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Iran: A refuge for World War II's refugees

Exiled Poles were sent to Persia, as one woman discovers in tracing her grandmother's journey to America.

By Joyce Pisarello / November 3, 2009



Hello. Thank you. Goodbye now. These words are the extent of my Farsi, so when a caretaker answered the bell at the gate of Tehran's Roman Catholic cemetery I froze. Truthfully, I hadn't anticipated that anyone would be watching over this quiet monument to a time most have forgotten.

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The caretaker looked at me and his one-word question provided the password to enter.

"Polish?" he asked.

"Polish," I replied.

Last spring, I set out to explore Iran. As an American, I saw the trip as an opportunity to experience everyday Iran, to move beyond the political suspicions and outrageous rhetoric that have kept our countries at odds for 30 years. I looked forward to 12 days of art, history, Iranian food, and the chance to meet locals in a culture famed for its hospitality. It wasn't until I mentioned the trip to my grandmother that I began to consider searching out the piece of my family history that lies buried in the capital of the Islamic Republic.

I grew up hearing the story of my grandmother's long journey to America. Awakened in the middle of the night by soldiers on her farm in Poland, shipped off to Stalin's Siberia, then on to Tehran, and finally India, my grandmother spent her youth in the World War II refugee camps of Asia.

I was raised on Long Island, the second generation afforded the placid comforts of suburbia. My grandmother's history was powerful but distant, almost incomprehensible.

In 1939, my grandmother lived on the fault line of a world breaking apart. Poland was partitioned between the USSR and Nazi Germany. She lived in the east and was among the tens of thousands of Poles exiled in the early years of the Soviet occupation as part of Stalin's plan to populate Russia's northern regions. Along with her mother and three sisters she struggled to survive in Siberia. Later, when Hitler invaded Soviet territory, Stalin saw potential Allied soldiers in the Polish men he had uprooted and exiled. They and their families were freed and sent to Persia to rally as the Polish division of the Allied army.

By the time my grandmother and her sisters arrived in Tehran they were hungry and broken. Starvation and the harsh Siberian winter killed many Poles that year, my great-aunt among them. Seventeen years old, weakened and ravaged by the journey to Persia, Zenobia Kaftan never left Tehran.

A few days before my trip I e-mailed the Polish Embassy with my great-aunt's name. To my surprise they responded with directions to Dulab Cemetery in south Tehran where Zenobia had been buried in 1942.

My grandmother asked me to place four white roses on her grave, one for her mother and each of her sisters. I promised to try, but 67 years and a world of change had passed since my grandmother had buried her sister. I held little hope that the grave of a teenage refugee, one among thousands, would be traceable.

Iran is a beautiful and fascinating country. Spring break turned out to be everything I had looked forward to. On my last day in the capital, a friend and I found a taxi and set out in search of my great-aunt's grave. Our young driver made circles around the crowded southern neighborhood the Polish Embassy had pointed us toward until, tucked away on a side street, we spotted a tall gate with a cross. I rang the bell nervously, worried I might not find a way in. The two caretakers who answered seemed surprised to have a visitor. But they knew why I had come. They offered me tea and helped me search.

In Dulab Cemetery, the Polish plots are laid in pink stone, forming a small sea of those lost between 1942 and '43. "Zenobia Kaftan, 12/24/24 – 2/2/42 R.I.P." I placed my hand on the headstone, moved by the strangeness of finding family in a place so foreign.

My grandmother and her sisters had been marked by Stalin as disposable people, forgotten by a world that was falling to pieces. Persia became a home in their time of need.

Recently, the world bore witness to the violence being meted out in the streets of Tehran. Yet, in spite of the brutality, Iranians continued to gather; they refused to be silenced. As I watched I thought of my grandmother's journey, of the human costs of political corruption and greed, and not least of the surprising tenacity of the human spirit.

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