The long convoy of lorries with all the civilians from Aszhabad left Russia crossing the border with a cry of joy and relief We traversed the Kopet Dag mountain chain in bright autumn sunshine on dangerously narrow and winding roads. The skill of the drivers was admirable as not once the convoy had to stop, in order to help a vehicle from a dizzying precipice back on the road. The view was magnificent with rocky ridges and deep gorges splashing with rapid torrents. We entered PARADISE.
Towards the evening we arrived in Meshed, an old town where we were unloaded on the main square to make our first night stop. It was a big empty and sandy space, surrounded by rather low houses, their beautiful gardens full of flowering trees and exotic plants. In a short time the square was covered with a layer of bodies, mine being on the outer edge. It got cold, the moon was rising over the roofs. For warmth we were nestling closely to each other. I could not sleep and watched the moon, trying to imagine our future.
Suddenly, I saw a strange shadow drawing nearer, which resembled the hunchback of Notre Dame. When I saw him bending over me I shut my eyes and held my breath from fear, then I felt something thrown over me. I opened my eyes and saw "the shadow" repeating his movements over other people. Around the square appeared similar figures until everybody was covered with magnificent Persian carpets. I sobbed with emotion and gratitude, deeply touched by this gesture of humanity.
In the rising sun the square looked bewitched. Like colored waves the carpet covered bodies started to move m ever changing patterns. We stacked the rugs in big heaps in the corners of the square and chimed on the lorries. Meshed was still asleep.
The road to Teheran was leading through rough and dry, terrain. Small villages in this surrounding looked like an oasis. It was hot the sun danced on the asphalt creating fantastic images. Along the road people in long white tunics and turbans on their heads were waving to us and throwing on the lorries bunches of fruit. On the way tasty food and delicious drinks were distributed, we felt enthusiastic. I was looking forward to fabulous Teheran.
Polish refugees were under the protection of the United Nations Refugee Assistance program (UNRA) and were settled in three refugee camps arranged on the outskirts of the town. Our transport was directed to camp No1 with a view of the white dome of snow covered Dernavend, the summit of the Elbrus mountains. The camp was surrounded by a wire fence and near the entrance stood a two stored red brick building, separated from the row of barracks by a big central ground. We were allocated to a huge room on the first floor, furnished with rows of knee high wooden platforms and subdivided with blankets into cubicles suitable to individual families. Right away we received the articles of basic needs and out of two towels I quickly made myself a simple dress, throwing away my shredded one. I felt newly born!
Life in the camp was very interesting and Teheran absolutely fabulous. After settling down, the young ones enrolled at the camp schools and look accelerated courses in order to close the gap of lost years. People were moving around with excitement looking for missing relatives and making new friendships. To our great joy we met our aunt Janka from Kokczetaw with the cousins Krystyna and Busia. Our, father came from Iraq for a long leave and was staying in town, as was uncle Bronislawh husband of Lola. Most of the youth joined the scouts, which gave an opportunity to make discoveries in town and country. But I liked my individual exploration even more.
One day I was approached by a middle aged woman who embraced me with emotion and told the gathered companions about the unexpected hospitality offered to her family the previous year in Zoldubaj. With expressive words of gratitude she recalled the evening passing through our Kolkhoz an the way to Kokczetaw, when they were stopped by me and Victoria and invited in for the night.
We had complete freedom of movement no permission was required to pass through the gate. It was an enjoyable walk of about two kilometers to town, along the tree lined street, leading almost to the central square with a beautiful fountain in front of the parliament building and a nearby mosque covered with glittering colored tiles. There began the main street with elegant shops, continuing to other parts of the city and the famous Persian Market. And what a wonder it was! The labyrinth of alleys bubbling with life, donkeys carrying various merchandise. There were goods in metal, leather, silk, cotton and glass; precious stones and jewelry, carpets, lamps and mirrors. There were as well stands displaying food of all kind, vegetables and spices, with strong and sometimes disturbing smell. Often the pavement was covered with new carpets, to be walked upon and mature before their sale. On the first visit there I had the impression of an imaginary world, with unfamiliar colors, smells and faces - it was fascinating.
In the center of Tehran the people looked prosperous. Beautiful women with eyes of gazelles and long, black, wavy hair falling over Persian lamb coats. They were wearing shoes with very high heels and knee length dresses exposing the less shapely legs. Men of the town looked almost European in their expensive suits; half of them overweight, with rolling, almond shaped eyes. I had some trouble with them when they were passing along the street in their luxurious limousines and offering me a lift. My hair had grown a little, a blonde of seventeen it was no wonder. But I felt quite safe, with only an occasional pinching.
Beside the glamorous elite of Teheran there was a crowd of other people, merchants, artisans, shopkeepers and drifters, in their white gowns and round caps. Some of them looked like warriors, their faces with sharp features, black beards, thin lips and dark eyes. I found them very intriguing and attractive, but most to my liking were the Armenians with their tragic history, especially during the First World War. Although they are known as masters of mathematics and engineering, most of them were drivers in our camp. They became real friends and guardians, rescuing us,young girls in unexpected crises during our explorations. As a group of enthusiastic friends we also visited the poor districts, taking with us various conserves and giving them to old women sitting in front of dilapidated buildings. In return, they smiled with a gesture that more would be accepted.
Once walking alone between the camps I came to a very big property with magnificent trees visible above the walls. Circling it, I found a gate on one side with an Armenian guard. When I greeted him nicely he invited me in, explaining that it was a hunting lodge of the Shah, who comes there on Fridays before setting off for hunting in the mountains. That day no one dares to be there to interrupt the royal pleasure. The guard, probably bored with his solitude, offered me a conducted tour of the place. It was a dream like fairy land, full of exotic trees, flowers, fountains, cascades, rocks and statues with an elegant round lodge on a higher ground. The building was two stories high with a continuous balcony, above an elegant colonnade, all in perfect harmony. We went to one corner housing a small private zoo of the Shah, where the guard showed me the latest acquisition: two big tigers in a huge cage. He stayed to feed the animals and suggested that I could enter the lodge, provided I did not touch anything.
Well, what a treat! I never been surrounded by greater splendour and felt like Cinderella herself. Everything was magic in my eyes, those of a peasant from Siberia. The paintings on the walls and the ceilings with rural motifs were beautiful, there were glittering mirrors in gilded frames, exquisite China clay vases, clocks, light and elegant furniture. I could not restrain myself from sitting on one of the chairs and, after wandering for nearly an hour I joined the guard at the gate, thanking him from the bottom of my heart. Then, after a hesitation, I asked if he would let me bring one day a few friends, for them to see this "Fairy Land". He scratched his head, looked at me carefully and said "yes", but remember, it is a secret; and not on Friday!
A week later I returned with seven selected, trustworthy colleagues and we were allowed in. The second visit was as impressive as the first one. My friends were enchanted and we took several memorable photographs.
Some time later, during a half-term break, fifteen girls from my class set off for a picnic in the nearest hills, about six kilometers from the camp. We climbed across rough ground and had to cross a big ditch, which was solved by making a rope tied together from our scarves. Arriving at the rocks, which looked like big termite mounts, we made a base camp. While the majority settled down to rest, five of the stronger ones including me, started to scale the mountain, the first of my life! Surprisingly we came across a rich flora and found some old bones among the rocks. We were nearing the top when we heard gun shots and distant noises coming from the bottom. The hair stood on my head it was Friday!
Like a wind we hurried down and found the place of our camp empty, only marks of horse hoofs and some rests of our refreshments. Because I was a prefect of the class, I felt responsible for the girls and I ran madly back to the camp. The setting sun blinded me, yet I saw that small stones, rather colorless in the morning, now were full of pinks, yellows, purples, greens and blues. It must have been semiprecious minerals.
On reaching the camp I burst into the nearest barrack, where lived Lila, one of our group. I found her in bed, shivering. Tell me what happened, I asked. "Well, after you went up, we were preparing the picnic, talking and joking, singing and dancing, when suddenly we were surrounded by a group of horsemen with two ladies among them. They were very smartly dressed, even the horses. Their guns frightened us and we hid in panic behind the rocks. This probably amused the hunters who started chasing us around the rocks and some girls were picked up on to the saddles. After a while it stopped and we were told to return quickly to the camp. They explained in perfect English that it was a hunting party of the Shah, although he was not with them that day. I think that one woman was his wife, with her lady in waiting and a brother of the Shah with his friends.
Poor Lila was very shaken by this encounter with Persian royalty. I was relieved that no harm came to our girls and nothing was mentioned on return to school on Monday.
On another occasion our class went on a study excursion with the professor, whom I adored because of his voice and a strong personality. We were observing various specimens of life along a stream watering the fields, before stopping at a big concrete water reservoir, with a number of men sitting on its edge with their feet dangling over the water. At one moment a sandal slipped from the foot of a villager and the professor, seeing it, called: "Irene, jump and recover it!" I am not a diver and I do not like it, but I could not refuse, so I went head down to the bottom of the reservoir full of weeds, mud and rubbish and working through it I found the sandal and surfaced triumphantly. Climbing over the edge I sensed a sharp sting on my fight palm. The professor looked at it: "Scorpion," he said and hurried us to the camp, glancing from time to time at my hand. A bluish black line started moving to the wrist, rising slowly towards the elbow. We run now quickly and arrived at the camp's hospital in time for treatment. By then I felt dizzy and do not remember what was done, only the words of the doctor: "Lucky that it did not reach yet the elbow, otherwise I would have to amputate".
I liked very much our school, the Gymnasium. The teachers, called professors, were of high standards and full of enthusiasm, which radiated to the students. Lola was teaching Latin, like before in Oszrniana, and the before mentioned professor was an excellent teacher of the Polish language. We knew him before the war in Lida, where he was a deputy to the SeJin (MP) and a speaker of great repute. I did not know the others, but they had a way of captivating the students with their subjects. My weakest was mathematics and I had to concentrate on it.
We had less in common with the teacher of religion who was an army chaplain. We found him rather soft and naive and we played a naughty trick on him. We removed the list of names from the class register and replaced it with a list of fictitious ones, all being related to the garden, like Miss Carrot, Potato, Cabbage, Beet root Onion, etc. The Christian names were also changed to old fashioned ones like Hennengilda, Honorata, AnastazJa, Cecyha etc. We managed to convince him that we came from the same village and were the daughters of the village baker, smith, butcher, shoemaker, postman etc. Everybody could see it was a joke, but not our priest. It continued through the whole term until the teachers' conference, where our priest read the notes against our names. I wish I could have seen the faces of our eminences!
The consequences were more than unpleasant. Our parents were called in and the class was suspended for a week. We never saw our priest at school again. It fit what I heard from my parents, that in their time at the end of the 1800s, it was the rule to take the brightest children to the universities, less bright ones to the army and the least bright to the priesthood.
Scouting was well organized and my brothers, cousins and I were very active. We spent much time in a big recreation center outside Teheran, in Shernran near the mountains, among enormous trees and rapid torrents, with swimming in spacious pools, games and excursions. There were also exciting night events with torches, searching hidden treasures and the like. The Jamboree of all the scouts and girl guides in Youssuf Abad was a special event. The main organizers were young officers delegated from the army. There were memorable evenings around campfires, singing, improvising spectacles or listening to fantastic tales. One of the most attractive organizers was Rys, an energetic scout with a magnificent voice, and Zygniunt, more adult, who introduced us to the southern sky with its magnitude of stars. Others ran daily games and exercises, building our personalities as "a healthy spirit in a healthy body".
Of course, there were also some small intrigues and arguments. One remained in my memory: it happened during the Shah's twenty sixth birthday celebrations at the Teheran sports stadium. A small group of Polish girl-guides was invited to form a guard of honor at the entrance. We went there with a big bouquet of flowers for the queen, and Wanda, a lovely girl with long plaits was chosen to carry and present them. When she was descending from the jeep, a smart Danuta with a sweet smile offered Wanda to hold the flowers while she was stepping down, but never returned them. Ignoring our protests she held them tightly and on the arrival of the royal couple presented them with a nice courtesy to the queen. I noticed that queen Fawzia was not wearing any jewelry except her wedding ring, which was to me a sign of great tact.
By the entrance was a number of international nobility paying their respect. The nicest courtesy was performed by a small Chinese girl with exquisite art and finesse. It was sublime! The couple entered the arena, and sporting events continued for a long time. The Shah was at that time a very popular figure in Persia, but rumors were circulating that the days of Fawzia were numbered, because she did not give her husband the male heir to the throne.
To us Poles, a memorable day was the visit of General Sikorski who came from London to inspect the Polish forces stationed in the Middle East. Our camp served as the parade ground, where all the military units and a lot of civilians from other camps were assembled. The general marched along the columns of soldiers, scouts and other organizations with his daughter Maria at his side. It was only a few days before the fatal accident at Gibraltar on the 4th of July 1943 in which both of them were killed.
By the end of the year the refugee camps were diminishing, the civilians were distributed to refugee camps in different parts of the world. Mexico interested me very much and was put on top of the list of my preferences, with Africa in second place. Most of my school friends were destined for India, the orphans to New Zealand, while quite a big group of girls who completed secondary school went to study at the American University of Beirut. Among them Ada, my ideal of perfect womanhood. Many joined the army.
My father left for Iraq and I had to promise him to take care of our mother and the brothers, also to continue my education. We had no choice, we were destined to Africa, where uncle Bronislaw was posted to run the hospital in one of the refugee settlements in Uganda. Before our departure, Lola managed to organize a school trip to Persepolis, one of the capitals of ancient Persia, founded in the sixth century B.C. The vast ruins impressed me a great deal.
We left Teheran, my paradise, in the spring of 1944 for a transit camp near Ahwaz, by the wide Kozun fiver. The camp was sitting on top of sand dunes, we were always covered by sand and our teeth were crunching when we ate the meals cooked. in the camp kitchen. Worst were the sand storms, I remember vividly how we had to cover our heads with towels and even through them the sand was getting into our cars, noses and eyes. Our few days' stop stretched into weeks. I fell ill with dysentery and was taken to the hospital in Ahwaz. Medical care there was poor and I was getting weaker every day, until the visit of my close school friend Zosia with a cure prepared by her mother. The sachets of powdered tea had a miraculous effect and two days later I could stand on my feet. Secretly I left the hospital walking, or rather staggering along the sandy bank of the river up to the camp. I spent that night outside the barracks, under the shining stars on a camp bed. The following day we were loaded on lorries and driven to the port. I was lucky to be back in time and very grateful to Zosia. She remained in Ahwaz with her mother and two sisters, awaiting their transport to India.
In the port soldiers in English uniforms served us breakfast from the navy canteen on the pier. When it was my turn I was given a mug of tea and a bowl of porridge. Pointing at the porridge the soldier asked: "sugar No, salt please, I said, to which he responded: "Are you Scottish?" I shook my head and wondered about his question, not being familiar with Scottish custom. The tea was very thick, I called it tea soup. It was disappointing to most of us, used to drink tea without milk, but not for me, who had been drinking "white tea" as long as I remembered.
The boat waiting for us was an old transporter, looking very uninviting and hardly capable of carrying a human cargo of two thousand. In the middle of the Persian Gulf anchor was lowered and the ship was immobilized for a week on the account of mines in the Indian Ocean. The heat was unbearable, the stagnant air heavy to breathe. Our bodies were covered with itching rashes, aggravated by showers of salty water, as the fresh one was reserved strictly for drinking. People were moving over the deck like robots, perspiration dripping from their bodies. Two old women died and were buried at sea. It was depressing.
From that miserable week I kept in my memory a wonderful story told by one of the passengers. Pointing west to the visible shores of Saudi Arabia he described vividly one marvelous oasis in the rocky Sinai desert, with the very old and beautiful monastery of St. Catherine, full of priceless treasures. "You can find there the oldest manuscripts written in our civilisation and the most fabulous Icons ever painted." He described the monastery with great feeling and such detail, that it remained m my mind and I promised myself to find it one day. Half a century later I went there and visited this wonder, built by Justinian in the sixth century, with a sensation of having been there before and just revisiting it.
When at last the anchor was lifted, the boat moved and the air with it, our depressive mood changed to enjoyment. We watched dolphins dancing in the water and the endless seascape of waves with only the sky as horizon. It was a long voyage with a stop in Bombay, where a small group of refugees stepped off the boat to waiting lorries. We could see the houses, the domed roofs of Indian temples and the beautiful palm trees. I wanted to go there, even for a minute, but it was out of the question. I had a first sad feeling that my so-called freedom was not complete. For another week we were crossing the ocean in a terrible heat, under a burning sun, until we reached Mombasa.
Before that, in mid-ocean we were hit by a heavy storm. Huge waves were raising the boat almost perpendicularly to the sky, then dropping it with an enormous crash back on the water. On this occasion most people were lying flat on the deck without ever raising their heads. Only few, like Victoria and myself carried on as usual without missing a meal.
Created on ... September 27, 2003 by Pierre Ratcliffe