Exhausted by hard labor, disease and starvation we disembarked at the port of 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. These are the words of Helena Woloch Antolak a Polish woman who worked in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union before fleeing to Iran as a refuge in 1942. In the year 1942, Iran stood as a beacon of freedom and hope for almost a million Polish citizens released from the Soviet labor camps of Siberia. 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, their lives totally transformed in the process. In this film, we will go back through the pages of history and trace the lives of the Polish immigrants in Iran.
Zahra Ebrahimzadeh: Journalist, ‘Iranian History’ Website Six years ago, during my trip abroad, I met a Polish woman. Learning that I was from Iran, she told me that her father’s aunt was buried in Tehran. She was one of those immigrants who came to Iran during World War II. She was a five-year-old girl at the time affected by typhoid. As soon as she arrived in Tehran, she died and was buried there. I couldn’t believe that such an event had happened in my country and I didn’t know. On the other hand, as I found out that she was buried in Iran, I got curious to know where she was exactly buried.
Graphic: In 1939, a secret agreement was signed between Germany and the Soviet Union for the divided Poland.
Alireza Dowlatshahi: Chairman, Iran-Poland Friendship Association The Soviet Union was not a member of the Allies from the beginning of the Second World War. It was an ally of the Third Reich. If I’m not wrong, Hitler paid a visit to Warsaw, Poland on October 4 or 28 of that year. The Soviet Union and Poland constructed a barrier on their common border.
Khosro Sinai: Film-maker Drawing a line across Poland, Stalin said, “This part is ours and that part is yours”. In fact, the east of Poland was given to the Soviet Union and the west of Polish was given to the Third Reich. He had a group of German soldiers put on Polish uniforms ordering them to attack a German outpost on the border.
Alireza Dowlatshahi: You know what their excuse was for waging the war, and a movie was made on it. That fake attack on the radio station gave an excuse that, “Look! We didn’t want to attack Poland. It was they that attacked us. We are just defending ourselves.” 17 days later, the Soviets invaded from the east. And it was an awful tragedy that the helpless people who had fled from the west of Poland were afflicted by their own brothers. Khosro Sinai: Many of the Polish were sent to concentration camps in Siberia and other places.
Reza Nikpour: M.D., Iran-Poland Friendship association
They were taken away from their homes at night by Soviet Union forces. They were told that they would be transferred to Moscow but in reality, they were transferred to concentration camps in Siberia by freights. After a hard time in Siberia that lasted for about two years, Stalin was forced to release them as Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. This way, Stalin intended to confront Hitler. On the other hand, he couldn’t provide food for the Polish prisoners because his own country was now under attack. In addition, he planned to make an independent army out of the Polish to fight later against Hitler or Mussolini to defeat their fascist regimes.
Alireza Dowlatshahi: I can remember a remark by General Anders that compares Germans with Soviets. He says, “With Germans, we lose our lives. With Soviets, we lose our souls as well.”
Jolanta Sierakowska-Dyndo: Prof. of Oriental Studies, Warsaw University It is something special in our history, especially for the polish people. Maybe, not for Iranian because for them it was a hard time. For us it was very hard. But it was special. Because when army of Anders was organized the people from all over the Soviet Union were going down to the south just to connect with the army of the Anders and you know some of them were so ill, some of them died during the way.
Milad Yousefi: Chairman, ‘Iranian History’ Website After the equation of World War II changed and the Soviet Union and Germany became enemies of each other, Stalin agreed to release the Polish prisoners in Siberia. About three or four countries were suggested. Most of the Polish prisoners chose to go to Iran.
Reza Nikpour: The Iranian government was told to let the Polish refugees in for a while before they could go to free countries of those days.
Juliusz J. Gojlo: Polish Ambassador to Iran
This is the most vivid, most interesting part of our relations in 1942, huge wave of Polish refugees were released from Gulax, from labour camps and managed to travel to Iran.
Dowlatshahi: In March or April, the first ships arrived in Bandar-e Anzali one after another.
Dowlatshahi: Iran was regarded as a hospitable country that would welcome them. As they arrived in Bandar-e Anzali, they found the country as they thought of. people The Polish? You must ask old people. people I don’t know. I haven’t seen them. people You must ask that guy. people I was just a kid. I cannot remember anything. people There is a guy called Mash Ghazanfar, who sells potatoes and onions. Go and ask him. He knows. He’s an old man. people I was four years old when Soviets and the Polish arrived in Bandar-e Anzali. It was the year 1941 when they came. I was born in 1937. people Though my father was from here, he had learned that “chorni chleb” was a Polish equivalent of black bread. people Over there is his home. But he doesn’t come outside. But here is a person called Siroun who says has worked with them. people Many of the Polish refugees here starved to death. They were buried in Kohneh Sarbazkhaneh. Many of them were buried there. people I can remember the school. This was not its name. It was another school.
Mojtaba Pour Mohsen: It was ten months or so and I was cooperating with “Iranian history” website. There, my peers were researching on the Polish refugees that had come to Iran in 1942 during World War II. We’re looking for an old man who is 92 years old. He’s originally from Russia. His name is Baris Maximnia. I came here six months ago but I cannot remember his address exactly. He’s a Russian by origin. (People) His house was located around the corner. It was a big area that has been divided into several lots. One of his relatives is still living there.
Mojtaba Pour Mohsen: The report made me so interested in the Polish refugees that I’m writing a novel about it. It’s one of my concerns to know more about it. Mojtaba Pour Mohsen: Cannot we see Mr. Baris? No. He is in poor health, isn’t he? Yes, he is. His days are numbered. So he’s gravely ill. His health has deteriorated. He cannot move. He cannot even talk. According to the people, many Polish people used to live here. In this quarter? Yes. What is the name of the quarter? Here is Azarbaijan Street. Many used to live at the seaside. Here used to be a mountainous region with no houses. Behind the mountains were the Polish refugees. I see. I’ve heard of it. You have heard. Didn’t your father tell you about it? My father saw Mirza Kouchak Khan and Reza Shah. He saw World War II. We saw none of them. Mojtaba Pour Mohsen: I must look for a person in Bandar-e Anzali who can remember those days. I’m going to prepare a report of the subject. I met an old man who was 91 years old. He was very tall with fair hair. He had an exceptional memory. According to him, as they came here they build a few buildings where the dock and the customhouse are now. They settled down in different areas. He said that the people gave them foods and fruits. They didn’t think that the people would be so hospitable here. But some event happened then. Reportedly, cholera spread out among the Polish refugees. In spite of it, the people in Bandar-e Anzali didn’t stop being in touch with them. Juliusz J. Gojlo: It was around 120000 people who found home here at least for some time and many of them several thousand died here we have several cemeteries including Cemetrial with 2000 graves. Bandar-e Aznazi where we have more that 600 graves and of course it’s very sad from one perspective to see how many people died but what is well-remembered what is changed Poland that they died in Iran as free people escaping from captivity.
Mojtaba Pour Mohsen: Journalist The ships berthed here in Bandar-e Anzali and they got off them. This place is where the Polish refugees put their steps on for the first time. It is said that when they got off the ships they were very dirty. They were helped out and their clothes were burned.
Aziz Tavili : Historian I was about 11 years old when the Polish refugees arrived in Bandar-e Anzali. Some of them settled down in Qazian. But most of them settled down at the sea side in Bandar-e Anzali. As far as foods and other basic needs are concerned, they faced desperate shortage. In our quarter, the people rushed to help them. Though the people in Bandar-e Anzali were in desperate need of help, they helped the refugees as much as they could. The refugees were really underdogs. As far as I know, there were about nearly 45,000 refugees all of them starving. There were also some children among them. They were more teenagers rather than children. They used to be taken to the Aliov Bathhouse. It was a big bathhouse in Bandar-e Anzali. The refugees stayed here just for three or four months. They were taken to Tehran then. The refugees kept arriving in Bandar-e Anzali by ferry. About 45,000 refugees came here during that period of time. Ali Dehbashi: Chief Editor, Bukhara Magazine The Iranian people were in the worst conditions. They even had no breads to eat. It was wartime. And it was very difficult for the Iranian people to bear the adverse consequences of the war. Under such circumstances, the arrival of the Polish refugees created a new condition for the Iranian people. Aziz Tavili: I can remember that one person knocked at the door. As we opened the door we saw a Polish man speaking in his own language. As we figured it out he needed something to eat. We gave him whatever we had though we ourselves really needed them.
Reza Nikpour: This is the cemetery of the Polish people who came to Iran via Bandar-e Anzali. Here is part of the Christian cemetery in which the Polish immigrants are buried. If you look at the gravestones, you will see that people of different ages are buried here from old to young ones of both sexes. After all those hardships they suffered before they came to Iran they were finally buried here. As I said, here is the first place where the Polish contacted with the Iranian society. Most of the Polish refugees who entered Iran via Bandar-e Anzali were those who were supposed to be transferred to other countries through Iran. Almost all of the young people who could fight were recruited by the Liberation Army of General Anders. They were dispatched to the front lines after being trained. The rest of the people were those who were not able to fight including the elderly,women and children. Being unable to join the army, they remained in the city to be sent abroad later. Many times have happened that a group of about 30 old people have come to Tehran from Poland and then the Embassy has brought them here by coach to see these graves. A few of them have found their relatives here. Born in 1881 and died in 1942, that is about 60 years. Beside it, there is a grave of a ten-year-old kid. The next grave belongs to a six-year-old kid. Born in 1931, died in 1942; born in 1916 and died in 1942. There are about 639 graves belonging to the Polish people here, of which 163 were military personnel and the rest were ordinary people. The causes of their deaths were weakness, illness, malnutrition and other problems they suffered from during their journey from the Soviet Union to Bandar-e Anzali across the Caspian Sea. Jolanta Sierakowska-Dyndo: When I talk with the participants of this times they used to repeat with their crying eyes that they never met such hospitality. They never met in their live such great hospitality I think that Iranian people just are the people who feel the other person. Reza Nikpour: After being here for a while, many of the survivors arrived in Tehran passing Qazvin. They were located in camps in Tehran. Some of them were orphan children or children whose parents were not with them. They went to Isfahan. Then, they left Iran for other countries from Ahvaz and the southern borders of Iran. Helena Stelmach: Polish Refugee I take pride in being Polish. I’m of mixed race. My father was from Armenia and my mother was from Poland. We were attacked. Russians took me to Siberia. It was in the middle of the night and we were at home when they took us to a church and from there to Russia. There were horses and carriages. It was ice cold. They showed no mercy to us. They aimed to destroy Poland completely. We had a hard time there. They gave us little food. Very little. We had to store foods. When we learned that we were going to Iran we all got very happy. At the time, the Iranian people had also a tough time. Their country was occupied by the American, British and Russian forces when I came here. They harassed the Iranian people.
My mother decided to stay here because Iran was near Poland. She stayed here and tried hard. She did everything. She was a dexterous dressmaker and cook. I had to work since my childhood. Mohammad Ali Nikpour: Helena’s Husband In 1961, I came to Tehran from a village in the north of Iran to continue my studies but I couldn’t due to economic problems. So, I began to work in a shop near where Mrs. Helen lived. Since I liked to study I went to the Shokouh Institute to learn English. Meanwhile, since she was near us, she would ask me about my studies and I would show her the pamphlets and the like and ask her for help. She had a good command of English as she has right now. This photo was taken one day before the marriage.
Helena Stelmach: There was no wedding. It was not a great wedding. There was nobody to hold a wedding for me. I was an immigrant. Do you know who an immigrant is?! Helena Stelmach: In this photo, she’s standing beside her father in Poland before being arrested in Warsaw. It’s outside the church. She is with her father in the photo. And this happened no more. This is the best photo of her childhood. She took the photo standing beside her father during the last days she was in Poland. Her father was a cavalryman in Poland’s army. This photo shows him on parade. Her father died in Warsaw, Poland in 1974. This photo was taken in 1980 when she was in Poland with her eleven-year old boy, Reza Nikpour. It’s outside her aunt’s house in Warsaw, where they were invited to. This is her aunt’s house in Warsaw. Reza Nikpour: I used to see my grandmother because after my parents got married and I was born a few years later we, began to visit her. She was our only maternal relative. There were no other relatives there. Mohammad Ali Nikpour: Though she had gotten used to Iranian culture, language and cuisine she was still a Polish in nature and origin.
Helena Stelmach: They were Muslims and I was a Christian. Anyway, we got along well with the Iranian people. Mohammad Ali Nikpour: I’m still thankful though she’s old now. She never complained in difficulties. Perhaps, since she had suffered hardships as a prisoner of war, she could understand many of my problems and didn’t complain about them. But she couldn’t come easily to terms with that fact that I was a cobbler. That’s why she always said that her husband was a shopkeeper.
Piotr Kozlowski Councelior and Head of Political Affairs Section, Embassy of Poland in Iran Some of them basically very quickly became routed in this country in this society they decided to stay here until they lived their lives in Iran and that’s because apparently that’s because they felt really generally attached on a personal level and maybe on the emotional level as well.
Alireza Dowlatshahi: There was an independent Muslim regiment in the army of the young Czech Republic from 1920 to 1939. The regiment had a Muslim chaplain and the soldiers there used to swear an oath on the Quran, not to the Bible. It’s interesting to know that this regiment was the last group that lay down their weapons and gave themselves up to the Nazi forces.
Fatemeh Aliasghar: Journalist, ‘Iranian History’ Website
Nothing had been said about the life of the Polish people in Tehran. Nothing was remained of places like the camps in Yousef Abad, Doushan Tappeh etc. But we were looking for places where they were living or working. So, we began to pinpoint the location of the Polonia Café. We’re now in Lalehzar Street; a street that has witnessed many events since the reign of Nassereddin Shah Qajar till now. Many people have visited here. The street used to have many cafes and cinemas. And those who wanted to have fun or were interested in culture and movies used to come to Lalehzar Street. There must be several Polish cafes and hotels and I hope to find them. I’ve been told that in the street there is a hotel where Polish immigrant used to live in. Here is the building. We must ask whether this is the hotel the Polish people used to live in or not.
Do you know what the building was in the past?
The Guard man: It used to be the Caravan Hotel. Foreigners used to come here during their stay.
Piotr Kozlowski: They are very well received on the arrival by the Iranian People. That the kind of attitude they were met with, was exclusively very positive, very welcoming, very friendly, very hospitable. They tried to accommodate to the rules and living conditions and laws and standards of Iran. They were doing their best to fit in, to start doing something productive for instance they would open up shops they would open cafes, they would have their own cultural institute.
Reza Nikpour: In fact, a sort of wave formed, which didn’t aim to bring change in Iranian women or society. It was to enable them to satisfy their needs in everyday life.
Fatemeh Aliasghar: If this is Chelcheleh Mall, the Polonia Café must be downstairs. Here was no longer a café. After World War II, the Polonia Café closed down and turned into a chocolate factory for a few years. And then, it turned into a publishing house as it is now.
The man in Café: It was in the basement that they had it cleaned up.
Fatemeh Aliasghar: And all those who worked there were Polish women.
The man in Café: Yes, and most of them married Iranian men. They had been captured by Russians and then transferred to Iran. For a while, they were there in the camps. Many of those girls got married later. Some of their children were also here. They also grew up here. One of them died recently.
Ali Dehbashi: Out of the blue, a crisis-stricken country like ours played host to guests each of which became famous 80 years later across the world including Poland. The Iranian people are proud that all of those people remember those days with undiluted joy.
Piotr Kozlowski: I saw cemeteries and I realize that large group and when I met some people, some of them and all of them kept telling me that Iran was really a great place and Iran was so open.
Zahra Ebrahimzadeh: I realized that a great number of Polish immigrants were buried in Tehran in a cemetery that used to be called in history books the World War II Cemetery. My friend told me that she was eager to travel to Tehran to find the grave of her father’s aunt. The only thing she said was that her name was Helena and she died at the age of five. All the graves have a number at the top plus the dead person’s birth date and name. I had only a name and a date of birth. I knew that all of them were buried here in 1942. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the grave because there were many with the name Helena and the same date of birth. I met those who didn’t intent to stay in our city for ever. They intended to go but were destined to remain here and now it’s more than 70 years that they are here. Perhaps, the five-year old aunt who remained in Tehran was the main cause of my friendship with my friend in Poland and our friendship will last in the future. Many other Iranians and Polishes can strike up a friendship.
Natalia: Polish Student, Dehkhoda inistitute, Thran We have come here to study in the Dehkhoda Institute on a scholarship agreed between Poland and Iran. We have came here to improve our Farsi in the Dehkhoda Institute because we had a chance to gain a scholarship from Poland.
Natalia: Was your family in touch with them?
Miniaturist: My father-in-law had a nodding acquaintance with them. Some of them were painters. Like me, my father-in-law was a miniaturist and he used to work with them who were not miniaturists but oil painter.
The shopkeeper: I was a little child. It was about 60 years ago. Those who came to Iran and remained there mostly settled down in Jolfa.
Natalia: We have heard that the Iranian people helped the Polish immigrants and they … … got along well with them. The shopkeeper: There was a garden called Sarmedolleh and a great number of the Polish immigrants were there. I was working as a shoemaker in Taleghani Street. I was taken there to make shoes for them. I took their foot measurement and made them shoes. Many of them were there. They learned Farsi. The Polish immigrants were of different ages from little kids to people in their forties and fifties.
Magdalena: Polish student, Dehkhoda Insistitute, Tehran I found it very interesting that two of the old men still knew some Polish words. It was really interesting.
The Shoemaker: I can remember that they said, “Tu przyjechac”, which means “come here”. We had learned their language a little. We used to have some friendly little chat in Polish.
The house you see is an old building built in World War II. The French and the Polish built jointly a medical clinic there. The shopkeeper: They had a great time here. The Iranian people used to respect them a lot. We used to greet them in Polish and they would smile. I used to know many Polish words. I was a little kid but I liked to chat with them. But I have forgotten many of those words. The Polish immigrants used to go out in two long files. They used to go on a walk for pleasure.
Hello! Hello! How are you? Hello!
Magdalena: We have heard that your father took many photos of the Polish immigrants. Is it true? And would you tell me more about it?
Reza Jala: Photographer One day, my father was in his shop when he saw some trucks coming, carrying crowds of ragged women and children in appalling conditions. The neighbors wanted to know who they were. Those who knew said that they were Polish refugees. In those days, they were not many photographers in Isfahan. They could be counted on the fingers of one hand. They came here and took photos of themselves. They wanted the photos either for themselves or their relatives; collective photos and single photos. They took different types of photos.
Magdelena: Since there are many of those photos still available, they have been published in a book. Have you got the book? Reza Jala: Oh, yes. A few people have published such books including Mrs. Parisa Damandan, who has worked hard on it. Here used to function as a light in the atelier. Back then, electricity had not been invented yet, and photographers had to have shops with a back yard. One side of the back yard had glass and the atelier was beside the back yard. The side with glass could provide light for the atelier, enabling a photographer to take photos. Natalia: We studied in school about these stuffs and we used to discuss these issues with our history teachers at university. I love the Iranian people very much because they are very hospitable, friendly and helpful. Both here in Iran and in Poland where I know some Iranians, they are very good people.
Juliusz J. Gojlo: Therefore the place of Iranians in the Polish minds , in the Polish political minds, is very Positive. And despite the geography, sometimes despite politics, the place of Iran and Iranians in our history, in our hearts is very important. It has a very warm place in our hearts. Alireza Dowlatshahi: This is a fact that the Polish people have always been in Iran from before the Safavid era - though as nationals other than Polish, because Poland was not on the world geopolitical map for at least 200 years.
Juliusz J. Gojlo: Culture relations this is I would say is the most obvious and easiest part of our contact because on both sides there is a lot of interest and a lot of eagerness to know each other.
Maryam Mojaradi: Executive Secretary, Iran-Polish Friendship Association People like Mr. Nikrou or me or other members of the Iran-Poland Friendship Society have gathered together to cement the relationship more than ever.
Milad Yousefi: A nation rose from the ashes, the ashes of the war. Pro-Hitler fascists and pro-Stalin communists divided a country and destroyed a nation and wiped it off the map. But the nation rose from the ashes and introduced figures to the contemporary world in different areas like sciences, arts, music, cinema and literature. That nation decided to build and revive itself and now talk in Europe as an important state.
Helena Stelmach: I was born in Poland and I grew up in Iran, a very beautiful country. I like Iran. Iran is my second homeland. And I’d like to thank all the Iranian people who like and will like me.
To Mrs. Helen Stelmach. To Mr. Ambassador.
Fatemeh Aliasghar: As we were preparing a report about the Polonia Café, we found a woman who used to work there and was still in Iran. She was over 80 years old and she was living in a nursery home. Her name was Lola. We had a chat with Lola about the Polonia Café. She remembered the café and every time she heard its name her eyed filled with tears and she was deeply affected.
Elenara Barska: Polish Refugee They took me from Tehran to Isfahan. Back then, I was 14 years old. There, I went to the Polish school. I was there for a while. As my mother heard of my sister’s death, she came to Isfahan from Russia. She stayed in Isfahan for two years. Then we moved to Tehran. My husband was a photographer in the city. I had a son from him. He’s dead. I get my husband’s pension. I know Helen for more than 60 years. She’s from Poland. So am I. Where did you find each other? Where? In a church. In a church. I’m happy with my life. We are happy that we stayed in Iran and got married here.
Helena Stelmach: Come here, birdie!
Yas Nikpour: Helena’s grand Daughter When I was a little child, they didn’t talk to me a lot about the war and concentration camps. And it was quite reasonable. But since I was interested I usually asked questions like: “How were you treated in concentration camps?” “What did you eat there?”, “What did you do there?” I was very interested to know about those issues. Last summer I visited Auschwitz and I feel like a person who has experienced the war first hand. Helena Stelmach: Come here, birdie! Come here. Come here, baby! Reza Nikpour: When I don’t have any maternal relatives who can come here and my paternal relatives are all in Iran, certainly this relationship is unbalanced. So my parents had to reach a compromise so that my brother or I could see my maternal relatives and my mother didn’t feel her rights being ignored. They have certainly reached a compromise. 53:09 Have a nice journey! -Hello! -Hello! Mohammad Ali Nikpour: We planned to go to Poland last year and we had made all our travel arrangements but we had to call it off because Helen’s health was too poor. We were waiting for a better time and thank God, these days her health is better. We are taking her to Poland. Perhaps, it’s the last time she can see her homeland and put a bunch of flowers on her father’s tomb in Krakow. We’re going to stay there for at least 15 days and if her general health is satisfactory we will extended the time. Otherwise, she will be more comfortable at home.