So it was a few weeks back. Dorota, one of my readers and also a travel blogger herself had informed me that she’s coming to Iran and will be cycling her way around the country. Just before departure, we met and by her suggestion, we decided to visit the Polish cemetery of Tehran. I was a bit meh about the idea at first. The last time I decided to visit a cemetery as a tourist in Paris, things didn’t go so well. Not to mention I didn’t know much about this specific cemetery and I wasn’t familiar with its location. Searching online didn’t help much either. But I thought what the heck if I was ever going to visit a Polish cemetery, it was going to be with a Polish. Little did I know that this one was going to be an expert on the subject.
So why is there such a huge Polish cemetery of Tehran?
I’m sure this is a question for many, as we Iranians are not taught much about WWII in institutions and schools or because when it comes to the tragedies of world war 2, events like these are usually under the shade of Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps.
So here’s a little backstory:
The WWII started by the invasion of Poland in the hands of Nazi Germany on the west which was later followed by the attack of the Soviets on the east. Considering Poland’s economic weakness, the consequences were extremely drastic and over 5 million Polish citizens perished. A deal was later made between the Germans and the Soviets which resulted in dividing and annexing all of Poland between themselves. Thousands of Polish citizens were imprisoned and forced into labour. The huge wave of arrests under Soviet occupation caused for overloaded prisons and so they were sent to other labour camps and resettled in remote areas of the USSR. Almost a million of them were sent to Siberia with half of them being women and children. A huge number died there due to horrible conditions, cold and hunger.
Soon after, the Nazis broke the treaty and attacked Soviet territory. USSR, now betrayed by the Germans, initiated diplomatic relationships with Poland and agreed to release many of its Polish prisoners held in labour camps.
Here’s when Iran comes into the story. By accepting to host all these Polish refugees under British command and with the help of India, many Polish prisoners found their way to Iran, from where they would be sent to India, South Africa and New Zealand.
The young men were trained to join the Anders army (Polish Armed Forces in the East) who would later fight courageously in Italy against the fascist regime.
Former Polish prisoners were sheltered in Iran for years before being sent to other countries. They entered Iran either from the port of Anzali in the north west of Iran or Khorasan on the east of the Caspian Sea. Although not everyone made it alive, which explains why there’s a Polish cemetery in both Anzali and Mashhad.
The survivors were divided in between different cities and most orphan children were sent to Esfahan where the Polish cemetery holds many of their bodies. Most of these refugees were later sent to other countries but a number of them stayed in Iran and called it a second home.
Today the Polish cemetery of Tehran holds over 2000 graves of Polish citizens. Most of them casualties of WWII, some going back to Iran-Poland relationships during the Safavid era and others are those who stayed in Iran and died later.
Dorota’s uncle was amongst the groups who marched their way to Iran, but unlike many who died on the road, he reached Iran safely and joined the Anders army too, which explained why Dorota was extremely knowledgeable on the subject and gave me a full history lesson all about it. (You never know what comes out of blogging 😉 )
So now that I’ve done my homework and told you why things are as they are, let’s get back to the cemetery.
When reading about the location on the internet I had read that access was limited. In fact, I read that as an Iranian I was not granted entry!! Upon arrival, we saw a man entering the cemetery and we followed him in. Once he stopped us, I told him that I was with Dorota and why we were there. He went inside, did some further negotiations with another man and we were let in, greeted by the barking of a dog half my size! The family of the guy who worked in the cemetery had been guarding the place for generations. He turned out to be super nice and welcomed us warmly. We sat down for a chit-chat, while he introduced us to the pile of books and brochures he had on the subject. Dorota was given a never-ending list of people buried in the cemetery to see whether she’d find any friends or family members.
We were treated with coffee, tea and biscuits (not on the itinerary of your everyday cemetery visit I guess!) and so we became pretty good friends and were later guided through the cemetery.
Although the cemetery is famously known as the Polish cemetery, it’s actually a Christian cemetery where a big section of it is dedicated to Polish graves. However Italians, French and Hungarians also have their own section.
We walked through lines of dead bodies who would probably never expect to be buried in Iranian soil. There was a tomb made for a French doctor who was the royal doctor for a Qajar king. There was a woman who we were told had intended to board the Titanic but didn’t, due to her families’ disagreement and life somehow calculated her time of death in Iran instead of the Atlantic. There were Polish children as young as one year old and rows and rows of similar graves belonging to polish war casualties who had not seen a bright day since the war had started.
We spent some time wandering in between the graves, while Dorota enlightened me of the atrocities these people had gone through. Since I had shown my fair share of interest in the story I was given a book in Persian from the guard called “From Warsaw to Tehran” which depicts the life of a woman named “Helen” who was sent to Siberia with her mother when she was only eight. Helen and her mother fled the Soviet Union for Iran in the most catastrophic way. She later resides permanently in Tehran and marries an Iranian man with whom she lives until now. The book is written by her son and is quite easy to read. If you’re interested, I’d highly recommend reading it before heading to the cemetery. Not to mention, you can find Emilia’s (Helen’s mother) grave in the cemetery too.
Visiting a cemetery is probably not the most attractive place to be, but travelling is not all about glorious palaces, art museums and restaurants. It’s sometimes about shedding light on gruesome facts of history and reminding yourself why it’s important to stand up against those who benefit from wars and segregation of people and to be grateful for the people who went through hell for our freedom and comfort.
Though I’m proud to know my country was the first to give a home to Polish refugees, visiting this place had me wondering why we’re not told about this side of the story as much.
And now more than ever must we feel responsible to bring stories and places like this into the spotlight.
Because all lives matter!
- If you’re Polish or interested in this part of the history I assume visiting this place is going to be a moving experience, so I highly recommend it.
- The cemetery is located in Doolab area and is easy to find on Google Maps. If you’re using public transportation then the easiest way would be to get yourself to Pirouzi metro station and grab a shared taxi from there to Pasdar-e Gomnam street. It’s a short walk after that and you’re at the cemetery.
- Access to the cemetery is limited and even more restricted for non-Christians. If you’re Polish, Italian, French or Hungarian you probably won’t have a problem getting in. If you’re accompanied with any of these nationalities like I was then it’s fine.
- However, if you’re Iranian, there’s a big chance you won’t be let in! I know it sounds really weird and I asked a lot of questions regarding this issue, but things are complicated! So your way of getting in would be either by joining a tour or going with someone who’s trusted by the guard. It’s nothing serious. I went there just once, talked to him and he assured that I would be let in if I ever come alone. He just really wants to avoid any sort of hassle.
- Those Polish refugees who were Jewish are buried in other cemeteries such as the Jewish cemetery of Gholhak. Access to there is even more restricted.