Source: Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942 By: Ryszard Antolak Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942 Exhausted by hard labour, disease and starvation - barely recognizable as human beings - we disembarked at the port of Pahlavi (Anzali). There, we knelt down together in our thousands along the sandy shoreline to kiss the soil of Persia. We had escaped Siberia, and were free at last. We had reached our longed-for Promised Land.- Helena Woloch. In Tehran's Dulab cemetery, situated in a rundown area of the city, are the graves of thousands of Polish men, women and children. It is not the only such cemetery in Iran, but it is the largest and most well-known. All of the gravestones, row upon row of them, bear the same date: 1942. In that year, Iran stood as a beacon of freedom and hope for almost a million Polish citizens released from the Soviet labour camps of Siberia and Kazakhstan. After enduring terrible conditions travelling across Russia, 115,000 of them were eventually allowed to enter Iran. Most of them went on to join the allied armies in the Middle East. The rest (mostly women and children) remained guests of Iran for up to three years, their lives totally transformed in the process. They never forgot the debt they owed to the country that had so generously opened its doors to them. Their reminiscences, as well as the many graves left behind in Tehran, Anzali and Ahvaz, are testimony to a chapter of Iranian history almost erased from the public memory. *From Poland to Iran* In 1939, the Soviet Union had participated with Nazi Germany in the invasion and partition of Poland. In the months that followed, the Soviets began a policy of ethnic cleansing in the area to weed out what they called socially dangerous and anti-soviet elements. As a result, an estimated 1.5 million civilians were forcibly expelled from their homes in the course of four mass deportations. Thrust at gunpoint into cattle trucks, they were transported to remote labour camps all over Siberia and Kazakhstan. Their fate was completely changed in June 1941 when Germany unexpectedly attacked Russia. In need of as many allies it could find, Russia agreed to release all the Polish citizens it held in captivity. Shortly afterwards, provision was also made for the creation of an army from these newly-freed prisoners. It was to be commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders, recently released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Stalin intended to mobilize this new army immediately against the Germans in the West; but Anders persuaded him to hold back until the Poles had recovered their health and strength after two years of exhaustion in the labour camps. pt onwards by the rumours that Stalin was about to allow some of them to leave his Soviet Paradise , these former prisoners of the Gulag system began a desperate journey southwards, some of them on foot, to reach the reception camps set up for them on the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. They travelled thousands of miles from their places of exile in the most distant regions of the Soviet Union. It was an exodus of biblical proportions in terrible conditions. Many froze to death on the journey or starved. Others kept themselves alive by selling whatever personal objects they had been fortunate enough to have brought with them. Exhausted mothers, unable to walk any further, placed their children into the arms of strangers to save them from certain death. Arrived at the army reception camps in Tashkent, Kermine, Samarkand and Ashkhabad, the refugees attempted to enlist in the Polish army, for hich the Soviets had allocated some food and provisions. There was nothing, however, for the hundreds of thousands of hungry civilians, mostly women and children, who were camped outside the military bases. nstead of increasing provisions to the camps, the Soviets actually cut them. In response, the Polish army enlisted as many of the civilians as they could into its ranks, even children (regardless of age or sex) to save them from starvation. In the baking heat, dysentery, typhus, and scarlet fever became rampant. Communal graves in Uzbekistan could not keep up with the numbers who were dying. By 1942, only half of the 1.7 million Polish citizens arrested by the Soviets at the start of the war were still alive. Their salvation finally came when Stalin was persuaded to evacuate a fraction of the Polish forces to Iran. A small number of civilians were allowed to accompany them. The rest had no option but to remain behind and face their fate as Soviet citizens.