Part 2A - In Persia
We landed on a hot, sandy beach.
We were now under the care of the British Army which was stationed in Persia at that time. We had a hot shower and our clothes were disinfected.
We spent the night in an empty cinema. After a meal everyone received a clean new red blanket, a gift from the United States. The children wrapped themselves up and went to sleep. At last they were clean, warm and comfortable, with enough room to stretch their legs.
On March 30 we left by trucks for Teheran.
The road was frightful. It was high in the mountains, winding above the precipices. Each moment we were in danger of crashing below. We were unable to admire either the magnificent scenery below or the high mountains above. We could only pray there would not be an accident.
We arrived in Teheran on the first day of April and went to the "Polish Camp". It was a large brick building, already filled with orphans who had arrived earlier. Our group of children was placed in a long wide corridor. The rest of the civilians lived in tents outside.
It was the First Day of Easter.
Those first marvellous meals proved too rich for starved stomachs and many of the children became ill.
The following day the representative of the Polish Delegatura (Agency) told me that I had been appointed principal of my orphanage now increased by an additional I 70 children from another transport, and that I was to go with the orphanage to Isfahan, the former capital, regarded as the healthiest city in Persia.
As well as the staff that came with us from Russia, four other persons were appointed to go with us to Isfahan: two Ursuline nuns, Sister Monika Aleksandrowicz and Sister Anna Tobolska, Mrs G. Sawlewicz and Father F. Tomasik, who would be the chaplain.
Our transport arrangements were to be handled by Mr L. Ujma, the son of a textile engineer from Isfahan.
On April 3 we were on our way. We travelled by buses through the desert regions of Persia, past some magnificent rocky mountains. The children were fascinated by the strange shapes and colours of the bare rocks. It was only close to the towns that one saw green trees and farmland.
We made a stop at the historic town of Kum. We looked with admiration at the golden cupolas of the mosques and the tall minarets.
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. We spent the night in a chayhan (tea house), and slept on Persian carpets.
At the end of our second day of our journey we reached Isfahan.
In Isfahan three boarding schools had already been established: one for I00 boys, organised by the Swiss Fathers of the Salesian Order, another for I 00 girls, organised by the French Sisters of Charity, and a third for the youngest I 00 children, organised by an English Protestant missionary couple, Mr and Mrs Illiff, at the request of the British Consul in the city. Finance for the running of the first two convent schools was supplied by Pope Pius XII. Other money was provided by the Polish Delegatura in Teheran.
At the Convent of the Sisters of Charity we were greeted by the Mother Superior and Mr and Mrs Ujma, a Polish couple.
Soon after our arrival we divided the children up into three different groups. We left the girls seven and older with the Sisters of Charity. Boys in the same age group were sent to the Salesian Fathers and the youngest children went to a house temporarily rented by Mr Illiff.
It was difficult to separate older children from their younger brothers and sisters because they were afraid that they would be separated for life. But after promising them that families would be able to visit one another on Sundays we managed to persuade them to go to their new homes.
We kept that promise conscientiously.
Dr Illiff took the weakest child, Marysia Pytlos, to her own house, and the other sick children were sent to a hospital.
I had to supply only the teaching staff to the two homes run by the nuns and priests but for the one with the pre-school children I had to appoint supervisors and domestic staff as well.
Father Tomasik, Sister M. Aleksandrowicz and Mrs Sawlewicz went to stay with the Salesian Fathers to look after the boys. Together with two other women I remained with the Sisters of Charity. Mrs Spolnicka, Mrs M. Okolow and the other staff went with the youngest children to their temporary home.
At long last the children had airy and sunny rooms, clean beds, wardrobes to put their belongings in and many other comforts. It was almost a luxury in comparison to what they had before.
As well as the dormitories there were also spacious classrooms and dining rooms. Both convents also had beautiful chapels. The buildings were surrounded by gardens. In each of the homes the food was excellent, especially the fruit, which was plentiful and delicious. We hoped that perhaps one day the children would realise that there was no longer any need to take spare bread from the dining room and hide it under their pillows. Perhaps they would learn to believe that there would be plenty of bread tomorrow, too.
The first night at the Convent of the Sisters of Charity was filled with emotion. We were being looked after by kind people, we were in proper beds, we were clean, well-fed and above all we felt safe.
To the children who for the past two years had known nothing but misery and hardship it seemed almost like heaven. It was not surprising, therefore, that some girls thought they were really in heaven when in the stillness of the night they heard the tinkling of bells. I had to explain that it was only a caravan of camels passing by.
After a few days the nuns began to sew underwear and frocks for the girls and buy them shoes. The Salesian Fathers, too, ordered clothes, underwear and shoes for the boys and the Polish staff began to sew clothes for the youngest group.
After a week we transferred the youngest group to a newly-renovated former palace rented from one of the Persian princes.
The palace was surrounded by a park and was an ideal place for games. I moved my office to it when I realised that it would be more satisfactory if I handled this home's administration work myself.
We were convinced now that the climate in Isfahan was excellent. The beautiful gardens, the peaceful surroundings, and the warmth of the sunshine had a healing effect on the children.
As the days went on more and more singing could be heard from the buildings, games were becoming more popular and the children confidently began to crowd around the staff to chat with them.
We began schoolwork on April 10, 1942.
The lack of syllabuses and text-books made teaching difficult so we pooled our knowledge at a meeting of teachers and re-created the syllabuses used in Poland before the war.
We agreed, however, that we should not tire the children with too much formal teaching. After all that they had been through, the first and most important thing for them was to recover physically and psychologically.
The lessons lasted only from 8 a.m. to midday. These were given mostly outside in the gardens, in the shade of the trees.
Because of the heat between the hours of I p.m. and 3 p.m. the children in all homes had to rest on their beds. Most fell asleep.
We tried to keep the atmosphere in the homes as friendly and intimate as possible. We called the institutions "homes" instead of orphanages because we wanted to give the children the chance to forget that they were orphans and bring them up in the same way as the children of the staff.
The home with the youngest children was situated at the entrance to the city so we called it Home No. I. The home run by the Sisters of Charity became Home No. 2 and the home run by the Salesian Fathers, Home No. 3.
Every Sunday, after three in the afternoon, the older children went in groups with some of the staff to visit their younger brothers and sisters in the other homes. Those staying behind went with other staff to visit either the mosques, the bazaars or the museums.
When we arrived in Isfahan on April the 5th we had no idea that after only a few months the city would become the main centre for refugee Polish children. So many boats arrived in quick succession that the number of children soon swelled to more than two thousand and the number of staff grew to three hundred.
Only a month after our arrival the Delegate from the "Polish Delegatura" in Teheran, Mr W. Styburski, came to inspect the homes and told us that we were to rent more homes and get them ready for a great number of Polish orphans who would arrive soon in boatloads from Russia.
We carried out the order to the full. We enlarged Home No. I by adding several newly-rented dormitories and we rented two new homes that became No. 4 and No. 5. We also found the necessary beds and bedding, wardrobes, kitchen utensils and installed washing facilities and toilets.
Soon the children arrived and filled the new homes.
About that time we had a visit from the Inspector of Schools, Mr Pialucha, from Teheran. He was pleased to see the cordial, family-like atmosphere in the homes and he promised to increase the number of the teaching staff. He also promised to send us blackboards, some syllabuses and textbooks.
Delegate Styburski came for the second time on July 1. He noticed a great improvement in the appearance of the children. They were well-dressed, well-fed and looked happier.
The Delegate set up the first Polish administrative body in Isfahan. It became known as the "Board of Administration of Camp No. 4" and newly-arrived Mr T. Dymowski became its Director. Others on the board were Father Tomasik, as chaplain, and myself as the officer-in-charge of education. Mrs Zajdlowa was appointed as book-keeper, Mrs Dunikowska as secretary, Mrs Lubienska as clerk and Miss Waluszewska as typist.
Mr Styburski also informed us that from then on the children were going to receive some pocket money for their minor personal requirements.
Our hands were full again in setting up new homes and establishing new schools. The motto "the good of the children" was foremost in all our minds and we tried hard to live up to it.
Thanks to the indefatigable energy and effort of Director Dymowski, the number of homes grew to seventeen. Home No. I 0 was assigned solely to pre-school children, Homes Nos. I and 3 for boys only and Homes Nos. 5, 6 and 9 for girls.
As well as the teaching and domestic staff, each home had a nurse to look after the sick children and a special sick-room.
Though small in comparison with the others, as it had only 35 beds, Home No. 11 was an important one. It served as both a convalescent home and a sanatorium. Its spacious dormitories and lovely garden were ideal for children just discharged from hospital and those with lung disorders.
Building No. 13 was used as the administration offices.
There were six homes situated in the Armenian sector known as Dzhulfa and Home No. 6 was rented from the Armenian clergy.
The chief doctor at the Armenian hospital, Dr Melikian, became a great friend of the Polish people. He saved the lives of many of the children staying in his hospital as well as the lives of two women who contracted smallpox in Teheran before coming to work in Isfahan.
As the half-starved children, looking like skeletons covered only with skin, kept arriving they brought with them new epidemics of typhoid, measles or scarlet fever.
As well as the isolation rooms in the homes, the British hospital in lsfahan and the Armenian one in Dzhulfa were full of sick children who had newly arrived.
To prevent any spread of the epidemics, the Administration Board decided to empty Home No. 1 and transfer the boys to a separate building, Home No. 1 A, behind the park. It then ordered two weeks' quarantine in Home No. 1 for each batch of new arrivals. The results proved this to be a wise decision.
In July the Polish Delegatura in Teheran assigned to us two permanent doctors - Dr Czochanska and Dr Kopernicka. We also got our own dentist, Mr Fuchs. At the same time the board set up a medical and dental clinic next to the administration offices in building No. 13.
Thanks to the great effort of the doctors, nurses, administrators, teachers, supervisors, and domestic staff, the children were quickly returning to health. The most harassing illness proved to be malaria. Its frequent recurrence wore out not only the children but the adults as well.
We organised separate schools for each home consisting of either five or six standards. There were between 100 and 300 children in a school, depending on the size of the accommodation in the building. The classes were correspondently smaller in the smaller homes as it was almost impossible to arrange for children from one home to attend school in another because of either the distance or safety.
One of the reasons which prompted us to establish complete schools in each home was the desire to keep brothers and sisters as far as possible together. There was another reason. It allowed us to strengthen the friendly ties between the children and the staff with whom they came from Russia. The children had become attached to their teachers and supervisors. They learnt to trust them and even to regard them with affection. By keeping the children in one place, we tried to prevent new tragedies and complexes which could arise from too-frequent changes.
The pre-school children were the only ones kept separate but these appeared to be quite happy among other children of the same age. Normal schooling began as soon as the textbooks published by the Polish Army in Palestine arrived.
The lessons continued from 8 a.m. to midday and after the afternoon rest life in the homes was regulated by a weekly programme of activities depending on the age and needs of the children. There were handicrafts, homecrafts, sports, games, preparations for concerts and shows, reading, singing, and sometimes a supervised shopping trip into town. Tea was at 6 p.m. followed by prayers, a bath and bed at 9 p.m.
Although it was the duty of the supervisors to look after the children before and after school hours, the teachers also spent a great deal of time with the children after school.
With the idea of preparing the young people for adult life and the means of earning their living, we established courses in dressmaking and tailoring for girls in Home No. 6. I n Home No. 15 the boys were taught the art of engraving in copper and silver. It was an art in which the Armenian and Persian people excelled, so they had plenty of examples. Every day one could see men and even small boys sitting cross-legged on the pavement in front of the shops hammering away with a tiny hammer and chisel to engrave the most intricate designs on a vase, tray, spoon or perhaps a bracelet.
Thanks to Mr Styburski, the Delegate from Teheran, a course was also started in carpet weaving in Home No. 17. There were fourteen girls in the course with Mrs Ludwig as their supervisor and Mrs Matuszynska as the principal. Mrs Matuszynska was also their teacher in general subjects and the study about Poland. The carpet weaving instructor was a qualified Persian weaver specially employed by the Board who taught the girls the skills of wool dyeing and carpet weaving, though such things had long been kept a close secret from foreigners.
A well-known local Armenian artist, Mr Nersesyan, selected the designs to be used in the carpet making.
After learning about all the aspects of Persian carpet weaving the girls were to become the future instructors in Persian carpet weaving in Poland.
The first really important ceremony involving all the homes was the First Holy Communion, received by 30 boys and 30 girls in July, 1942.
The Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Marina, arrived from Teheran for the occasion. From then on he was a frequent guest at the homes in lsfahan and was especially interested in the carpet weaving workshop.
In 1942, there was a combined concert put on by the homes in the park of Home No. 1 to commemorate the Polish victory over the Bolsheviks in a battle near Warsaw on August 15, 1920. Hundreds of children arrived from all the homes in the morning. Then there was a parade, lunch in the open for everyone, and finally the concert. The programme was varied with songs, dances and recitations.
Among the guests there were representatives of the British residents in lsfahan, headed by their Consul, the Mayor of lsfahan, and various visitors from Teheran. It was a memorable gathering.
In the same year there were evening shows put on in Home No. 2, which consisted of a play and some stylised dances under the direction of Mrs J. Otwinowska.
Another important occasion in September of that year was when a great number of children were confirmed in the gardens of the Convent of the Sisters of Charity. Archbishop Marina and the Polish prelate, Archbishop Gawlina, came to administer the sacrament, accompanied by Delegate Styburski and the Polish Minister, Mr Bader. This was Mr Styburski's last visit to lsfahan. He was soon to be transferred to India.
All the eminent visitors expressed to Mr Dymowski, the Director of the Board in lsfahan, their admiration for the high standard of the homes. We were, therefore, surprised to hear the news that he was being recalled from lsfahan.
On October 8, 1942, Mr Dymowski was replaced by Mr Mancewicz, and the Board of Administration was renamed the "Legation Agency in lsfahan". Mr J. Hoffman was appointed as Mr Mancewicz's deputy.
Towards the end of October 1942, the new Delegate from Teheran, Mr F. Haluch, made an inspection of the homes. He expressed satisfaction with the care of the children and the organisation.
Mr Haluch also told us to expect the arrival of more girls. We did not have to wait long. On November 5, of the same year, a group of "Junaczki" (Girl Cadets) arrived with their principal, Mr Masajadowa. We accommodated them in Home No. 6A, an additional wing of Home No. 6. As well as the teaching staff, Father M. Wilniewczyc, Dr E. Czochanska and a dentist, Dr J. Budzyna-Dawidowska, also arrived with the "Junaczki", so we were able to open a second medical and dental clinic in Dzhulfa in Home No. 6.
Doctor Czochanska certainly needed all her experience and skill to look after not only the 300 girls in Nos. 6 and 6A but the sanatorium as well. It was thanks to her dedication that the newly-arrived girls soon regained their health and strength.
The former "Junaczki" came from Kermene, Shahrezab and Kharkin Batash, the infamous "valley of death" where a year before we were organising our orphanage.
Dr Czochanska recalled with sadness how in Kharkin-Batash it was not so much the typhoid fever, malaria and dysentry that were the main causes of death but the unhealthy climate and lack of fresh water. Water for the camp had to be brought in barrels by carts from Guzari, seven kilometres away. It was only the departure for Persia that had saved the lives of those who survived.
On her way to Guzari Dr Czochanska had been full of hope of seeing her husband alive. But while working in the Polish Army hospital in Guzari her husband got infected with typhoid from his patients and died. His death brought the number of medical staff who died in this epidemic to ten.
On the order of Mr Haluch 1 was appointed Inspector of Social Welfare in lsfahan. My new duties were to supervise the distribution of food and clothing and to see that the children were properly cared for.
1 visited the homes daily and was continually in direct contact with the orphans, checking on any problems they may have had.
One day Hela Wisniewska came to me and told me about her family. They were living in Brzesc in Poland when for no apparent reason her mother and the five children were deported to Russia. Their father, who worked as a clerk in the railway, was away at the time. In Russia, Hela, her mother and her brother, Stefan, were put to work on a collective farm. Then when the amnesty was announced they set off for Teheran with many other Polish people. In Teheran her mother had a stroke and died in hospital and Hela was left with the responsibility of four younger children.
After seeking refuge in the lsfahan orphanage she heard that their father had died in Poland.
There were new events happening in lsfahan.
Soon we had to select seven hundred orphans who were to go to South Africa. The selection lasted several weeks, but we were able to choose only four hundred children. Some of the brothers or sisters were still in hospitals. Others were in isolation in Home No. 9 with trachoma.
It was also extremely difficult to get enough staff. No-one wanted to go to Pretoria. Everyone had thought that Persia would definitely be the last "stop" on the way back to Poland. The most frequent wish expressed was "next Christmas in Poland", yet here loomed another journey into a strange land.
Finally, two principals, Mrs Masajadowa and Mrs J. Otwinowska agreed to go and encouraged by their example several of the supervisors, teachers and domestic staff offered to go as well.
We bade them a sad farewell because we knew that we would never see them again.
After the departure of the "African Group" we had to close some of the half-empty homes. Some changes had to be made in the schools as well.
During 1943 we received more and more visitors, this time from places other than Teheran. Lieutenant-Colonel Wyslouchowa came from Iraq to visit the "Junaczki" and the female staff who had been detached from the Polish Women's Army.
After her visit a dozen or so of the former army women went to Palestine leaving great gaps in our staff. This proved a heavy burden on the remaining staff as it was always difficult to find good, dedicated people to work in the homes.
Other visitors were General Tokarzewski from the Near East who was representing General Anders, and Colonel Ross, the liaison officer between the British and Polish Armies in Teheran.
Then there was the new Director of the Department of Education in Teheran, Mr S. Rzerzycha, the Red Cross representative from Teheran, Miss A. Januszajtis and the deputy of the Delegate in Teheran, Mr A. Szewczyk.
Mr Rzerzycha's visit on October 7, 1943, coincided with the unveiling of the commemorative plaque in the chapel of the Sisters of Charity.
There was an image of Our Blessed Lady of Czestochowa on the top half of the plaque and lower down the Polish Eagle, engraved in silver. Below it was this caption: "in this chapel Polish children paid homage to the Mother of God for saving their lives during their years of exile. Iran-Isfahan, 1942-1943,"
A similar plaque was installed a year later in the church in Dzhulfa.
The children looked forward to seeing the visitors from outside. They
were a change from the daily routine and acted as a link with a distant
Polish world. The young people did not need much encouragement to organise
parades, prepare speeches, national dances, songs or flowers.
List of Photographs and Enlargements
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