Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942
Ryszard Antolak

A chapter of forgotten History

"Exhausted by hard labour, disease and starvation - barely recognizable
as human beings - we disembarked at the port of Pahlevi (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. [1]

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. [2] 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. [3]

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.

Port of Pahlevi

The evacuation of Polish nationals from the Soviet Union took place
by sea from Krasnovodsk to Pahlevi (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


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