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Maria van der Linden
An unforgettable journey
(1992)

 

7. Journey to Persia and Life in Meshed

One fleeting life is all we have,
It Is not a rehearsal, but the real thing.
Zen Buddhist

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 rejoicing.

      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.

 

(C) Maria van der Linden

electronic version by:
Roman Antoszewski
Auckland, Titirangi, New Zealand (Nov. 2000)
antora@ihug.co.nz