Isfahan is best known for its architecture. It is so beautiful, Iranians say, that to visit the city is to see “half the world.” And, Isfahan is famous for its carpets in classical Persian court styles.
But, in Poland, the city is known for still something else. It is “Isfahan – the City of Polish Children” [“Isfahan – Miasto Dzieci Polskich”]
In June, 2008, the Polish postal service issued a stamp that explained why.
The stamp shows a small boy dressed in a cadet’s uniform. Draped behind him is an Isfahan carpet emblazoned with the Polish eagle. And next to him is the city’s nickname in Polish: “Isfahan – Miasto Dzieci Polskich.” The stamp commemorates two things: a huge tragedy in Poland’s history, and how Iran helped rescue some of the victims. But to understand the
whole story, which today is largely forgotten outside Poland, one must go back to the very start of World War II.
In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland and divided it between them. Both the Nazis and Soviets sent huge numbers of Poland’s elite to prisons and labor camps. But, the Soviets went a step further. They deported some 1.5 million Polish citizens to distant points in Siberia and Central Asia.
The deportations of military families, police, doctors, teachers, and anyone else suspected of patriotic feelings were intended to simplify the Polish territory’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. It also provided more laborers for the Soviet Union’s collective farms as Moscow prepared for an inevitable war with Germany.
Then, after forcibly settling all these families and, in the meantime, executing some 20,000 Polish officers held in prison camps, the Soviet leaders suddenly changed their strategy. As the war began with Germany in the summer of 1941, they decided to raise an army instead from among the thousands of still interned Polish soldiers. And to improve the mood, they granted an “amnesty” to all Polish deportees.
The result was one of the epic journeys of World War II. The new Polish army, under an agreement between Moscow and the exiled Polish government in London, was to be sent to the North African front to fight alongside the British. So the Army assembled just north of the border with Iran, on the road to the Middle East. And it was there, at bases in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, that tens of thousands of deported Polish families headed in hopes of rejoining the soldiers.
But for the families to succeed, they first had to escape the farms they had been assigned to (and many local bosses refused to release them), have money to buy train tickets, and travel for months from Siberia to the south under appalling conditions.
Parents unable to go farther gave their children to others who could. And as the journey went on, the number of orphans multiplied, to the point that the Polish army reception centers had to set up special orphanages to accommodate them all.
The Polish army, known as Anders Army for its commander General W. Anders, crossed into Iran by ship across the Caspian or by road from Turkmenistan at the end of 1942. The exodus numbered 115,000, composed of 45,000 soldiers, 37,000 civilian adults, and 18,000 children. Just after they crossed, the Soviet government closed the border again, preventing any more of the some 1 million Polish citizens still in the USSR from leaving.
For those Poles who reached Iran, after thousands died along the way, the emotions were overwhelming. Ironically, the Poles had reached a country that itself had been occupied in late 1941 by Russia and Britain. They allies did so to secure the oil fields and keep Iran open as a supply route to the Soviet army. Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had earlier brought Iran closer to Germany, was in exile in South Africa and his son was on the throne in his place.
However, if Iranians resented the Russian and the British presence, they were sympathetic to the Polish refugees and welcomed them. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi opened his private pool to the orphans. Polish soldiers saluted Persian officers when they passed in the street. And, over time, all the orphans were relocated to Isfahan along with many Polish families because the beauty of the city was thought to be conducive to their physical and mental health.
After the Polish Army left for the Middle East, the families and children stayed on. From 1942 to 1945, there were 2,590 Polish children in Isfahan below the age of seven, living in what became a lively community which was very interested in Iranian culture.
During this time, Polish academicians in Isfahan began an Institute of Iranian Studies. And the carpet in the background of the commemorative postage stamp was woven by Polish girls in the Isfahan school of weaving.
At the end of the war, the refugees went on to Britain or to British colonies, or to the United States and Australia. But, due to a final twist of fate, none returned to Poland. That was because the Allied leaders had agreed at a meeting in Tehran in 1943 to put Poland in the Soviet Union’s orbit. It remained there until 1989.
The Polish postage stamp issued in 2008 recalls all this history. One of the orphans, Przemek Stojakowski, is the boy on the postage stamp. On the First Day Cover that accompanies the stamp, the names of just a few of the hundreds of other orphaned children are also printed.
The stamp helps to explain several other things, too, including why Dariusz remains a popular name today for Polish boys.