Bandar-e Anzali, advertisement of a photographer-cameraman next to the cemetery. The photographers, followed by the gaze of the locals, try to enter the cemetery
“How do you imagine waking one up so early in the morning? I have not even got dressed, I have not had breakfast, either! How does such a thing seem to you?” indignantly shouts the woman with a multicolored headscarf at the barely open gate of the Armenian cemetery. I think, if I lived in a graveyard, I would not dare close my eyes all night long, let alone have breakfast among the dead. “We came from Lahestan”, I lie, “we want to visit the graves of the Lahestani soldiers”, and in the meantime I apologetically repeat to myself under my breath the mantra of polak-węgier dwa bratanki, ultimately we are brothers. “At this time?” she shouts implacably. “It is eight’o clock, the graveyard only opens at ten!” In the morning, the Persians do not rush for anything, least of all for visiting the dead, who are well enough alone until ten. “I will pay”, I say amiably. The iron door opens wider.
The Armenian cemetery in Bandar-e Anzali is inhabited by the most diverse nations. The Armenian colony of the Caspian Sea port city was once populous, now they are only a handful: their church still stands, but is locked. Apart from them, Assyrian Christians also rest in the graveyard under tombstones with Syriac and Cyrillic inscriptions, Russians from the 17th century on, Vlachs from every period of the ductile Romanian state formations, and many others. We want to take photos, but the woman forbids it. A Lahestani only can shoot his own in the Lahestani cemetery. We are only allowed the grave of an Italian-born Slovenian, because, with the word “lahka” on the tomb (in Slovenian, “light”, i.e. let the earth be to him) I can prove to the Cerbera that he was a Polish woman.
The Polish cemetery is separated by a low wall from the Armenian one: after all, they are all Catholic heretics. It also has a gate from the street, with the large inscription CMENTARZ POLSKI, quite striking in Iran, but it is closed with a padlock. It can be accessed only from the Armenian graveyard. On the gate, a worn Persian-language plaque announces that here burials took place between 1939 and 1945. A unique feature of the inscription is that it counts the years in the European way, from the birth of Christ. In a Persian text they should have written these years counted from the Hegira, for example, 1317–1323. If a Persian looks at the text, he might have a bizarre kind of feeling, as if we were to read the year of 2500 in a public inscription.
What happened to the Poles in Persia between 1939 and 1945, that is, between 1317 and 1323, that they left a whole graveyard of deceased behind themselves?
This story, which passed from Lwów through Kazakhstan and Persia to Montecassino and the Edinburgh zoo, and which has left behind many mementos is places like Tehran’s Bar Polonia, Isfahan’s Polish cemetery and Ahvaz’s downtown Campulu, that is, Camp Polonia district, is being researched and will soon be detailed in a number of posts by Dani Kálmán here at río Wang, so we will here only summarize the main thread concerning the Bandar-e Anzali cemetery.
After the Red Army, on 17 September 1939, marched into the eastern part of Poland, according to the official argument to defend the brotherly nations of “Western Ukraine” and “Western Belarus” threatened by the German invaders, and held joint victory parades with the same German invaders from Brest to Pińsk, the deportation of the anti-Soviet elements into the interior part of the Empire began, the horror of which is described by Ryszard Kapuściński in the heartbreaking introductory essay “Pińsk, 1939” of his Imperium. By June of 1941, during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, approximately one and a half million Poles were deported to Siberian labor camps. What is more, before their retreat from the German invasion, the Red Army were even careful enough to massacre the thousands of captives in the Eastern Polish prisons whom they had no time to deport.
In July 1941, the British and American allies persuaded Stalin to permit the deported Poles to fight on their side against the Germans. At that time, nearly half of the deported were still alive. They estimate between one and two hundred thousand the number of those who set out on foot on the terrible way from the camp to Persia before the arrival of the Siberian winter, or before Stalin changed his mind. Many of them died on the road or while crossing the Caspian Sea. The survivors who arrived in the port of Bandar-e Anzali – known as Pahlavi before the Islamic revolution of 1979 – were briefly quarantined, and then distributed among the Polish refugee camps of Tehran, Isfahan and Ahvaz. For those who died here from exhaustion, typhus or sometimes from the unusually good nutrition, the Polish government in exile purchased in March 1942 a part of the Armenian cemetery, the second largest Polish cemetery in today’s Iran.
Polish refugees arriving to the port of Pahlavi, 1942. From the kresy-siberia.org site
In 1983, Khosrow Sinai made the film مرثیه گمشده , Marsiye-ye gomshode / The Lost Requiem about the Polish refugees in Persia in 1942. The Iranian government allowed it to be screened only once, but for the past few years it has been available on Youtube. The director interviews the local photographer Gholam Abdol Rahimi, who from the very beginning documented the arrival of the Poles to Pahlavi. He recalls it like this:
“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.”
Rahimi’s photos are still not available. Instead of them, we try to illustrate the lives of the refugees with those of Nick Parrino, taken in the Polish refugee camp in Tehran.
“Teheran, Iran. Polish woman and her grandchildren shown in an American Red Cross evacuation camp as they await evacuation to new homes”
Today the cemetery is like it was in Sinai’s film, only the pine trees have grown large in the meantime, forming a veritable forest around the graves. The monument in the middle of the graveyard, crowned with the Polish eagle, mentions 639 deceased, soldiers and civilians alike. The two are not so easy to distinguish, because many civilians – even women and children – were allowed out of the Soviet Union or onto the vessels only if the Polish army enrolled them in its ranks.
“This is the final resting place of 639 Poles, the soldiers of the Polish army in the East of General Wladyslaw Anders, and civilians, the former prisoners of war and captives of the Soviet camps, who died in 1942 on the way to their homeland. Peace to their memory.”
Rows of graves are lined up on both sides of the monument, each with eighteen concrete headstones showing the names of the deceased, their dates of birth and death, and also the ranks for the soldiers. If they were known, because there are many “Nieznany”, of whom only the date of death was certain. It is striking how many children lie here. Obviously because they were more vulnerable than the adults, but also because their proportion was unusually high among the refugees. The Polish mothers, if they already gave up the march, at least entrusted their children to those who were able to go further. For the surviving children, Krystyna Skwarko opened an orphanage in Isfahan.
One of the deceased is certainly a Jew, Naftali Roth, pharmacist. Many of the deported Poles were Jews, many of who also made it to Iran as well. The local Jewish relief organizations supported them, they received their orphans, and later let them go to Israel.
The relatives of some deceased in the far away Lahistan still take care of the tomb of their kin. Instead of the concrete headstone of Stanisław Puć, his brother erected an ornate black marble gravestone. The original concrete block is left lying behind the grave.
We come out of the cemetery around nine o’clock. The bakeries and tea houses have just started to open on the other side of the road. They amiably ask us where we are from, they offer us free tea and freshly baked bread. Just as they did to the Polish refugees seventy years ago.