Tehran – Taji, a companion parrot, moved about freely in an apartment in central Tehran, occasionally emitting a scream.
“I don’t like to put him in a cage,” Helena Stelmach, 86, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t like imprisonment.”
Nearly eight decades ago, Stelmach learned her own lessons about imprisonment, exile and the process of seeking refuge. In September 1939, German soldiers invaded Poland from the west and Soviet soldiers occupied the country’s east.
The Soviet Union’s Red Army deported more than one million Poles to Siberia, and Stelmach’s family was among those targeted. Soviet soldiers arrested and imprisoned her father in Poland, while eight-year-old Helena and her mother were forced to leave their home.
“It was midnight when they came for us,” Stelmach said. “First, they sent us to a church, and then to Siberia. All we took with us was a suitcase with an old rug, some pieces of jewellery and family photos.”
In her diary, self-published in Farsi in 2009 under the title From Warsaw to Tehran, she recalled how Polish refugees died every day in Siberia from the freezing weather, maltreatment and disease. Because of malnutrition, their teeth sometimes fell out of their mouths while they were talking.
The nightmare lasted for two years, until Germany attacked the Soviet Union, prompting Joseph Stalin to change his stance towards the Poles. In 1942, he freed them to move south to Iran, and then to Lebanon and Palestine.
“It’s not something that people and politicians like talking about or even mentioning,” said Narges Kharaghani, an Iranian director who recently completed a documentary on Polish refugees in Iran during World War II. “I think there has been an untold consensus to forget this topic. After the end of the Second World War, the victorious countries only wanted to talk about Hitler’s crimes. Nowadays, considering how the West is treating immigrants, it doesn’t make any sense for them to talk about that exodus.”
In 1942, about 120,000 refugees from Poland began their exodus to Iran from remote parts of the Soviet Union.
“When they arrived in Iran, the country was gravely affected by political instability and famine,” said Reza Nikpour, an Iranian-Polish historian and member of the Iran-Poland Friendship Association. “Moreover, the Soviets and the Brits confiscated and sent all of the resources from Iran to the frontline in Europe. All of this happened despite the fact that Iran had declared its neutrality when the war started.”
The Poles entered Iran from the port city of Anzali on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. Soviet ships docking in Anzali were packed with starving Polish refugees, and they were the lucky ones: Many others died along the way from typhus, typhoid and hunger. Their bodies were unceremoniously discarded into the sea.
Stelmach was fortunate enough to avoid disease and hunger. Her mother was a nurse, and in return for taking care of the ship captain’s sick son during their journey across the Caspian Sea, the young Stelmach received food and care. After two days at sea, they arrived in a new country that was in dire need of food and suffering from bread riots in its capital.
Several sources have documented that when Polish refugees were loaded on to trucks to relocate from Anzali to Tehran, Iranians threw objects at them. The frightened refugees at first thought they were being stoned, but soon noticed that the objects were not rocks, but rather cookies and candies.
“The Polish refugees were nourished more by the smiles and generosity of the Iranian people than by the food dished out by British and Indian soldiers,” noted an article by Ryszard Antolak, a specialist in Iranian and Eastern European history whose mother was among the refugees who ended up in Iran.
In Tehran, the refugees were accommodated in four camps; even one of the private gardens of Iran’s shah was transformed into a temporary refugee camp, and a special hospital was dedicated to them.
“Polish refugees were well-received in Iran, and they integrated into the host society and worked as translators, nurses, secretaries, cooks and tailors,” Nikpour told Al Jazeera. “Some of them also married Iranians and stayed in Iran permanently.”
The Polish refugees launched a radio station and published newspapers in their mother tongue. They entered into Iran’s art scene and, as with other waves of immigration, their food appeared on the menus of their host communities. The pierogi, a Polish dumpling, is still very common in Iran.
It was food that first brought together Stelmach and her husband, Mohammad Ali. Stelmach’s mother rented a shop in central Tehran selling Polish dishes; Ali worked in a neighbouring shop while simultaneously taking an English language course.
“Helen knew English and German,” Ali recalled with a smile. “I asked her to help me with the English language, and here we are, half a century later, and we are still together.”
Many changes have taken place since Stelmach and her mother came to Iran: World War II ended, an Islamic revolution took place in Iran, the Iron Curtain fell, Poland became part of the European Union – yet, throughout all of these years, Stelmach and her mother opted to remain in Iran.
They have visited their former homeland several times, and even received the Order of the White Eagle, one of Poland’s highest honours.
In 1983, Stelmach’s mother died, and she was buried in the same cemetery as the casualties of the Polish exodus in 1942. Today, a long, high wall separates the cemetery from a sea of matchbox-shaped apartments in one of Tehran’s oldest neighbourhoods.
“There are some visitors still coming to the [cemetery],” caretaker Hamid Tajrishi told Al Jazeera. “A few days ago, a group of old Polish tourists came … Also, sometimes foreigners come individually, seeking the names of their grandparents in our archive, and then they place a bouquet of flowers on their graves and leave.”