SHAFAQNA – In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. As part of Germany’s nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, eastern Poland was occupied and annexed by the USSR.
Approximately 1.25 million Poles were deported to various parts of the Soviet Union, including half a million “socially dangerous” Poles who were packed into trains and shipped to labor camps in Kazakhstan and Siberia. Thousands died of exhaustion, disease and malnutrition.
When Germany reneged on its pact and invaded the Soviet Union less than two years later, the Soviets were compelled to side with the Allies. An agreement was signed to reestablish the Polish state and form an army from the Poles held in the USSR.
Polish prisoners were told they were now free to join the new army, which was assembling in the critical supply corridor of Iran, then under occupation by Soviet and British forces.
From across the country, thousands of starving men, women and children slowly made their way to a hope of refuge in Iran.
They were in bad shape, thin, ill and in rags…. A friend of mine, a carpenter, used to make [coffins] for them. About 50 were dying every day.
Crossing the Caspian Sea in crowded boats, over 116,000 Poles made it to Iran. Most landed in the port city of Pahlevi, where they were fed and quarantined — malaria, typhus and starvation-related ailments were widespread. Many died and were buried there.
Those who survived were transported to Tehran, where they were warmly welcomed by the Iranian government. Buildings were repurposed to house them, and Polish schools, businesses, and cultural organizations were established. People who had spent years in freezing and disease-ridden conditions now had clean beds and plenty of food.
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.
Most of the refugees signed up to fight in the new Polish army, while many, including thousands of orphans whose parents had died or desperately put them on trains bound for Iran, settled into life in Iran for the remainder of the war.
While many of the refugees were eventually moved on to temporary settlements in other countries, a few decided to stay in Iran permanently, marrying Iranian spouses and starting families.