Journey to Persia and Life in Meshed
One fleeting life is all we
It Is not a rehearsal, but the real thing.
Accompanied by armed Polish Army servicemen, headed
by a Polish major, our long convoy of canvas-covered lorries left
Ashkhabad. Some convalescent soldiers were also part of our transport.
Several sick and very weak children, recently discharged from hospital,
were under Mother's special care. Again she was the only trained nurse,
without a doctor, in charge of this very large contingent of Polish
refugees bound for Iran.
It was mountainous terrain. A steep,
windy, dusty road led towards the USSR-Persian border. In the high
altitude the air was fresh and crisp and the scenery breathtakingly
beautiful. The boundary between the two countries traversed a high
altitude mountain plateau, where customs officers of Persia and USSR
awaited our arrival. The Polish officer accompanying our convoy was
present to ensure a trouble-free passage to Iran. At this frontier
our belongings and bodies were thoroughly searched, before permission
was granted to proceed.
The Persian border was inhabited by
fierce and independent tribes of Kurds and Lurs, therefore necessitating
the continued presence of our Polish soldiers and armed Iranian Police
officers on Persian territory. Our convoy continued over the ever-winding,
dusty roads. The journey seemed endless. We felt glad to be on Iranian
ground and secure in the knowledge that we were protected by armed
escorts. Again we were facing the unknown, but we were resigned to
our fate. We rested on the lorry floors, our bodies bouncing up and
down and felt sick and drowsy much of that time. After travelling
steadily for most of the day we finally stopped for the night at a
predetermined destination, a small, remote village. Here we slept
in a large white, clay-brick building surrounded by a high wall with
doors and windows facing a square courtyard in the centre. An iron
gate and a doorway led to this private, well protected dwelling. Iranian
armed police manned this single entrance to the compound around the
clock. In the same village similar dwellings were occupied by caravans
of merchants, which regularly travelled to the village market (bazzar)
to trade their goods.
That night we received hot soup, bread,
a slice of melon and tea with condensed milk, a great feast to us,
but many children were still unable to cope with this nourishment.
We slept on straw mattresses on the floor, covered by army blankets.
No pillows or sheets were provided, but we expected no luxuries, having
long been accustomed to the bare necessities of life. Most of us slept
soundly after the long, arduous journey over very rough roads. The
next day began with a communal prayer and a hymn at the crack of dawn,
as it always did.
As the sun rises in the morning,
Yours is the earth and the sea.
For You sing all earthly creatures,
Be praised the Almighty God.
As the familiar tune of the morning hymn ended, a flurry of activities
followed. First, a quick wash in basins spread near the courtyard
well, then hot tea and porridge prepared us for the long day's journey
and new experiences ahead. This time we travelled through hilly land,
a hot, desert-like terrain. Dust covered our weary bodies and our
nostrils and mouths felt drier and drier as the day progressed. In
fact, dust penetrated everything inside the lorries. Water was rationed
to make it last through our journey.
At last we reached the province of
Kharasan, the most fertile area of Persia, but still extremely hot
and dusty because of its proximity to the desert. River beds were
often very dry, with narrow, meandering streams traversing wide, sandy
beds in summer and early autumn. Now in October, just before harvest,
the fields were covered with a carpet of scarlet poppies grown for
opium. Along the country roads tea houses (chat-khanah) were scattered.
They were clay-brick dwellings with wide, open verandahs in front.
A few adjacent trees provided the much desired shade for their customers.
Its scarcity made water a very precious commodity. It usually came
from muddy hollows or shallow clay-bottomed wells and therefore was
always murky and needed boiling before drinking. In village streams
while donkeys drank, women did their washing and cleaned their bodies.
Nearby other women gathered water for cooking and for drinking. Water
was carried in large, earthenware bowls, perched on a cloth ring on
their heads. Usually after refreshments at a predetermined village
and a brief rest we resumed our journey.
Finally, we arrived at our destination
Meshed, where a Polish refugee centre had been established through
the Teheran Polish Embassy to take care of us. Here we were to remain,
to recharge our weary minds and bodies, until 8th December 1942. Our
temporary Persian haven was similar to many dwellings we had encountered
along the way. It was a large, white, rough-cast, clay-brick structure,
a rectangular building, with a spacious courtyard in the centre, into
which all windows and doors opened. A high wall built from similar
material protected our privacy. The only outside door and an iron
gate were constantly guarded by armed Iranian policemen. It was permanently
locked and opened only briefly when required.
Our dormitories were large, with adjoining
staff rooms. Boys and girls occupied opposite sides of the complex.
Children were distributed in chronological age. Again we slept on
straw mattresses on the floor. A large common room was used for school,
recreation and as a makeshift chapel. A large dining room, kitchen
and toilet facilities catered for our daily needs. Meshed had a resident
British Consul and also a US Mission Hospital where several ill children
were soon admitted. My brother, weakened by jaundice and diarrhea,
was among them.
At first we were exhausted by the long
journey from Ashkhabad to Meshed. Many of us were ravaged by persistent,
chronic diarrhea. A period of prolonged rest was needed in the new,
tranquil haven of our orphanage in Meshed. Although the very ill children
were transferred to the local US Mission Hospital soon after their
arrival, others of us also spent some time In that institution, where
new American drugs were administered to cure our organic disorders.
Most of our health problems stemmed from malnutrition and the lack
of hygiene and sanitation in the USSR. My brother Alek was emaciated
and too weak to sit on arrival at Meshed. I was still able to walk
for short periods. We survived, but several weaker children died and
found their final resting place on the friendly Iranian territory.
After leaving hospital I attended the
Polish school in our orphanage. We were given lessons in reading,
writing, arithmetic, geography, religious studies and singing. There
were no text books available and no planned syllabus. All lessons
were in Polish and each teacher Improvised as best she could. All
our teachers were women, and Indeed there were no men on the staff
of our entire orphanage initially, except for Iranian cooks and policemen.
Our formal education had been very fragmented over the past three
years, since being deported from Poland. We needed to make a fresh
start in our new life. I was blessed with a photographic, retentive
memory and a strong desire to succeed. Soon I learned enough to take
a class when our teacher was absent caring for one of her own dying
children. I enjoyed this short teaching experience, little realizing
then that it was the forerunner of my teaching career in later life.
We looked forward to receiving clothing
donated by the US Embassy In Teheran. We were especially fascinated
by attractive buttons, which we often cut off and exchanged to add
to our collections kept in small drawstring bags which we made at
school. My brother spent much time In hospital. I saw Mother very
seldom, because she was kept very busy looking after convalescent
children who returned from the American hospital and needed constant
care. As I only saw her during the course of her nursing duties, I
became fully integrated Into the daily life of Polish orphans. As
autumn progressed temperatures became cooler. We felt nostalgic seeing
the trees assuming their autumn splendour of changing colours, with
crowns of gold, scarlet, orange, brown intermingled with shades of
green leaves, all around us and recalling a similar scene at that
time of year in our native Poland.
At the beginning of November we heard
the sad news that the Russian authorities had closed the USSR-Persian
frontier and stopped further evacuation of Poles, many of whom were
ordered back to the places they had come from when they were deported
from Poland. We felt deeply for the over one million Poles remaining
In the USSR, forcibly deprived of the freedom In which we were now
My own experiences in Meshed revolved
around the daily routine established at the Polish orphanage. Each
day commenced with prayers, then breakfast and school till lunch time,
after which an enforced rest period followed, before lessons resumed
till 4.00 p.m. After school we were free to run around, play ball
games or just sit and talk with our friends. Marbles, hopscotch and
card games were popular pastimes. After our main meal, dinner, we
assembled for prayers and once again concluding our devotions with
a familiar, daily evening hymn, 'All our daily tasks bless 0 Lard'.
We generally retired early to our dormitories and to our straw mattresses,
fortunate to have the woolen army blankets to keep us warm on the
cooler late autumn nights.
We had few opportunities to venture
beyond the tall wall of our private haven of the orphanage complex.
One such occasion vividly stands out in my mind, when my mother with
a few other staff members and accompanied by a small group of children
visited the Meshed Mosque. For Muslims it is second in importance
only to Mecca. It contains the tomb of the eighth Imam Au Rezo. It
is an impressive ornate building with richly decorated mosaics and
magnificent dome-shaped towers, several covered with turquoise stones.
The largest dome is clad with gold. It overlooks the Golden Road to
Samarkand. It glitters in the burning sun and is visible as a landmark
from a long distance. We were very fortunate to have been permitted
to visit the Meshed Mosque, because women had only just been accorded
this special privilege. I was enchanted with the beautiful interior,
which seemed like a fairyland of bright mosaics, decorative inscriptions
from the Koran, and silk Persian carpets over marble floors.
Meshed was famous for its turquoise
stones, which could be purchased at the local bazaar, which we also
visited later that day. We were fascinated by the great variety of
jewellery for sale. Gold, silver, brass, precious and semiprecious
stones were in abundance. The most Impressive were the beautiful shades
of green-blue turquoises. Mother purchased a turquoise necklace and
a bracelet, which I now possess. They remind me of that most enjoyable
day we shared together. As we walked through the long arcades with
stalls on both sides, I felt as if we were visiting a dreamworld from
Alice in Wonderland. There were so many impressions to absorb.
As December approached, nights became
quite chilly, reminding us of the coming winter. By now most of us
were sufficiently recovered to face the future. Now we were able to
embark on the next part of our journey. Our destination was the British
colony of India.
Other Polish refugees from transitory
camps in Iran were sent through Karachi in India to British Colonies
in East Africa, notably Tanganyika and Uganda. Smaller transports
went to North and South Rhodesia and to South Africa. About 1,500
Poles found a haven on Santa Rosa Hacienda in Mexico and 733 Polish
children In Pahiatua in New Zealand.