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Forgotten Chapter of WWII Lies Buried in Iranian Graveyard

History: Liberated from Stalin's prison camps, up to 300,000 Poles are thought to have flooded into Persia. Today an unmarked cemetery in Tehran is their last remaining trace.


TEHRAN — From time to time, the lone caretaker at the dreary cemetery gets a letter from abroad asking him to light a candle at one of the hundreds of identical headstones at the far end of the walled, unmarked graveyard.

A forgotten chapter of World War II is buried in this Roman Catholic cemetery in a poor neighborhood of Tehran. Occasional candles are the only flickers of remembrance for these 1,892 Polish men, women and children far from home and for the calamity that befell them.

In September 1939, Hitler and Stalin pounced on Poland, dismembering it in one of the bleakest chapters of Polish history. Stalin had tens of thousands of Poles carted off to his prison camps, but when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin freed the Poles and agreed they could join a Polish army being formed by the Allies.

That force was to assemble in Persia, the old name of modern-day Iran, which was then under British influence.

In a matter of weeks, floods of starving, haggard Poles began trudging toward Iran. Most planned to volunteer for the new army, but many among them were women and children who had no place else to go. In all, between 114,000 and 300,000 Poles are thought to have made it to Iran.


Most eventually moved on to other parts of the world. Some stayed in Iran, where only about a dozen are still alive.

Among them is Helena Stelmach, 69, who lives with her Iranian husband. They have two sons in their early 30s.

Anna Borkowska, 83 and probably the oldest of the survivors in Iran, also married an Iranian, a police officer, and had a son. Her husband died in 1968, and their son died in 1982 at age 26. Her mother died several years later.

Despite the decades that have passed since they were cast up on Iran's shores, both women fit reluctantly into their present lives.

They speak the language of their childhood; Persian is uttered with thick accents and frequent pauses to search for words. Both took the last names of their Iranian husbands but prefer their Polish ones.

When Borkowska sits at a cheap piano in the living room to relieve the loneliness, the words of Polish songs stir her modest home. On the stairs outside Stelmach's flat, a pile of Polish magazines waits to be thrown out.

Both homes display photos of Iran's late Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, alongside pictures of Pope John Paul II and portraits of Jesus and Mary.


A world at war had forgotten the tens of thousands of sick, starving Poles enslaved in Stalin's forced labor camps. In the summer of 1941, startling news began circulating among the inmates: Hitler had invaded Russia.

At a hellish prison in the thick Basharova forest of Arkhangelsk, the Russian commandant had told the arriving prisoners that they would remain there forever, Anna Borkowska recalls. But now the Soviet Union was in danger.

On a grim day like any other, as they toiled in the forest felling firs and dragging them to the river, the commandant summoned the prisoners for a stunning announcement: They were free.

Two years earlier, weeks before Borkowska's 23rd birthday, her life had been shattered by war and exile.

She was in love with Jan, a fellow university student she hoped to marry. She never learned what became of him and never again walked the streets outside her Warsaw home, where they had strolled hand in hand, Anna humming a new song she had learned on the piano, autumn leaves crackling under their feet.

Stalin began emptying Poland of anyone who could resist the occupation. First went military officers and their families, then the intelligentsia, and last anyone with wealth, influence or education. Borkowska's father was a shipyard executive, and his two children, Anna and Victor, had both finished college.

When the door-to-door arrests began, the family escaped to the home of a poor relative in the countryside, where Anna's father died. One midnight weeks later, the rest of the family was picked up by the Russian secret police, herded into locked freight trains with thousands of other deportees and banished to Siberia.

There only the strongest survived. Borkowska's brother, two years younger, was not among them. He caught pneumonia and died alone in a hospital a year before they were all set free.

"When we buried him, he had a pained expression on his face," Borkowska says.

"It was because he died alone, without anyone around who cared," she adds, clutching the favorite remembrance of her brother, a childhood photograph showing the boyish Victor with an oversize violin under his chin.


With the deadly Siberian winter approaching, and afraid that orders for their release could be revoked, swarms of exiles from all corners of Russia, Siberia, Vorkuta, the Ural Mountains, Kolyma, Novosibirsk and Kazakhstan began dragging themselves toward Persia. They abandoned hard labor camps, prisons, forests, mines--anywhere Stalin had needed slaves.

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