Café Polonia

I went to Iran with a group of Polish artists. We developed an exhibition reflecting on the fate of Polish refugees, who came to Iran during WW II. It’s an important story to tell at a time when the cards have turned, and the Polish state refuses to help people who are begging for it.

In 1942 thousands of Polish prisoners were released from Syberian camps. They had to walk down south on foot, from the southern border of the Soviet Union to Iran. The port city of Pahlevi (now known as Anzali) became the main landing point for Polish refugees coming into Iran from the Soviet Union, receiving up to 2,500 refugees per day. General Anders evacuated 74,000 Polish troops, including approximately 41,000 civilians, many of them children, to Iran. In total, over 116,000 refugees were relocated to Iran. Approximately 5,000–6,000 of the Polish refugees were Jewish. << In case you’re wondering – yes, I totally stole this entire paragraph (from here).

They walked on foot and took boats over the sea.
Many died due to cold weather, hunger, and exhaustion.

Thousands of the children who came to Iran came from orphanages in the Soviet Union, either because their parents had died or they were separated during deportations from Poland. Most of these children were eventually sent to live in orphanages in Isfahan, which had an agreeable climate and plentiful resources, allowing the children to recover from the many illnesses they contracted in the poorly managed and supplied orphanages in the Soviet Union. Between 1942–1945, approximately 2,000 children passed through Isfahan, so many that it was briefly called the “City of Polish Children.” Other children were sent to orphanages in Mashad. Numerous schools were set up to teach the children the Polish language, math, science, and other standard subjects. In some schools, Persian was also taught, along with both Polish and Iranian history and geography. << This paragraph is also stolen.

Because Iran could not permanently care for the large influx of refugees, other British-colonized countries began receiving Poles from Iran in the summer of 1942. The refugees who did not stay in Iran until the end of the war were transported to India, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa, among other countries. The Mexican government also agreed to take several thousand refugees. A number of Polish refugees stayed in Iran permanently, some eventually marrying Iranian citizens and having children. << Guess.

In cities such as Isfahan and Tehran, European-styled cafés existed, named Café Polonia. Polish and Armenian people hung out there, attracting an intellectual crowd of poets, historians, artists etc (WWII-Persian-hipsters 😉 drinking beer and chatting. We met some people who were children at the time and remember certain details of the story. Going after the bigger picture felt like putting puzzles together. << All me.

During my stay I developed a short series devoted to the trauma of the children refugees. They were photographs I took in around Isfahan, as well as re-photographed archival material: close-ups of portraits of Polish refugees, taken during World War II by Abolqasem Jala and then unearthed by Parisa Damandan.

Huge thanks to Katarzyna Roj, Karol Buganik, Marian Misiak, Tomasz and Agnieszka Hartman, Krzysztof Gil, Joanna Synowiec, Roxana and Romina. You can read more about our trip to Iran on my Instagram.