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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

Safety and food in Iran

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Safety and food in Iran

On arrival at the Iranian port of Pahlevi, we were stood in rows and the English Red Cross checked our condition. The sick went to hospital and the healthier were taken to Tehran. The three of us were taken to a convalescent centre in Pahlevi, and were cared for by young and sympathetic soldiers from the Indian army who also cooked our special diets. We were in quarantine, slept in army tents and sunbathed all day long because everything was done by the soldiers.

When we grew stronger and gained a kilogram in weight, we boarded army trucks for the long journey over the Elburz Mountains to Tehran. The trucks were driven by expert Iranian drivers over the precipitous, tortuous and boulder-strewn bends. We were crushed together in the heat and the dust. Having at last arrived in Tehran, we lived in tents. Many people were located in a huge hall, and slept on the floor with one blanket and a pillow. We had no appetite and couldn't eat because our stomachs were contracted and dried up from hunger, and our livers were diseased. Here, I met many friends from my home village in Poland.

On November 1942, after some months in Tehran, we were transferred to Isfahan, the ancient capital of Iran. Here, the children were located in various old palaces and houses formerly occupied by the rich elite of the city. We stayed in Compound No 6 in the suburb of Dzhulfa with 300 other girls. We were now separated as my younger sisters went to different compounds, according to age. Boys were also in separate compounds around the city.

We looked awful – I weighed only 35kg. But this was the beginning of a stabilised life. Schools were opened, but because of a shortage of teaching materials we wrote our first lessons on sand. Vitamin deficiency caused me embarrassing memory lapses, but I managed at school.

Our compound was surrounded by a high wall whose gate was always locked and guarded by an elderly doorman, though some of the guard duty was done also by the older girls. We were not permitted to go out alone because of the real danger of abduction – one girl was abducted and a year later thrown out into the street with a baby. We received a little pocket money which we would save up to buy sandals.

The compound was next door to a beautiful Armenian church where we attended prayers and services. Representatives of the British armed forces and consulate would visit and pray with us. Back in Poland, our spiritual life was rich and full of prayer. This continued throughout the years of exile in Siberia and now Iran. There were always girls praying in the church, alone or in groups – prayer was our strength and kept us going in the darkest hours of our lives.

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I was free from any serious illness during the years in Siberia – there must have been Providence's purpose in that. Now free from any responsibility, my body succumbed to all types of illnesses. I was confined to a hospital bed for two months with inflammation of the joints. Then came malaria with delirium, followed by mumps. I was so thin and pale that girls would run from me thinking I had the dreaded tuberculosis. Together with my sister Maria, I was transferred to a sanatorium run by Ursuline nuns where I stayed for six months.

Our life in Iran was peaceful, ordered and free from stress. In 1943, I joined the Girl Guides and began English lessons. Isfahan was a beautiful city, with irrigated gardens. We discovered the best of what Iran had to offer. Twice a week, we were taken to swimming pools and steam baths. The archbishop hired seven buses and we were shown the old city and its environs in all their splendour. Time passed in lessons, Scouting, choirs, amateur theatre, learning national dancing, Christmas plays and religious festivals. We were also often visited by dignitaries – Polish, British and even once by the Shah of Persia.

Sister Stella (3rd from left) receives family and guests at a Warsaw convent during her 50th jubilee celebrations of life as a nun of the Nazarene Order

Sister Stella (3rd from left) receives family and guests at a Warsaw convent during her 50th jubilee celebrations of life as a nun of the Nazarene Order

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Then one day came the shocking news of the death of General Sikorski, the Polish Premier and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish army-in-exile. We cried desperately, because with his death in a suspicious aeroplane "accident" we lost all hope of ever returning to our homeland. We were up to date with all the news from the war fronts – even the clandestine news from the Warsaw uprising. The failure of that uprising was another bitter blow to us, like the last nail in our coffins. The only bright bit of news for a while was the victory of our Polish soldiers at Monte Cassino.

After two-and-half peaceful years of temporary asylum in Isfahan, it was time to move on. In 1944, the children were being evacuated to South and East Africa, Mexico, India and Canada. The last group was evacuated to Lebanon in 1945. I was listed on the third transport to leave Iran for Africa, but because my sisters had trachoma (an infectious eye disease), I had to stay behind and wait anxiously for the next transport. There seemed no place for us to go because all the British colonies were now full with Polish refugees and we weren't sure what would happen to us.