extended from the lowest to the highest levels of society.
On 11th April 1942 Josef Zajac, chief of Polish forces in the Middle East, noted in his diary on a visit to Tehran that the Persian population were better disposed to them than either the British or the White Russian émigrés (who were distinctly hostile). His relationship with the Iranian Minister of War, Aminollah Jahanbani (released a year earlier from prison for plotting against Shah Reza Pahlavi), was genuinely friendly and cordial. During the course of their discussions together on 13th April 1942, they discovered that they had been students together at the same French military academy. Personal friendships such as these further smoothed relations between the two populations. Contacts between Polish and Persian soldiers were equally cordial. The custom of Polish soldiers saluting Persian officers on the streets sprang up spontaneously, and did not go unnoticed by the Iranians.
Isfahan: The City Of Polish Children
Washed up in the detritus of evacuees arriving at Pahlavi had been over 18,000 children of all ages and sexes (mostly girls). Not all of them were orphans. Some had been separated from their families during the long journey through Russia. Their condition was especially desperate. Many were painfully emaciated and malnourished. Orphanages were set up in immediately in Pahlavi, Tehran and Ahvaz to deal with them as a matter of urgency.
The first major orphanage to be opened was situated in Mashhad, and was run by an order of Christian nuns. It opened its doors on March 12 1942. The children at this home were predominantly those transported over the border from Ashkabad by trucks.
Eventually, however, Isfahan was chosen as the main centre for the care of Polish orphans, particularly those who were under the age of seven. They began arriving there on 10th April 1942. It was believed that in the pleasant surroundings and salutary air of this beautiful city, they would have a better chance of recovering their physical and mental health.
Iranian civil authorities and certain private individuals vacated premises to accommodate the children. Schools, hospitals and social organizations sprang up quickly all over the city to cater for the growing colony. The new Shah took especial interest in the Polish children of Isfahan. He allowed them the use of his swimming pool, and invited groups of them to his palace for dinner. In time, some of the children began to learn Farsi and were able to recite Persian poems to a delegation of Iranian officials who visited the city. At its peak, twenty-four areas of the city were allocated to the orphans. As a result, Isfahan became known ever after in Polish émigré circles as The City of Polish Children.
Exile in Iran
The refugees remained in Pahlavi for a period of a few days to several months before being transferred to other, more permanent camps in Tehran, Mashhad, and Ahvaz. Tehran possessed the greatest number of camps. A constant stream of trucks transported the exiles by awkward twisted roads from the Caspian to Quazvin, where they were put up for the night on school floors, before continuing their journey next morning to the capital.
Tehran s five transit camps, one army and four civilian, were situated in various parts of the metropolitan area. Once again, certain Iranian authorities and individuals volunteered buildings (even sports stadiums and swimming baths) for the exclusive use of the refugees. Camp No.2, however, (the largest) was nothing more than a collection of tents outside the city. Camp No. 4, was a deserted munitions factory. No. 3 was situated in the Shah s own garden, surrounded by flowing water and beautiful trees There was also a Polish hospital in the city, a hostel for the elderly, an orphanage (run by the Sisters of Nazareth) and a convalescent home for sick children (Camp No. 5) situated in Shemiran.
Most able-bodied men (and women) of military age enlisted forthwith in the army and were assigned to military camps. Their stay in Iran was a short one. The army was quickly evacuated to Lebanon and included in the Polish forces being reformed there. Their route to Lebanon was either overland from Kermanshah (6 rest stations were set up for them along the way to Latrun), or by ship from the southern port of Ahvaz. The remainder women, children and men over the age of military service - remained behind in Iran, some of them for periods up to three years.
Something more than food and clothing are necessary for the human spirit to survive and grow. Art and Culture are antibodies to feelings of despondency and decay, and within a few months of their arrival, the exiles had set up their own theatres, art galleries, study circles, and radio stations all over the city. Artists and craftsmen began to give exhibitions. Polish newspapers began to spring up; and restaurants began to display Polish flags on the streets.
Among the organizations formed to care for the educational and cultural needs of the exiles was the influential Institute of Iranian Studies begun by a small group of Polish academicians. In three years from 1943 to 1945 this group published three scholarly volumes and scores of other articles on Polish-Iranian affairs. Most of the material was later translated into Farsi and published under the title Lahestan .
By 1944, however, Iran was already emptying of Poles. They were leaving for other D.P camps in places such as Tanganyika, Mexico, India, New Zealand and the UK. Their main exit route was Ahvaz, where an area of the city still called Campolu today, is a distant echo of its original name Camp Polonia. Mashhad s last children left on the 10 June 1944. Ahvaz finally closed its camp doors in June 1945. The last transport of orphans left Isfahan for Lebanon on the 12 October 1945.
The deepest imprint of the Polish sojourn in Iran can be found in the memoirs and narratives of those who lived through it. The debt and gratitude felt by the exiles towards their host country echoes warmly throughout all the literature. The kindness and sympathy of the ordinary Iranian population towards the Poles is everywhere spoken of.
The Poles took away with them a lasting memory of freedom and friendliness, something most of them would not know again for a very long time. For few of the evacuees who passed through Iran during the years 1942 1945 would ever to see their homeland again. By a cruel twist of fate, their political destiny was sealed in Tehran in 1943. In November of that year, the leaders of Russia, Britain and the USA met in the Iranian capital to decide the fate of Post-war Europe. During their discussions (which were held in secret), it was decided to assign Poland to the zone of influence of the Soviet Union after the war. It would lose both its independence and its territorial integrity. The eastern part of the country, from which the exiles to Iran had been originally expelled, would be incorporated wholesale into the Soviet Union. The Polish government was not informed of the decision until years later, and felt understandably betrayed. 48,000 Polish soldiers would lose their lives fighting for the freedom of the very nations whose governments had secretly betrayed them in Tehran, and later (in 1945) in Yalta.
There were four mass deportations of the civilian population of eastern Poland in 1940/41 alone:
a) 10 Feb 1940. 250,000 from rural areas sent to Siberia in 110 cattle trains.
b) 13 April 1940. 300,000, mostly women & children 160 trains) mostly to Kazakhstan and Altai Kraj.
c) June/July 1940. 400,000 to Archangielsk, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk etc.
d) June 1941. 280,000 to various part of USSR.
Some 500,000 Poles had also been arrested by the Soviets between 1939 and 1941, mostly the government officials, judges teachers lawyers, intellectuals, writers etc. So the total of 1.7 million Poles were in captivity in the Soviet Union.
Under an agreement signed on 30th July 1941 by the Polish premier, General Sikorski and the Russian representative I. Mayski, Russia agreed to release all the Poles who had been arrested under what was termed an amnesty . The word amnesty was extremely ill-chosen. The amnesty was signed in London in the presence of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.
Although the amnesty was announced in July, the news did not filter through to many of the remoter camps of eastern Siberia until December. For others, the news never reached them at all, and they remained in Russia.
General Anders himself took the responsibility to evacuate the civilians before he had even discussed it with the British.
They had studied at the Ecole Superieure de Guerre in Paris. General Anders, who visited Jahanbani in Teheran a few months later, was also a graduate of this school.
On Jan 6 1943, the Polish embassy was told to close all 400 of its welfare agencies on Russian soil (including orphanages and hospitals). Two months later, all Polish citizens remaining on Russian soil were deemed to be Soviet citizens.
The president was Stanislaw Koscialkowski.
The word kish-mish passed into the vocabulary of the survivors. Many Polish boys were named Dariusz, still extremely popular as a boy s name in Poland today.
Polish soldiers were not even allowed to participate in the Victory parade in London in 1945.
Faruqi, Anwar. Forgotten Polish Exodus to Iran. Washington Post. 23 Nov 2000.
Kunert, Andrzej. K., Polacy w Iranie 1942-45. Vol I. R.O.P.W.i M. Warsawa. 2002.
Mironowicz, Anna, Od Hajnowki do Pahlewi. Editions Spotkania. Paris 1986.
Woloch, Helena, Moje Wspomnienia. Sovest. Kotlas 1998.
Forgotten Polish Exodus to Persia
By Anwar Faruqi
Thursday , November 23, 2000 ; Page A45
TEHRAN –– From time to time, the lone caretaker at the dreary cemetery gets a letter from abroad asking him to light a candle at one of the hundreds of identical headstones at the far end of the walled, unmarked graveyard.
A forgotten chapter of World War II is buried in this Roman Catholic cemetery in a poor neighborhood of Tehran. The occasional candles are the only flickers of remembrance for 1,892 Polish men, women and children far from home and for the calamity that befell them.
In September 1939, Hitler and Stalin pounced on Poland, dismembering it in one of the bleakest chapters of Polish history. Joseph Stalin had tens of thousands of Poles carted off to his Russian prison camps, but when Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin freed the Poles and said they could join a Polish army being formed by the Allies.
That force was to assemble in Persia, the old name of modern-day Iran, which was then under British influence.
In a matter of weeks, floods of starving, haggard Poles began trudging toward Iran, most to volunteer for the new army. But many among them were women and children who had no place else to go. In all, between 114,000 and 300,000 Poles are thought to have made it to Iran.
Most eventually moved on to other parts of the world. Some stayed in Iran, where only about a dozen are still alive.
Among them is Helena Stelmach, 69, who lives with her Iranian husband. They have two sons in their early thirties.
Anna Borkowska, 83 and probably the oldest of the survivors in Iran, also married an Iranian, a police officer, and had a son. Her husband died in 1968, and their son died in 1982 at age 26. Her mother died several years later.
Despite the decades that have passed since they were cast up on the Iranian shore, both women fit reluctantly into their present lives.
They speak the language of their childhood; Persian is uttered with thick accents and frequent pauses to search for words. Both took the last names of their Iranian husbands but prefer their Polish ones.
When Borkowska sits at a cheap piano in the living room to relieve the loneliness, the words of Polish songs stir her modest home. On the stairs outside Stelmach's flat, a pile of Polish magazines waits to be thrown out.
Both homes display photos of Iran's late Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, alongside pictures of Pope John Paul II and portraits of Jesus and Mary.
A Promise of Freedom
A world at war had forgotten the tens of thousands of sick, starving Poles enslaved in Stalin's forced labor camps. In the summer of 1941, startling news began circulating among the inmates: Hitler had invaded Russia.
At a hellish prison in the thick Basharova forest of Arkhangelsk, the Russian commandant had told the arriving prisoners that they would remain there forever, Anna Borkowska recalls. But now, the Soviet Union was in danger.
On a grim day like any other, as they toiled in the forest felling firs and dragging them to the river, the commandant summoned the prisoners for a stunning announcement: They were free.
Two years earlier in Poland, weeks before Borkowska's 23rd birthday, her life had been shattered by war and exile.
She was in love with Jan, a fellow university student she hoped to marry. She never learned what became of him and never again walked the streets outside her Warsaw home, where they had strolled hand-in-hand, Anna humming a new song she had learned on the piano, autumn leaves crackling under their feet.
Stalin began emptying Poland of anyone who could resist the occupation. First went military officers and their families, then the intelligentsia, and last anyone with wealth, influence or education. Borkowska's father was a shipyard executive, and his two children, Anna and Victor, had both finished college.
When the door-to-door arrests began, the family escaped to the home of a poor relative in the countryside, where Anna's father died. One midnight, weeks later, the rest of the family was picked up by the Russian secret police, herded into locked freight trains with thousands of other deportees and banished to Siberia.
There, only the strongest survived. Borkowska's brother, two years younger, caught pneumonia and died alone in a hospital a year before they were all set free.
"When we buried him, he had a pained expression on his face," Borkowska says.
"It was because he died alone, without anyone around who cared," she adds, clutching the favorite remembrance of her brother, a childhood photograph showing the boyish Victor with an oversize violin under his chin.
Traveling With Death
With the deadly Siberian winter approaching, and afraid that orders for their release could be revoked, swarms of exiles from all corners of the Soviet Union--Siberia, Vorkuta, the Ural Mountains, Kolyma, Novosibirsk and Kazakhstan--began dragging themselves toward Persia. They abandoned hard labor camps, prisons, forests, mines--anywhere Stalin had needed slaves.
This time when they loaded into railway cars there was no despair, but hunger, disease and death traveled with them. Rape, murder and theft were other perils of the road, especially for women or children traveling alone.
On a cold day as winter approached, 10-year-old Helena Stelmach and her mother huddled off a train in Tashkent, capital of Soviet Uzbekistan. They joined a young widow and her child in search of food and shelter.
An old man in a shabby coffeehouse fed the ragged travelers and gave them shelter at a vacant house. But his was not an act of kindness. He returned that night and tried to attack the women, who fled into the icy darkness, dragging their children behind. Another man gave them a place to sleep by the warmth of a furnace at his bakery.
The boats and small ships that ferried the Poles across the Caspian Sea on the last leg of their journey were vessels of hope. But greatly overloaded and without clean drinking water or sanitation, for some they became the bearers of death. The sea was the graveyard for those who began to drop from typhoid and other diseases.
Many of those who died were children. Stelmach, whose father had been off fighting the Germans when mother and daughter were deported to Siberia, survived the voyage through a stroke of luck.
"The ship's captain had a son suffering from hemophilia. Mother knew nursing, and she offered to care for the boy in return for a place in the cabin and good food and water," Stelmach recalls. "All around us on the boats, people were dropping like flies."
Finally, on a bitterly cold morning, the refugees began going ashore at the Iranian port of Anzali (now Bandar Anzali), broken, sick, hungry and infested with lice.
Chronicling a Calamity There was fresh snow on the ground the morning Gholam Abdol-Rahimi, a struggling photographer in Anzali, emerged from bed to witness ships disgorging disheveled refugees.
"They were in bad shape, thin, ill and in rags," Abdol-Rahimi said in "Lost Requiem," a film made in 1983 by the Iranian director Khosrow Sinai. "A friend of mine, a carpenter, used to make boxes [coffins] for them. About 50 were dying every day."
Abdol-Rahimi's photographs are perhaps the most complete account of the catastrophe. But his work was never recognized or published. He died last year at age 83, recalling until the end, his friends say, the morning he woke to find the refugee ships in port.
In all, 2,806 refugees died within a few months of arriving and were buried in cemeteries around Iran. Their alien names and the dates on their tombstones chronicle a calamity, even to a visitor without knowledge of their history. Etched on row after row of identical tombstones is a single year of death: 1942.
The majority of the arrivals--men, women and children as young as 14--signed up for the new Polish army led by Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, which compiled a distinguished combat record fighting alongside the British, Americans and other Allies. For the rest, new lives began with a bus journey to refugee camps in Tehran, Isfahan and several other cities.
"The friendly Persian people crowded round the buses shouting what must have been words of welcome and pushed gifts of dates, nuts, roasted peas with raisins and juicy pomegranates through the open windows," wrote Krystyna Skwarko, a schoolteacher who came with her own two sick children to take charge of a growing orphanage in Isfahan.
Skwarko's book, "The Invited," recounts a journey from Anzali, through Persia and on to New Zealand, where she and 700 orphans were eventually resettled. She died in 1995.
More than 13,000 of the arrivals in Iran were children, many orphans whose parents had died on the way. In Russia, starving mothers had pushed their children onto passing trains to Iran in hopes of saving them.
Skwarko's impossible task was to wipe the scars of war from children who had been robbed of their childhood.
"I can never erase from memory the sight of an emaciated 14-year-old girl, standing apart from a newly arrived group, holding a tiny sister tightly in her arms, the smaller so thin that the skin of her arms and legs hung loosely, as on an old man," Skwarko wrote. "The older girl, Irenka Wozniak, whispered as I went up to her: 'I could manage to save only little Ewunia.' "
But with the heart-rending tales, there are happier accounts of parents who were reunited with their children.
Jewish orphans were cared for by a Jewish organization in Iran and later sent to Israel. Others went on to new lives in the United States, Britain, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Life in Camp Polonia
Few residents of Ahvaz in southwestern Iran remember how the downtown neighborhood known as Campulu got its name. It was once Camp Polonia, one of several camps built for the refugees in cities around Iran.
Like Camp Polonia, most signs of the Polish journey have faded. Boarding houses, hospitals, schools and orphanages built with Allied funds were used by the refugees for two years, but nothing remains to indicate their past.
The laughter, music and cigarette smoke of the Polonia bar and restaurant in downtown Tehran, where Allied servicemen mingled with Polish girls, is a distant memory, like the bright neon "Polonia" sign that once beckoned clients. The basement bar became a chocolate factory, and then the print shop it is today.
Behind the British Embassy, not far from the old Polonia, Polish prostitutes once attracted clients with their bright red head scarves, according to filmmaker Sinai. Shaved heads for the treatment of typhus were common among the refugees; the prostitutes adopted the scarves to advertise their trade.
Photographs of the time show smartly dressed Polish women in long skirts working as secretaries, peering through microscopes in laboratories or working as nurses.
"Polish maids were sought by well-to-do Iranian ladies who wanted to learn makeup and Western fashions from their servants, who often had better backgrounds and education than the employers themselves," said Sinai, who was born the year before the influx.
Many nights, Polish musicians organized soirees to raise money for fellow refugees. Theater and dance entertained those who could afford it. Even the poorest could revel in forgotten pleasures like clean beds, warmth, plentiful food and enough room to stretch their legs at night.
Sinai's "Lost Requiem" captures some of the spirit of those times. But like its name, the film is lost. It was never promoted and today is thought to be collecting dust somewhere in the vaults of Iran's state television.
Inquiries at the Embassy
Occasionally, letters arrive from abroad at the Polish Embassy in Tehran, inquiring about a parent or other relative buried in one of the graveyards. The embassy sends back photographs of the cemetery and grave.
The letters to the embassy, or to the cemetery itself, come from Britain, New Zealand, the United States--wherever the Polish refugees who passed through Iran have settled. Last year, a woman who was in Iran as a child came to visit her mother's grave.
The dozen or so Polish survivors in Iran are not close. They would rather forget the tragedy that binds them. Occasionally, they get together for Christmas at the embassy or at rare reunions.
Once they are gone, the grim cemeteries will remain the only footprints through Iran of the Poles' sad, forgotten journey.
© 2000 The Washington Post
The Second World War
On September 1st., 1939, 1.8 million German troops invaded Poland on three fronts; East Prussia in the north, Germany in the west and Slovakia in the south. They had 2600 tanks against the Polish 180, and over 2000 aircraft against the Polish 420. Their "Blitzkrieg" tactics, coupled with their bombing of defenceless towns and refugees, had never been seen before and, at first, caught the Poles off-guard. By September 14th. Warsaw was surrounded. At this stage the poles reacted, holding off the Germans at Kutno and regrouping behind the Wisla (Vistula) and Bzura rivers. Although Britain and France declared war on September 3rd. the Poles received no help - yet it had been agreed that the Poles should fight a defensive campaign for only 2 weeks during which time the Allies could get their forces together and attack from the west.
There are many "myths" that surround the September Campaign; the fictional Polish cavalry charges against German tanks (actually reported by the Italian press and used as propaganda by the Germans), the alleged destruction of the Polish Air Force on the ground, or claims that Polish armour failed to achieve any success against the invaders. In reality, and despite the fact that Poland was only just beginning to modernise her armed forces and had been forced (by Britain and France) to delay mobilisation (which they claimed might be interpreted as aggressive behaviour) so that, at the time of invasion, only about one-third of her total potential manpower was mobilised, Polish forces ensured that the September campaign was no "walk-over". The Wehrmacht had so under-rated Polish anti-tank capabilities (the Polish-designed anti-tank gun was one of the best in the world at that time) that they had gone into action with white "balkankreuz", or crosses, prominently displayed in eight locations; these crosses made excellent aiming points for Polish gun-sights and forced the Germans to radically rethink their national insignia, initially overpainting them in yellow and then, for their later campaigns, adopting the modified "balkankreuz" similar to that used by the Luftwaffe. The recently-designed 7TP "czolg lekki", or light tank, the first in the world to be designed with a diesel engine, proved to be superior to German tanks of the same class (the PzKpfw I and II) inflicting serious damage to the German forces, limited only by the fact that they were not used in concentrated groups. They were absorbed by the Germans into their own Panzer divisions at the end of the campaign.
On September 17th. Soviet forces invaded from the east. Warsaw surrendered 2 weeks later, the garrison on the Hel peninsula surrendered on October 2nd., and the Polesie Defence group, after fighting on two fronts against both German and Soviet forces, surrendered on October 5th. The Poles had held on for twice as long as had been expected and had done more damage to the Germans than the combined British and French forces were to do in 1940. The Germans lost 50,000 men, 697 planes and 993 tanks and armoured cars.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians managed to escape to France and Britain whilst many more went "underground" . A government-in-exile was formed with Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as President and General Wladyslaw Sikorski as Prime Minister.
The Fourth Partition:
Under the German-Soviet pact Poland was divided; the Soviets took, and absorbed into the Soviet Union, the eastern half (Byelorussia and the West Ukraine), the Germans incorporated Pomerania, Posnania and Silesia into the Reich whilst the rest was designated as the General-Gouvernement (a colony ruled from Krakow by Hitler's friend, Hans Frank).
In the Soviet zone 1.5 million Poles (including women and children) were transported to labour camps in Siberia and other areas. Many thousands of captured Polish officers were shot at several secret forest sites; the first to be discovered being Katyn, near Smolensk.
The Germans declared their intention of eliminating the Polish race (a task to be completed by 1975) alongside the Jews. This process of elimination, the "Holocaust", was carried out systematically. All members of the "intelligentsia" were hunted down in order to destroy Polish culture and leadership (many were originally exterminated at Oswiencim - better known by its German name, Auschwitz). Secret universities and schools, a "Cultural Underground", were formed (the penalty for belonging to one was death). In the General-Gouvernement there were about 100,000 secondary school pupils and over 10,000 university students involved in secret education.
The Polish Jews were herded into Ghettos where they were slowly starved and cruelly offered hopes of survival but, in fact, ended up being shot or gassed. In the end they were transported, alongside non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies and Soviet POWs, to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka; at Auschwitz over 4 million were exterminated. 2000 concentration camps were built in Poland, which became the major site of the extermination programme, since this was where most of the intended victims lived.
Many non-Jewish Poles were either transported to Germany and used as slave labour or simply executed. In the cities the Germans would round-up and kill indiscriminately as a punishment for any underground or anti-German or pro-Jewish activity. In the countryside they kept prominent citizens as hostages who would be executed if necessary. Sometimes they liquidated whole villages; at least 300 villages were destroyed. Hans Frank said, "If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not suffice to produce the paper for such posters."
Despite such horror the Poles refused to give in or cooperate (there were no Polish collaborators as in other occupied countries). The Polish Underground or AK (Armia Krajowa or Home Army) was the largest in Europe with 400,000 men. The Jewish resistance movement was set up separately because of the problem of being imprisoned within the ghettos. Both these organisations caused great damage to the Nazi military machine. Many non-Jewish Poles saved the lives of thousands of Jews despite the fact that the penalty, if caught, was death (in fact, Poland was the only occupied nation where aiding Jews was punishable by death).
Fighting on all Fronts:
The Polish Army, Navy and Air Force reorganised abroad and continued to fight the Germans. In fact they have the distinction of being the only nation to fight on every front in the War. In 1940 they fought in France, in the Norwegian campaign they earned a reputation for bravery at Narvik, and in Africa the Carpathian Brigade fought at Tobruk.
Polish Squadrons played an important role in the Battle of Britain, accounting for 12% of all German aircraft destroyed at the cost of 33 lives. By the end of the war they had flown a total of 86,527 sorties, lost 1669 men and shot down 500 German planes and 190 V1 rockets.
The Polish Navy, which had escaped intact, consisted of 60 vessels, including 2 cruisers, 9 destroyers and 5 submarines ( one of which was the famous "Orzel") which were involved in 665 actions at sea. The first German ship sunk in the war was sunk by Polish ships. The Navy also took part in the D-Day landings.
When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany, in June 1941, Polish POWs were released from prison camps and set up an army headed by General Anders. Many civilians were taken under the protection of this army which was allowed to make its way to Persia (modern-day Iran) and then on to Egypt. This army, the Polish Second Corps, fought with distinction in Italy, their most notable victory being that at Monte Cassino, in May 1944, and which opened up the road to Rome for the Allies as a whole. One of the "heroes" of the Polish Second Corps was Wojtek, a brown bear adopted in Iran as their mascot; at Monte Cassino Wojtek actually helped in the fighting by carrying ammunition for the guns. He died, famous and well-loved, in Edinburgh Zoo in 1964, aged 22.
All the Polish forces took part in the Allied invasion of Europe and liberation of France, playing a particularly crucial role in the significant Battle of the Falaise Gap. The Polish Parachute Brigade took part in the disastrous Battle of Arnhem in Holland. In 1945, the Poles captured the German port of Wilhelmshaven.
In 1943 a division of Polish soldiers was formed in Russia under Soviet control and fought on the Eastern Front. They fought loyally alongside the Soviet troops, despite the suffering they had experienced in Soviet hands, and they distinguished themselves in breaking through the last German lines of defence, the "Pomeranian Rampart", in the fighting in Saxony and in the capture of Berlin.
The "Home Army", under the command of General Stefan Roweki (code-named "Grot"), and after his capture in 1943 (he was later murdered), by General Tadeusz Komorowski (code-named "Bor"), fought a very varied war; at times in open combat in brigade or division strength, at times involved in sabotage, often acting as execution squads eliminating German officials, and often fighting a psychological campaign against German military and civilians. It was a costly war since the Germans always took reprisals.
The Intelligence Service of the Home Army captured and sent parts of the V1 to London for examination, providing information on German military movements (giving advanced warning of the German plan to invade Russia), and gave the RAF full information about Peenemunde, where the Germans were producing V2 rockets.
The crime of Katyn was discovered in 1943 and created a rift in Polish-Soviet relations. From now on the Home Army was attacked by Soviet propaganda as collaborating with the Germans and being called on to rise against the Germans once the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw.
Secretly, at Teheran, the British and Americans agreed to letting the Russians profit from their invasion of Poland in 1939 and allowing them to keep the lands that had been absorbed. The "accidental" death of General Sikorski at this time helped keep protests at a minimum.
When the Russians crossed into Poland the Home Army cooperated in the fight against the Germans and contributed greatly to the victories at Lwow, Wilno and Lublin only to find themselves surrounded and disarmed by their "comrades-in-arms" and deported to labour camps in Siberia.
On August 1, 1944, with the Russian forces on the right bank of the Vistula, the Home Army rose in Warsaw; the Warsaw Rising. Heroic street-fighting involving the whole population, using the sewers as lines of communication and escape, under heavy bombardment, lasted for 63 days. The city was completely destroyed. Not only did the Russians cease to advance but they also refused to allow Allied planes to land on Russian airfields after dropping supplies. After surrendering many civilians and soldiers were executed or sent to concentration camps to be exterminated and Warsaw was razed to the ground.
The defeat in Warsaw destroyed the political and military institutions of the Polish underground and left the way open for a Soviet take-over.
With the liberation of Lublin in July 1944 a Russian-sponsored Polish Committee for National Liberation (a Communist Government in all but name) had been set up and the British had put great pressure, mostly unsuccessful, on the Government-in-exile to accept this status quo. At Yalta, in February 1945, the Allies put Poland within the Russian zone of influence in a post-war Europe. To most Poles the meaning of these two events was perfectly clear; Poland had been betrayed. At one stage the Polish Army, still fighting in Italy and Germany, was prepared to withdraw from the front lines in protest; after all, they were supposed to be fighting for Polish liberation. It is a reflection on Polish honour that no such withdrawal took place since it could leave large gaps in the front lines and so was considered too dangerous for their Allied comrades-in-arms.
The war ended on May 8th, 1945.
The Poles are the people who really lost the war.
Over half a million fighting men and women, and 6 million civilians (or 22% of the total population) died. About 50% of these were Polish Christians and 50% were Polish Jews. Approximately 5,384,000, or 89.9% of Polish war losses (Jews and Gentiles) were the victims of prisons, death camps, raids, executions, annihilation of ghettos, epidemics, starvation, excessive work and ill treatment. So many Poles were sent to concentration camps that virtually every family had someone close to them who had been tortured or murdered there.
There were one million war orphans and over half a million invalids.
The country lost 38% of its national assets (Britain lost 0.8%, France lost 1.5%). Half the country was swallowed up by the Soviet Union including the two great cultural centres of Lwow and Wilno.
Many Poles could not return to the country for which they has fought because they belonged to the "wrong" political group or came from eastern Poland and had thus become Soviet citizens. Others were arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for belonging to the Home Army.
Although "victors" they were not allowed to partake in victory celebrations.
Through fighting "For Our Freedom and Yours" they had exchanged one master for another and were, for many years to come, treated as "the enemy" by the very Allies who had betrayed them at Teheran and Yalta.
On 31st August 1942, the evacuation of the Polish Army from the Soviet Union to Iran was completed. Almost 116,000 people, (over 78,000 soldiers and 37,000 civilians) were evacuated in two stages. This was less than 10 percent of all people from eastern Poland deported to the Soviet Union.
The announcement of the creation of the Polish Army in the Soviet Union was made by the Sikorski-Mayski agreement, signed on 30th July 1941. The military agreement signed in Moscow on 14th August 1941 placed the new Polish Army under the command of the Red Army (organisational and personal decisions were to be consulted). This made it extremely controversial.
General Władysław Sikorski was nominated Commander-in-Chief of Polish Military Forces in the Soviet Union, and Gen. Władysław Anders, who was kept prisoner by the NKVD since autumn 1939, was put in charge of the Soviet-based forces..
On the grounds of an “amnesty” granted by Stalin, Polish prisoners were freed from prisons and concentration camps and started assembling in Buzuluk, Tatishchev and Totskoye. They were in a miserable state – their health was bad, the conditions they had to travel in were long and harsh. Many who wanted to join the Polish Army never reached it, dying on the way from cold, hunger and disease.
The Polish high command counted on an army of at least 200,000 soldiers. Gen. Anders received a list of 1,658 Polish officers held by the Soviets. The list could not be any longer as the remaining officers had been murdered by the Russians in the spring of 1940.
Cooperation with the Soviets was difficult from the start. The Soviets ignored many clauses contained in the Sikorski-Mayski agreement, they did not free all Polish prisoners. Many Poles who had been liberated were forced by the Soviets to settle in Central Asia. They forbade Polish citizens who were not Polish, e.g. Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews, from joining the Polish Army, claiming that they were no longer Polish citizens.
By October 1941, the Polish Army counted 40,000 people, but as the number of soldiers and civilians grew, problems with food supplies increased. The Soviets continually reduced food supplies. In December 1941, the camp in Totskoye did not receive any food. The soldiers had to live in tents in temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius. During the freezing weather, they had only rags to wear, and cloth was used instead of shoes. Hunger was the most painful. The civilians also suffered.
Due to increasing problems in Polish-Soviet relations, General Sikorski went to Moscow to meet Stalin on 3rd December 1941. General Anders was present at the meeting. Sikorski, who feared for the lives of the soldiers exposed to hunger and severe weather, wanted to evacuate the Polish troops to Iran, Stalin did not want this. He also made evasive answers as to the fate of the missing Polish officers, suggesting they had escaped to Manchuria. The Polish Army was to be organised into six divisions and form a total of 96,000 soldiers. 25,000 troops assigned for aviation, navy and armoured divisions were assigned to leave the Soviet Union immediately for Great Britain and the Near East.
Two divisions of infantry were to be armed by the Soviets, the remaining four by the British and Americans. The new divisions were supposed to be ready by the end of 1942, but the Soviet Union’s military situation improved and once again they were less inclined to fulfil their commitments.
It was not till 20th January- 25th February 1942 that Polish divisions were transferred to Central Asia. The new areas of assembly selected by Stalin proved terrible in terms of climate. Epidemics such as dysentery and typhus were spreading in the Army. Meanwhile the Soviets tried to hamper entry into the Polish Army. They blocked freeing Polish citizens incorporated into the Red Army and labour battalions. They blocked the above mentioned 25,000 soldiers from leaving the country.
By March, the army had only grown to a force of 66,750 soldiers. Their food rations were even lower – there was enough for 40,000 men. In March 1942 the rations were reduced to 26,000. The soldiers had to share these minimal portions with civilians.
Stalin pressurised General Anders to send out unprepared Polish divisions to fight. He had not wanted to form a Polish Army under independent Poland’s command, so he hoped to send out the divisions one by one to certain death. Anders realised that his main task was to save the Polish Army and on 18th March 1842 he once again raised the issue with Stalin of transporting the Polish Army to Iran. Stalin agreed for all soldiers without food to leave the country.
With Soviet help, between 24th March and 5th April 1942, 43,858 people (33,069 soldiers, 10,789 civilians) left the Soviet Union. 40,000 soldiers remained. General Anders was keen to do this quickly, before Stalin changed his mind. A deciding factor was that the British needed Polish help in Africa as a result of General Rommel’s offensive. On 2nd July 1942, the Polish government in exile was informed that Stalin decided to release the remaining Polish divisions to the Near East. Between 19th and 31st August, 69,247 people left the Soviet Union. Furthermore, thanks to the liquidation unit in Ashgabat, which operated till November 1942, 2,637 people got to Teheran. Among them 701 soldiers and 1,936 civilians, including 1,215 children.
In total, 115,742 people were transported to Iran in 1942, only 10 percent of the Polish citizens deported there. MSJ
PAP - Nauka w Polsce, tr.ajfb