Part 2B - In Persia (B)
There were some extremely emotional moments when the first mothers began to arrive from Russia. There were only a few of them, but what happiness.
The children had changed in appearance so much during their stay in lsfahan that frequently their mothers could not recognise them at first. It was only after the children recognised their mothers and rushed to them that the mothers caught them up with shouts of joy and embraced them. It was in this way that Lila, Glejfowna's, Marysia's, Michal's, Stefcia's mothers and Olenka's parents all arrived. Several fathers also visited their children when the Polish Army Command allowed them to spend their leave in lsfahan.
One day Stefcia's mother, Ewa Benasiewiez, told me how she was deported from Poland with her husband and two daughters in early 1940. The Russians confiscated their house and land and incorporated them in a newly-formed kolkhoz. While working in severe frost in a forest near Arkhangelsk her husband had caught a severe cold, and died of pneumonia. More than thirty people were to die of pneumonia in that same forest and all left wives and children behind. Mrs Benasiewicz's eight-month-old daughter died of diarrhoea and she contracted typhoid while in Jakubiak, where she went to live after the amnesty. Her illness meant that her remaining eight-year-old daughter Stefcia had to be placed in an orphanage and it was not until both arrived separately in lsfahan that they were reunited again. She told me that in Jakubiak so many Polish soldiers were dying of typhoid every day that they were buried in long communal graves.
Helena Nawalaniec was one of the staff in the same home. She told me she came to lsfahan to join her son and her three step-daughters. When she and her family were deported to the Soviet Union on February 10, 1940, her house, land and property was taken over by the Soviet authorities. Her husband and her four-year-old daughter both died in the Soviet Union. Mrs Nawalaniec caught typhoid on the way to Persia and was taken to hospital. Her step-children and son went to the orphanage and an older boy joined the Polish Army. It was not until she arrived in lsfahan that she was reunited with her family.
After about a year in office the Director of the Legation Agency in Isfahan, Mr Mancewicz, was replaced by Dr S. Winiarczyk.
The new head of the Legation Agency was an energetic man, a fine administrator, and was full of dedication and love for the children.
His term of office was marked by the flourishing of the homes and by the efficient co-operation with the Delegate in Teheran on the one hand and the Inspector of Social Welfare in lsfahan on the other. During the second half of 1943 and the following year we concentrated on raising the standard of the homes in respect of health, food and clothing.
Throughout the whole period of our stay in Persia from April 5, 1942, to September 30, 1944, only four children died. This was a minute percentage of the two thousand children we had in our care.
We opened our own small hospital in Home No. 19. It was run by the chief medical officer, Dr Hilewicz, assisted by Dr Dubowska.
The number of the staff had now grown to more than 300 so we rented another building. It became No. 16 to accommodate the administrative staff.
House No. 20 contained the sewing workshop, carpet-weaving workshop and the food and clothing stores.
The first two carpets were completed by the girls in 1943 and delivered by them to Mr Haluch, the Delegate in Teheran. The next two completed a few months later were also taken to the Delegatura in Teheran. Another four somewhat smaller carpets were started on the looms.
We now had regular transport in the form of trucks and jeeps to take the children and adults to the medical or dental clinics, to social or scout gatherings or to the hired swimming pool.
Life in the homes was happy, busy and noisy. After school the children occupied themselves with homecrafts, sport and scout activities.
The noble ideals and deeds of the scouting movement developed in the young people a spirit of brotherhood, social responsibility and patriotism.
The scouts were eager to prove their fitness and to win their badges. The evening scout gatherings commemorating historical events brought all the homes together to the grounds of No. 15. There were songs, stories and recitations and usually they ended with a prayer for Poland and for a safe return to their homeland.
It was like a bolt from the blue when we heard of the death of General Sikorski together with Colonel Casalet, the liaison officer between the Polish and the British Armies. We all feared that with the general's death the war would end unfavourably for Poland. A deep mourning filled our hearts.
After the departure of some of the children for South Africa and the arrival of more orphans from Teheran we had to make some further changes. A second home for pre-schoolers was opened up in No. 8 and Mrs Tietze was appointed as its head. The High School was transferred from Dzulfa to No. 9 and Mrs Krzyzanowska was appointed principal.
The Polish Army also sent a liaison officer to allow the fathers in the army to keep in touch with their children in Isfahan.
When the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and the Empress came to visit lsfahan, a delegation of twelve of our children and three staff members paid a tribute of gratitude to him for their hospitality.
The address to the Shah was read in the Persian language by 12-year-old Jan Klim. It was one of the subjects taught in the Polish Boys' School.
More children continued to arrive from Russia during 1943 and the number of children in lsfahan soon grew to more than two thousand.
The small children arrived half-starved, their bodies just skin and bone. We heard the same stories from new arrivals that we had heard before. Many told how unable to be fed by their mothers in Russia they were pushed onto passing trains that were carrying orphans south in order to save them from certain death.
Many told us too that after the death of both parents the older brothers and sisters took charge of the younger ones and brought them to the orphanages. This was the case with the Bartniczak family where the twelve-year-old Hela saved her younger brother and four sisters. Similar stories were related by the survivors of the Brejniakowski, Jarko, Kruszynska, Lis, Manterys, Turski, Wegrzyn, Wierzbicki, Wierzbinski, Wojciechowski and Wypych families as well as many others.
There were also many cases of lonely, hungry orphans wandering on the roads and around the kolkhozes. Some were found and rescued by Polish soldiers. One such soldier was Wladyslaw Rubin, now a Catholic Bishop in Rome.
But in spite of every effort to trace the lost children thousands of them were to die helplessly of starvation on distant kolkhozes.
To restore the broken little creatures that were rescued to some form of normality, love and care were needed, but for the Turski children it would always be impossible to forget how their mother in trying to get them onto a train fell under it and was left behind with her leg cut off.
1 can never erase from memory the sight of an emaciated fourteen-year-old girl, standing apart from a newly-arrived group, holding a tiny sister tightly in her arms. The smaller so thin, that the skin of her arms and legs hung loosely as on an old man. The older girl, lrenka Wozniak, whispered as 1 went up to her: "I could manage to save only little Ewunia".
Among the children that the Polish soldiers managed to save from the various kolkhozes were some Jewish children who had been deported to Russia with their parents and the rest of the Polish exiles.
These children were brought to Teheran with the other Polish children but after their arrival they were taken by the Jewish Organisation in Teheran and later sent to Israel.
The last change in the lsfahan Legation Agency was made in December, 1943, when the position of Inspector of Social Welfare became redundant. So 1 went back to teaching and was appointed principal of Home No. 7, where the last group of children arrived in December, 1943, from Ashkhabad. Most of these were orphans.
There were two buildings in Home No. 7. One contained 70 boys, the other 40 girls. But the classes were mixed.
The children from Ashkhabad went through some particularly traumatic experiences and needed special care. There were about 300 of them of various ages and they arrived at the Ashkhabad orphanage from such places as Pavlodar, Alma-Ata and Tashkent.
While in Ashkhabad all of the staff, except Mr Orlowski, were arrested by the Russians by the older children had to take their place. Under Mr Orlowski's supervision they taught the younger children, did the cooking and washing, and organised concerts. Among the most active were Z. Lutomski, M. Maczynska, C. Wiecek and J. Koncewicz.
The boys were frequently taunted or attacked by street urchins. When they found they had to defend themselves they carried knives.
But in spite of everything they kept a sense of humour and even made
up a song which they used to sing with great gusto:
"Hearts and souls rejoice
when the orphanage crowd goes to breakfast
Oh la /a, Oh la /a,
You won't hear such lip-smacking anywhere,
Oh /a la, Oh /a la."
After diplomatic relations between Russia and Poland were severed, the Polish Ambassador paid a visit to the Ashkhabad orphanage as he was leaving the country in July 1943 and promised to do everything possible to get the children to Persia.
It was thanks to him that the last of the orphanages was transferred under the care of Mr Rudnicka across the Soviet-Persian border to Camp No. 2 in Teheran.
The older children joined the cadets in the Polish Army there and left for Israel where other units of the Polish Army were stationed. The children who were not yet 14 years of age were sent to lsfahan in December, 1943.
The children told us of extraordinary, sometimes tragic, experiences.
Andrzej Szostak: "Mum died. Janka and I were left alone. They took us to Pavlodar to an orphanage. That orphanage was soon closed and we were taken back to the kolkhoz. Later they took us to a new orphanage and from there we were all taken to Ashkhabad."
Hela Sochola: "I'm not sure about my real name. My parents died so I was left in Kazakhstan with my aunt. She was very weak so she sent me to the orphanage in Pavlodar. They soon sent me back and then later took me away again. A woman in Pavlodar told me that my parents' surname was different but I can't remember what name she said."
Czesia Szach: "They let Daddy out of prison but took him back again soon without giving any reason. Mum placed us in the orphanage but the older children stayed with her. Daddy never came back from prison and 1 never saw my mother again."
Eight-year-old Zbyszek Poplawski: "My Daddy was killed by the Germans. My Mummy was not at home but the Russians came in. 1 was taken by them with my aunts. 1 want so much to see my mother."
Bronek Dziki: "Both my parents died. They took me and my brother to an orphanage."
The same story was told by the three Wierzbinski sisters.
Jadzia Lutomska said: "When the Russian troops occupied our home town of Tarnopol in September, 1939, they arrested my father with other policemen and took him to Ostachkov in Russia. We never saw him again. On April 1 3, 1940, my mother, older brother and 1 were taken away from our home in the early hours of the morning. We were put in a goods train with lots of other people and taken to Siberia near a town called Pavlodar. Life there was very difficult. We managed to shift to Pavlodar in 1942 but my mother developed pneumonia. I tried everywhere to get medicine but without success. When I returned home my mother asked if I could get some milk to drink from the neighbours who had a cow. The neighbour said she would give me some if I went to the well and got some water. I went to get her the water but unfortunately the bucket came off the hook. I eventually managed to get the bucket back after quite some time, but in the interval my mother had struggled outside to look for me. I found her lying on the ground with her eyes open but she was dead. We buried my mother by ourselves. No-one has been able to trace any of the arrested policemen. It was said that they were shot."
One of the casualties of a train crash at Dushniki station while the orphanage was being taken from Ashkhabad to Krasnovodsk, was 13-yearold Stasia Swierczynska.
While the train loaded with Polish children was approaching the station, a goods train collided with it at full speed. Many children were killed and many more injured.
"What do you remember Stasia?" I asked. "Not much," she replied. "A crash, a great noise, the roof of the carriage failing in, terrible screams and a pool of black grease and red blood. I was crushed by a bench and a broken shelf. They took me to a hospital."
Her older sister, Janina, remembered more, and told the story from the beginning: "We were very hungry in Siberia. Our father died and Mum and our seven-year-old brother, Jozio, were very ill. Our older brother, Walerian, rushed out one day to get some bread. He brought a small piece back and gave a little to each of us. Mum ate only a tiny bit then fell asleep. She never woke up again. We all left by train to go south. On the train, Jozio got convulsions. I put him gently down. It was a long, slow death. At the next station, the Russians threw Jozio's body out of the train, behind the tracks..."
I tried to cheer her up by saying that they must have buried him later.
"No," replied Janina, "we left the train to get some water from a river, we saw the bodies of a small Polish girl and two older people. They were lying in the mud. Nobody buried them, nobody! We got to the station at Dushniki. Suddenly, another train collided with ours. There was a terrible crash, noise and screaming. I rushed out of the train as I knew that Stasia was in the front carriage with the other orphans. They would not let me pass but I shouted that my sister was in there so they let me through. Three carriages were derailed. At last Stasia was found. She was covered with grease and blood. I recognised her by her clothes. They carried her to some hospital. Our train left much later. It was a year later before Stasia came to Persia but she was limping with one leg shorter than the other."
Another who remembered the train crash was Wisia Rubish. She said: "it was said that eight people, most of them children, were killed, and more than thirty injured. Some were so badly injured that it was impossible for them to continue the journey but no-one wanted to stay behind in hospital. The despair of those badly injured was terrible"
Hela Kasprzyk told me that after her mother died of hunger in Tauda, near Sverdlovsk, she was left with two younger brothers, Tadzik who was ten and seven-year-old Bronek. She tried to get a job but they would not take her as she was too young. She was only twelve, but she managed to convince them she was fourteen and in the end they gave her a job. But it paid very little. Tadzik was eventually taken to an orphanage in Sverdlovsk but later he ran away. She looked for him everywhere but did not find him.
When she left with other Polish civilians for Ashkhabad she would not let Bronek go with the orphanage group because she was afraid of losing him too.
The children quickly became accustomed to the new life in Home No. 7. There were all kinds of illnesses and continual malaria attacks, but things were beginning to return to normal. The boys soon realised that they did not have to carry knives and that they did not have to defend the younger ones. They began to adjust to the new environment, to trust their guardians and to lead a normal life.
Things that helped to heal the wounds of the past were the continuous presence of the staff, the trips to the city and river, the talks in the evenings and the shared duties and prayers; all created an atmosphere of friendship in which the children were able to grow into fine young people.
In May, 1944, we heard the news of the victory in the battle of Monte Casino.
Our joy was without bounds. Polish soldiers were opening up the way to our homeland. We would soon be able to go home.
We prayed for those in battle but our joy was to be brief.
By an irony of fate the Polish Army was not allowed to take part in fighting near the country's western borders. Poland had once more been betrayed.
In the same year the Polish Minister of Social Welfare, Mr Stanczyk, came from London to visit all the homes in lsfahan. It was during his visit that Delegate Haluch told us that because the British and Polish Armies were moving out, the camps in Teheran and the homes in lsfahan were going to be moved. He also told us that the war could not end favourably for Poland so there was no chance of us going back there. Then Mr Haluch told us the Polish Government in London had accepted an invitation from the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Mr Peter Fraser, for about 700 children and 100 adults to travel to his country and remain there till the end of the war.
The remaining Polish inhabitants left in lsfahan would be transferred to Syria.
Our stay in Home No. 7, therefore, was to last barely eight months.
I was asked to become principal of the boys' school that would go to New Zealand. After discussing the matter with my husband who was now in lsfahan after being exempted by the Polish Army Medical Commission from further military service, 1 accepted the offer without hesitation.
We began immediately to organise the new boys' school in Homes No. 1 and 1 A. To go on the long trip we selected the orphans, children whose fathers were fighting in Italy, children whose parents were not in Persia, and the children of those who would accompany them in the ship and work for the children in New Zealand. Then we had to find teachers and supervisors.
It was not an easy task to persuade women to care for about 300 boys. Most of the men, and there were only a few in lsfahan, did not want to go as far away as New Zealand.
Some brothers or sisters could not leave at that time because of illness, so there were several changes to the list of boys selected to travel. The final list was made up of orphans and children who were separated from their parents because of the war.
We worked for days and nights checking clothing, issuing suitcases, textbooks library books and so on. Time was limited. It was already July and we had to leave at the end of September.
At the same time the principal of the girls' school, Mrs J. Zerebecka, was getting 390 girls together with teachers and supervisor in Home No. 6. Also making preparations for the journey were the principal of the high school, Mrs Zieciak, who selected 55 girls in Home No. 2 and Mrs Tietze who collected 52 pre-schoolers in No.8.
Included in the staff going to New Zealand were the chaplain, Father M. Wilniewczyc, a doctor, Dr E. Czochanska, a dentist, Dr J. Budzyna Dawidowska, a treasurer, Mr S. Skwarko and two Ursuline nuns, Sister M. Aleksandrowicz, as the religious instructor, and Sister A. Tobolska as a supervisor. Mr M. Kotlicki and Mr and Mrs Olechnowicz also volunteered to come with us.
Apart from the group mentioned above there were also the teachers, supervisors, domestic and administrative staff. Altogether, 100 staff and 733 children.
The children were eager to go. The prospect of seeing a new, little-heard-of country fascinated them. There was no end to the questions about New Zealand. The most important thing that the teachers could tell them was that it was a beautiful country and that the people were very kind. The word "Antipodes" became very popular.
There was a lot of interest shown in the life of the Maori people. One of the few available books about the country was called Drama in the Pacific. It was read with great excitement.
Then on September 27, 1944, those staying behind waved us farewell as we left for Ahvaz.
We were saying goodbye to lsfahan, the city of mosques and palaces, the city of our Polish Homes, the city that restored physical and mental health to two thousand Polish children. We were leaving behind the ancient Iranian capital with the streets resounding with Polish children singing as they marched in orderly scout ranks.
We arrived in Ahvaz on September 29, and the Polish Legation there supplied us with visas for entry to New Zealand. We were joined by several people from Teheran. They were the Deputy Delegate, Mr F. Bala, a typist, Mrs Szymanska, and Mr J. Holona, who was appointed the head of the boys' school for the duration of the voyage.
The appointment of Mr Holona was a wise move because the care of several hundred boys on a ship certainly required a man's hand.
We went to Basra and it was from there that we left on a British merchant ship for Bombay.
We were leaving the hospitable land of Persia behind and at the same time were going further and further away from our homeland.
We had heard that in Poland people had been fighting on the streets of Warsaw since the uprising of August the 1st. German bullets were to kill hundreds and thousands, and the streets of Warsaw were covered with their bodies and blood. Deserted by the Allies, the men, women and children of Warsaw were fighting for survival. The capital fell in ruins from German bombs and grenades. When the battle ended, 250,000 of the city's inhabitants were dead. The Germans took another 350,000 to concentration camps.
Yes, we were going further and further away from our homeland, yet on our lips there was a prayer:
"Oh lord, take us back Home!
Give us back a free Poland!"
List of Photographs and Enlargements
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