THE SOUNDS OF POLISH TEHRAN
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
By Laudan Nooshin
Introduction: The Jolly Boys in Tehran
In August 1939, a Polish-Jewish dance band by the name of ‘The Jolly Boys’ arrived in Tehran, reportedly invited to play as part of the marriage celebrations of the future Shah, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi, and the 17-year-old Princess Fawzia of Egypt. The wedding had taken place in Egypt in March, but further festivities were held on their return to Iran. The details are somewhat sketchy, but it seems that someone connected to the royal court had heard the band perform at a Polish ski resort and invited them to play at the celebrations in Tehran. Whatever the story, the invitation proved fortuitous for the band, most of whose members were in Iran when Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, and who found sanctuary there, remaining for the duration of the war and eventually emigrating to British Mandate Palestine.
When I began work on the Sonic Tehran project in the spring of 2021, I circulated information, hoping to find people with recordings or sonic memories of Tehran. One of the responses that this elicited was from Bret Werb, Music and Recorded Sound Collection Curator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and it was from Bret that I learned about The Jolly Boys and their fascinating story. I wanted to find out more about these musicians, who they were and what they did during their time in Tehran, but the information in the papers donated to the museum in 2016 by a relative of the drummer Igo Krischer are fragmentary: a few letters, some photographs, miscellaneous documents. In these papers, the group is described as a ‘Jewish Polish popular jazz band’, although the names listed suggest that not all of the musicians were Jewish: Stanislaw Sperber, S. Helishkowski, Sonia Vartanian, F. Socolow, and pianist Artur Baigelman (also known as ‘A. Bay’, brother of violinist and saxophonist Harry Baigelman) who didn’t in fact travel to Iran with the band and didn’t survive the war. The Jolly Boys became the resident band at the Palace Hotel in Tehran, it seems often supplemented with Russian and Armenian musicians, and possibly other local musicians. They also no doubt played at venues such as the Polonia Café, of which more below, as well as at private events for Polish and other customers. There is a (torn) photograph of the musicians playing in an open green space; whilst the date and location are unknown, the setting is likely to have been some kind of function in the garden of the Palace Hotel or similar venue. A hotel employee stands behind the band and the tables in the background are set with white tablecloths and glasses. The reverse of the photograph indicates that it was processed at ‘Foto Cinemai’ on Tehran’s Lalehzar Street, the centre of night life, theatre and music in the city from the 1920s.
From the various letters and other papers in the Krischer collection, we learn that Baruch Isak Krischer was born on 18th January 1906 in Tarnow, a town close to Krakow. One letter is from the ‘Mission of the Republic of Poland in Tehran’ and relates to Igo’s military identity book, issued in Tarnow on 4th May 1929, and confirms that he has not served in the army. There are also letters from family members thanking him for parcels of goods almost impossible to obtain in occupied Poland, such as olive oil and halvah.
The Jolly Boys (and unidentified additional musicians) in Tehran. Date and location unknown, but likely to be the garden of the Palace Hotel, playing for a function (used with permission)
Reverse of photograph. ‘Foto Cinemai. Lalehzar Street - junction of Conte -
Timcheh No [streets]’ (used with permission)
Krischer’s resident band staff pass for the Palace Hotel (used with permission)
According to the Krischer papers, The Jolly Boys did not record commercially in Poland, but they did make at least two recordings in Tehran in the immediate post-war period. These are now digitised and can be listened to on the Holocaust Memorial Museum website:
Record 1: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn613016
This is a 78-rpm shellac disc, recorded in 1947 and released under the Columbia label. The names of the pieces are listed in Persian (with translation) and are by the Spanish Basque composer Sebastian de Iradier (1809-1865) and the Mexican Agustin Lara (1897-1970). This disc was received from an anonymous donor. The details on the website are as follows:
‘Side A: Kabootar (Khatibi) ["La Paloma" by Sebastian de Iradier (c. 1860)] - Columbia G.P. 107/CO 189. Side B: Yasseman (Fakoor) ["Solamente una vez" by c (1941)] - Columbia G.P. 107/CO 191.’
Record 2: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn708927
10-inch, 78 rpm shellac phonograph disc. Recorded c.1947
'Side B: Royal 105. Kiedy
Side A: Royal RT 105. Oriantal [sic]-Tango'
According to the HMM website, this disc was purchased from eBay by the museum in June 2018, and images are given of both sides plus a photograph that was deposited with the disc, of the band performing at Franciszek Trzaska’s restaurant in the resort of Zakopane in the Tatra mountains south of Krakow in the mid-1930s. This is likely the same resort where the encounter that led to the band’s invitation to play in Iran took place. My thanks to Bret Werb for this information.
The Jolly Boys performing in Zakopane, mid-1930s (public domain image)
Beyond the Krischer papers, I’ve not been able to locate further information about the activities of The Jolly Boys in Tehran and would be interested to know if anyone reading this blog post has more information. It’s an intriguing case study and frustrating that we know so little about the musicians. In the context of this project, the case of The Jolly boys offers an interesting entry point to think about the changing sounds of Tehran in the early Pahlavi period. The modernising policies and actions of Reza Shah’ Pahlavi's regime, together with increased opportunities for travel and the import of European cultural and technological goods, led to a gradually more cosmopolitan public sphere, with significant European influence, including via the students who were sent to France by the government from the 1920s onwards to gain a European education. Also from the 1920s, with the invention of street lighting, the growth of the entertainment district focused around Lalehzar Street, and eventually the arrival of European and American sound films, Euro-American popular music gradually became part of the wider city sounds. But it wasn’t until the advent of World War 2 that these became part of the everyday life of Tehran. Compared with the southern oil cities such as Abadan - which by the 1930s had sizeable foreign workforces for whom entertainment was provided, and which generally had a more cosmopolitan ambience - Tehran had experienced a relatively minor foreign presence.
But this all changed in the summer of 1941 when Allied forces invaded and occupied Iran, nervous about the Shah’s suspected Nazi sympathies and following his refusal to submit to their demands that he abandon Iran’s position of neutrality. A close alliance with Germany had been widely regarded as a way of resisting the continuation of historical hegemonic actions in the region by Britain and Russia/Soviet Union, and such sentiments led to the rise of groups with fascist sympathies across the Middle East in the 1930s (Sternfeld 2018b:103). Indeed, Germany had been Iran’s main European trading partner before WW2 and many German nationals were living in Iran, employed in strategic and infrastructural industries. Britain already had a strong and well-established military presence in the region and was concerned to protect the oil supplies on which the war effort depended and to secure a supply route through Iran to the Soviet Union (as well as protecting the borders of British Imperial India). The oil refinery at Abadan was at that time the largest in the world and was controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which would become renamed as British Petroleum in 1954). On an aside, during WW1, Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty of the British Navy, had led the move away from coal to oil-powered ships, on the basis of Britain’s stake in the same company, then called Anglo-Persian. In August 1941, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate and was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and Iran became divided into zones controlled by the British (mainly in the south) and the Soviets (in the north). A smaller contingent of US troops was also posted to Iran, and this was the start of the US military presence in the country, felt particularly in Tehran. Older family members have related to me their memories of hearing the unfamiliar accents of British and US soldiers in Tehran at this time, such sounds adding news layers to those of the entertainment districts such as Lalehzar, where military officers spent much of their leisure time. Among the stories that circulate in popular discourse about this period, one that has taken on mythic status relates to the ever-popular anthem Ay Iran (the country’s unofficial national anthem). According to one version of the story, the lyrics to the song were composed by Hossein Gol-e Golab in 1944 after witnessing an altercation between two soldiers, one Iranian and the other British, on a Tehran street.
The Arrival of Polish Refugees in Tehran
Somewhat ironically perhaps, the forced abdication of Reza Shah, who had dominated Iran’s political landscape for the previous two decades, and the ensuing occupation, ushered in a new period of openness and cultural and political liberalism that Iran has rarely experienced since. But there is a further twist to this story of the starkly changing sounds of public space in Tehran during World War 2. When Krischer and his fellow musicians left Poland, they would have been very aware of the impending likelihood of war; indeed, given what was happening in Poland and beyond at this time, one might imagine that the performance engagement may have been arranged as a means of leaving the country. But whilst the start of the war would not perhaps have taken the musicians by surprise, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of their compatriots in the spring of 1942 must certainly have done. A brief summary is necessary here, and interested readers are referred elsewhere for more detail (Antolak n.d., Sternfeld 2015, 2018a, 2018b).
Following the German invasion of Poland on 1st September, the Soviet Union took control of the eastern part of the country and between 1939 and 1941 arrested and deported over a million Poles (estimates vary between 1.25 to 1.7 million), as well as ethnic Ukrainians, Belorussians and Lithuanians living in Poland and including about 80,000 Jews, some of whom had fled the Nazi-controlled part of Poland. The Soviets arrested those who they regarded as socially dangerous or class enemies, including landowners and the intellectual elite, industrialists and factory owners, military personnel and teachers. Jews were not specifically targeted; indeed as Sternfeld notes, ‘In the entire Soviet zone [of Poland] there were almost 2 million Jews, many of whom had initially supported the Soviet occupation (for obvious reasons) and, therefore, were less likely to be deported’ (2018b:122). Many of the families of those arrested were sent to forced labour camps in Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union, where they lived in indescribably harsh conditions. In June 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union and the latter joined the Allies, an agreement was reached to release Polish prisoners. Many of the able-bodied joined what became known as the ‘Anders Army’, under the leadership of General Władysław Anders, recently released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow (for more information on the Anders Army, see Davies 2015). Those who had been in the labour camps travelled thousands of miles (there are stories of some undertaking the journey entirely by foot) and many thousands died of starvation, cold and disease. Some decided to stay wherever they could, in small towns along the way in what is now Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan; but many continued the journey south and eventually reached Krasnovodosk (now Turkmenbashi in present-day Turkmenistan). From here, the newly formed army and civilians were taken on crammed oil tankers and container ships across the Caspian Sea to the Iranian port of Bandar Anzali (also known as Bandar Pahlavi), arriving in two main phases between 24th March and 5th April and between 10th and 30th August 1942. A small number also travelled by land from Ashkhabad to Mashhad over the border in the far northeast of Iran.
So why Iran? As Sternfeld observes, Iran was the ‘closest territory outside the Soviet Union fully controlled by the Allies and with infrastructure capable of absorbing numerous refugees’ (2018b:106), in addition to which the Anders Army had come under British command. Most arrived in a desperate state and many died soon after arrival, including from malnutrition, malaria and typhus, and were buried in what is now the large Polish cemetery in Bandar Anzali. Once they were able, the men and women of the Anders Army joined Allied forces further south; those who remained as refugees, mainly women and children, were taken from Anzali to Tehran, and from there and with the help of various aid agencies many were sent to other cities such as Esfahan and Ahvaz, and some to refugee camps in India and Africa, and after the war to countries such as Palestine, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Great Britain. The majority of refugees were Catholic, with about 1,800 Jewish people in Tehran by the spring of 1943, but with thousands more to follow from Nazi occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Sternfeld 2018b:115). There were around 13,000 children who had been orphaned or separated from their families. It's hard to obtain exact figures on the numbers of refugees arriving in Iran from 1942. Estimates vary from,
115,000 at the low end (reported by the Soviet authorities, who had every incentive to minimize the number of people they deported and imprisoned) to 400,000 (reported by the Iranian foreign ministry, which arguably had a vested interest in inflating the numbers. Aid organizations such as the International Red Cross and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) suggest total numbers fluctuating from 200,000 to 300,000 across the war years. The number of troops has been estimated at 500,000 by the Soviet, American, and British armies. (Sternfeld 2018b:121)
Many contemporary newsreels such as that below can be found online, as well as critiques of the ways in which such films were used for propaganda purposes (see, for instance, https://silencedrefugees.com/british-propaganda-film-polish-refugees-in-persia/).
Refugees arriving in Bandar Anzali, 1942
I first became interested in the story of Polish refugees in Iran after watching the documentary A Lost Requiem by Khosrow Sinai (1941-2020), a beautifully poetic film that tells the harrowing and moving tale of those who came to Iran, mainly through the narrative of individuals who stayed in Iran after the war. The film was made in 1983 and was somehow lost but then rediscovered a few years ago with some of the footage badly damaged. It has been partially restored and is available online. Sadly, Sinai sadly passed away from Covid in the summer of 2020, and I later discovered that he was the brother of a close friend of my father. I didn’t know this at the time that I saw the film and very much regret not having had the opportunity to talk to him and find out more about his motivations and the process of making the film. At the start of A Lost Requiem, the camera pans over the large Christian cemetery in Doulab, Tehran, and we hear Sinai (or rather the voiceover reading his words) reflecting on his first encounter with the cemetery a few years earlier in 1970:
I saw gravestones stretching before me. Row upon row of unfamiliar names, of children between 1 and 2 years old lying side by side with those of the aged. It made me think, it caused me to ask, why this catastrophe of a nation? A lost requiem. This started me on my quest. My obsession to find the answer led me and my film crew to many places. And the moving story began to unfold before us. (A Lost Requiem, 2:24-3:06)
Among others, Sinai talks to Anna Borkowska, a singer and actor who married an Iranian and stayed in Iran after the war. Early in the film we see Anna in her Tehran flat, her piano behind her with sheet music of Polish songs. She talks about how her family was forcibly taken from Poland to the labour camps, about those who died along the way, including her younger brother, a violinist, their subsequent ordeal in the camps and eventual release and journey to Iran, where she – unlike many who left after the war – lived for the rest of her life. Others interviewed by Sinai include Vincent Filipowicz, a doctor based in the city of Qazvin (to the north-west of Tehran) who, along with his father, worked at a hospital treating Polish refugees in Tehran and who was also a medical officer at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944. In the course of making the film, Sinai also visited Bandar Anzali and talked to Gholam Abdol-Rahimi, an Iranian-Armenian photographer who took many of the now iconic photographs of refugees, and through which many were at the time and later able to trace lost family members. Sinai also travelled to New Zealand to meet those who as orphaned children had been shipped from Esfahan to New Zealand in the autumn of 1944. In 2008, Sinai was awarded the Knights Cross of the Order of Merit of the Polish Republic in recognition of his services to the Polish nation by the Polish President, Lech Kaczynsk, at a ceremony in Warsaw. Five Iranians of Polish descent, survivors of the labour camps, were also honoured at the same ceremony.
When I first saw A Lost Requiem in 2015, Europe was at the peak of the co-called ‘refugee crisis’, a year when more refugees arrived in Europe (mainly from the Middle East) than at any time since WW2, much of this displacement of people ironically caused by and rooted in historical and contemporary interventions in the region by Western powers seeking to protect and extend their geo-strategic interests. I was drawn to the story of the Polish refugees in Iran and somewhat shocked and even embarrassed that I had not known about it before. There seemed to me a deep irony in learning about desperate and destitute Europeans seeking asylum and being welcomed in the Middle East – the complete inverse of the situation in 2015 and still – and really not so very long ago. It caused me to reflect on the many such stories that we often don’t get to hear, including those that become conveniently dropped from the historical narrative: before 1989, it was forbidden in Poland to refer to what became dubbed the ‘Polish Exodus’; and it was also not in British and US interests to publicise what is often regarded in Poland as a betrayal of their country at the 1943 Tehran Conference at which Stalin, Hitler and Roosevelt agreed on a redrawing of the borders of Poland and other countries. What prompted Sinai to make a film in 1983 on a still sensitive topic is unclear, but the result is an important historical document that has brought this story to some level of public consciousness. As cultural commentator Aga Sablinska writes,
The Lost Requiem was never publicly released in Poland, largely because it addressed subjects in Polish history that the Soviet Union wanted censored, such as the repression, torture, and murder of Polish people at the hands of the Soviets in the early 1940s. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Polish premiere of the film took place, 24 years after it was completed. The film first appeared on Polish public television in 2013, and was lauded by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza for “capturing the atmosphere of those extraordinary times and its contemporary faces”. Despite such praise, the film remains almost entirely unknown in Poland today, and Sinai’s recent death was not covered by any major Polish newspaper, even though he authored such an important document of Polish history. (2020)
The film certainly made a deep impression on me, but the topic was not at the centre of my work then and I filed it away in the back of my mind amidst the general busy-ness of life.
Then, in the summer of 2020, the film started circulating on social media, following Sinai’s sad passing. This was exactly the period when I was starting work on the Sonic Tehran project and it was also around this time that I came across the writings of historian Lior Sternfeld. It was his article ‘“Poland Is Not Lost while We Still Live”: The making of Polish Iran, 1941-45’ (2018b) that caught my attention and imagination and prompted me to think more about what this story might reveal about the sounds of Tehran in the 1940s and beyond. And what was quite extraordinary was that, having had no awareness of the refugees prior to watching Sinai’s film, in the course of the last 6 months I have discovered several friends and acquaintances of Polish heritage whose family members travelled through or lived in Iran during WW2, and which I was entirely unaware of until now.
Attending a Polish wedding at the Ognisko Polskie (Polish Hearth) club in London in August 2021, and mingling with other guests on arrival, the first person I talked to was an architect by the name of Andrzej Blonski who, I discovered in the course of our brief chat, was born in Iran. I was amazed. His family had been imprisoned in the labour camps, and in 1942 were taken to Iran where his father joined the Anders Army and his mother stayed in Tehran where Andrzej was born. He did not meet his father until he arrived in the UK in 1947. I discovered that my father’s former PhD supervisor, mentor and later his Head of Department at the University of Surrey, Zygmunt Stanislaw Makowski, had fought in the Anders Army and that his wife had been a child refugee in Iran. Again, I had had no idea of this when Professor Makowski and his wife were alive; I remember visiting them as a child and playing with the Makowski children in their home in Ealing (interestingly, at that time they lived in a house that had served as the headquarters of De Gaulle’s French government in exile during WW2). My friend Isabel’s grandfather, Lucjan Blit, it turned out, had been in a labour camp in Siberia and on his release had joined Anders Army, including time in Iran between August and October 1942, from where he was sent to London as a representative of the Bund to work with the Polish government in exile. As Isabel explained to me, ‘His main role was to raise awareness of what was happening to the Jews in Poland and to try and convince the Allies that more needed to be done’. Isabel shared her grandfather’s itinerary with me – he had typed it up after the war, tracking his movements between 1939 and 1943. Here is an extract:
Extract from Lucjan Blit’s Itinerary (used with permission)
I have known Isabel for almost 25 years and we had never talked about this. I knew the remarkable story of her mother, Wlodka Blit Robertson, who as a child was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto with her twin sister by a Jewish resistance fighter called Michael Klepfisz, who was also smuggling arms into the Ghetto. As Isabel described to me, Wlodka and her sister ‘then saw the Ghetto go up in flames knowing that her mother, four grandparents and four aunts and uncles were still in there. She never saw them again. They were all murdered by the Germans. She was then hidden by various Catholic families for the following two and a half years of the war. She was reunited with her sister at the end of the war and they travelled to the UK to join their father’.
In this way, I encountered one extraordinary story after another. I discovered that the President of my own institution, City, University of London, Anthony Finkelstein’s father Ludwik (who also worked for most of his career at City) had spent just over a year in Iran as a child refugee and that Anthony’s great uncle, Bernard Finkelstein, had worked as an engineer on the Iranian railways. Bernard died in Iran and is buried in Tehran. Anthony kindly shared photographs of his father as a child in Tehran and of his great uncle’s grave. You can listen to Ludwik talking about his life before the war in the town of Lwów (in what was then Poland, now Lviv in Ukraine), his transportation to the labour camp with his mother Amalia, and what followed, in a fascinating oral history interview recorded in 2006 as part of the (UK) Association of Jewish Refugees’, Refugee Voices project. Among other things, Ludwik recalls his mother singing to him during their time in the camp, including patriotic Polish anthems and cabaret songs. He also recounts how, in 1942, on arriving at Bandar Anzali on large tankers and being transferred to small boats in order to reach land, ‘we waded through the water to the beach, dragging whatever possessions we had behind us. And as we arrived at the beach, we sang the hymn "Lord Who Saved Poland in Ages Past"’ (video 3, 8:21-8:53).
Ludwik Finkelstein in Tehran 1943, aged 14
(used with permission)
Bernard Finkelstein’s grave in Tehran
(used with permission)
Beyond friends and acquaintances, I soon became aware of the many networks, publications and archives relating to the Polish ‘exodus’ and survivors of the labour camps. A particularly interesting project is The Palka Diaries, led by Adrian Palka at Coventry University (UK). Adrian’s father and grandfather, Jan and Zymunt Palka, were deported in 1940 and both kept diaries of their experiences during captivity and, in the case of Jan, afterwards (Zymunt died in the camp). Inheriting these diaries after Jan’s death in 2008, Adrian decided to travel to the region, where he ‘retraced the footsteps of the journey to Siberia to gather materials for educational and artistic use as well as personal reflection’. Through Anthony, I was introduced to a wonderful Facebook group, the Kresy-Siberia group, a network of survivors and descendants of the Soviet camps ( and which also has an online virtual museum with a large number of photographs, documents and oral testimony, https://kresy-siberia.org/). Other useful sources include the many photographs collected by Hossein Sattari (2021a) and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website, which like the Kresy-Siberia group hosts photographs, documents, oral testimonies and a small amount of film footage, as well as a separate section on the so-called ‘Tehran Children’ who arrived in Iran through a different route to that described above:
The Tehran Children were a group of about one thousand Jewish children who had fled eastward from Poland with their families at the outbreak of World War II. Many of them had lost their parents during their flight. These orphans were allowed to emigrate from the USSR along with 23,000 Polish soldiers and refugees, under an agreement signed by the Polish Government-in-exile and the Soviet government allowing for the enlistment of Polish refugees in the Soviet Union in the (Polish) Anders Army. In the spring and summer of 1942, the children were taken to Tehran along with the other refugees and soldiers. After immigration permits were obtained from the British, the children were brought to Palestine via Karachi and Suez on February 18, 1943.
‘Members of the Teheran children's transport are gathered in front of tents at a refugee
camp in Teheran’ (1942. Used with permission). My father (b.1934) recalls these tents
erected at what would then have been the outskirts of the city.
Another group of unaccompanied children were sent to Esfahan, where the climate and general atmosphere was considered more conducive to them regaining their health, and where there was a well-established Armenian Christian community. Esfahan eventually developed ‘a community with more than 20 Polish establishments, including schools, scouts, choirs, and churches’ (Sternfeld 2018:110).
Polish postage stamp commemorating
Esfahan as the ‘City of Polish Children’
‘Nobody asked us for a certificate of health’
I have become increasingly immersed in and engrossed by the story of Poles in Iran during WW2 and have spent hours reading and listening to many harrowing accounts of the journey to Siberia, the labour camps, family members lost, children left to throw the bodies of dead siblings from train carriages, and many other terrible happenings. I have watched footage and pored over the many photographs of the refugees arriving and of their time in Iran. I have wondered about the frequently expressed gratitude and people talking about the humanity with which they were received in Iran, bearing in mind that Iran was itself experiencing food shortages and inflation at this time (the British had provided assurances to the government that the refugees would be provided for) (Sternfeld 2018b:122). Interviewees on The Lost Requiem describe locals welcoming them and giving them food, as Anna Borkowska recalls: ‘Every person threw something on the lorries, so that we’ll get it. I got hold of a piece of sweet bread in a small towel, cheese and a few sweets’, and then struggling to contain her emotions, ‘It’s very important, not for the cost or for the bread, but for the heart. Because we had no one here and they treated us like that’ (39:53-40:18). Another woman living in Ahvaz in the south of Iran, recalls the kindness as a stark contrast with how she had been treated in the previous years, ‘in other words I was accepted as a human again, from a country that as a young child I never knew it existed … I actually owe Iran my life’ (49:23-49:41). Antolak contrasts the welcome extended to refugees by local people with a general antipathy towards the occupying Allied forces:
Beggarly, unwell and dishevelled, the Polish refugees were nourished more by the smiles and generosity of the Iranian people than by the food dished out by British and Indian soldiers. Iran at that time was going through one of the unhappier episodes of her history. Occupied by the Russians and the British, her relations with the soldiers of these two countries were understandably strained and difficult. With the Poles, however, there was an immediate affinity which was evident from the moment they arrived and which extended from the lowest to the highest levels of society. (n.d.)
A former orphan from Esfahan, a woman living in New Zealand at the time of filming said: ‘We found out that really good people still exist in the world. We came full of lice, full of disease, full of epidemics and nobody asked us for a certificate of health, nobody asked us if we are capable to do a good day’s work. They took us as we are. Poor, homeless, disease-ridden people. Unfortunately, after 3 weeks my mother died in Tehran. Thousands of Polish people died there. I can still remember Persian hospitality, Persian kindness to us’ (1:15:22-1:16:20). This woman then went on to ask the film crew if she could record a message to her friend Ada Sikorska, who she had recognised in one of the old photographs from Esfahan that the film crew had brought to New Zealand. She records an emotional message to Ada in Polish asking her to get in touch wherever she is: ‘Here, there are a few other girls who were with us in our class. We all would be very happy if we could talk with you again, even by correspondence’ (A Lost Requiem 1:17:46 to 1:18:00). Who knows whether these friends – and many others - were ever re-connected. Almost 50 years later, on the other side of the digital revolution, I was able to locate Ada at the click of a mouse.
A number of historical accounts and memoires have been published in Polish, Persian and English, including From Warsaw to Tehran: Sad Memories of a Captive Polish Immigrant in Tehran from World War II (2009), the story of Helen Telmach (who was also interviewed by Sinai in his film), edited by her sons Mohammad Ali and Reza Nikpour. The project ‘Iran: In The Footsteps of Polish Refugees’ led by Marek and Fiedler Radoslaw, resulted in a book of the same name (2019, in Polish). Among many other accounts and memoires, see Mironowic 1986, Woloch 1998 and Dekel 2019, as well as the Polish-language texts listed in Sternfeld (2018:126, footnote 78). There are also a number of documentary films, for instance My Iranian Paradise (2007) by Katia Forbert Petersen whose mother was a refugee in Iran who joined the Anders Army and later married a Danish engineer. Katia herself,
… grew up in Tehran in a community very much shaped by Polish refugees. She left Iran in her twenties, after the 1979 revolution. In the film she interviews her parents’ friends who married Iranians, settled in Tehran, and never left. These immigrants discuss the life and culture they created and the fact that Iran remained their home, their safe place. They established culturally mixed households and embraced many Iranian traditions. As Anna Borkowska had done, they celebrated their Polish heritage, listened to classical European music, read Polish journals and books, were fluent in Persian and lived in a bilingual environment. (Sternfeld 2018b:116).
The Sounds of Polish Tehran
The quotation above brings me nicely to my particular interest in this topic: the musical and cultural lives of Polish people in Iran during WW2 and after, and the wider impact on Iranian society. My focus is on urban sound, and specifically Tehran, as part of the Sonic Tehran project. I’m interested in the sounds that would have been part of the refugees’ journey, as well as their sonic experiences in their new, temporary, home, and the sounds that they brought to the city: their languages, of course, but also the sounds of everyday life - daily routines, worship, entertainment, and special events such as life cycle and calendrical rituals. But whilst there is a great deal of visual archival material, the sonic record is fairly silent: there are few recordings and none of the historical film footage includes original sound. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t re-imagine such sound worlds, as Khosrow Sinai does so effectively in A Lost Requiem (see below).
The testimonies and sources that I have encountered are immensely moving, but it’s often hard to imagine the everyday lives of refugees once they had moved out of the temporary camps - of which there were four in Tehran, including one apparently located in a private garden of the Shah (Antolak n.d.) - and started to re-establish their lives (who knew how long the war would last?). Many took on jobs, both within the Polish community and beyond, for instance as nurses, medical assistants, translators, teachers, secretaries, hairdressers, cooks, maids, waitresses, barmaids, tailors, and so on. Faruqi reports in a Washington Post article: ‘Polish maids were sought by well-to-do Iranian ladies who wanted to learn makeup and Western fashions from their servants, who often had better backgrounds and education than the employers themselves’ (2000:63, quoted in Sternfeld 2018b:114). Writing in 1945, Joel Sayre ‘a novelist, playwright, and war correspondent covering the Persian Gulf Command for the New Yorker’ observed:
While many Polish men joined the British army and deployed to other theaters of war, the women stayed in Tehran, running businesses and pursuing other professional opportunities, some of which helped to develop the cosmopolitan environment that characterized the city by the late 1940s. Polish women famously opened a doll factory; others opened successful and popular beauty salons that catered mostly to Iranian women. (Sternfeld 2018b:113)
Beyond day-to-day survival, however,
Something more than food and clothing are necessary for the human spirit to survive and grow. Art and Culture are antibodies to feelings of despondency and decay, and within a few months of their arrival, the exiles had set up their own theatres, art galleries, study circles, and radio stations all over the city. Artists and craftsmen began to give exhibitions. Polish newspapers began to spring up; and restaurants began to display Polish flags on the streets. (Antolak, n.d.)
In Tehran and elsewhere, Polish communities quickly developed their own schools, cultural institutions, newspapers, cafés, radio stations and so on, as Sternfeld also relates, pointing additionally to the wider impact on Iranian society:
Polish exiles in Iran established newspapers, art galleries, cafés, orchestras, theaters, and salons that catered first and foremost to the Polish community but later became central to the myriad of Allied army soldiers stationed in Iran, as well as to the emerging Iranian urban middle class (101) … Contemporary writers’ accounts confirm the Poles’ development of a distinct culture, from creating community centers, study groups, newspapers, radio stations, and libraries to building factories and opening restaurants, bars, cabarets, and beauty salons. (2018b:113)
To date, there has been little detailed research on these activities and on those who led or were involved in them. But we do have some clues. In A Lost Requiem, for instance, we learnt that the central interviewee, Anna Borkowska, was an actor and musician and at several points we see and hear her in her home playing the piano and singing. Pianos also feature in the background of other interviewees’ homes. Although Anna speaks Persian in the interviews, her singing is all in Polish, with one exception towards the end of the film where, poignantly, she sings a Polish song with the words translated into Persian (1:21:17). We learn that Anna took part in theatre productions that were held both to entertain the refugees and to raise funds. Interestingly, long after the making of Sinai’s documentary, Anna played a cameo role in Jafar Panai’s internationally-acclaimed and award-winning film The White Balloon (1995). Anna describes losing her brother Wiktor, aged 27, in the Soviet labour camp; tragically, he died shortly before the camps were opened up. Wiktor was a musician and had studied violin at the conservatory in Warsaw. Given that those sent to the camps were primarily from more affluent classes and would have had access to a cultured education, it’s quite likely that there were both amateur and professionally trained musicians among the refugees, but we know very little about who they were, what kinds of music-making they were involved in and whether their paths ever crossed with Polish musicians such as The Jolly Boys who had arrived in Iran by other routes. A Lost Requiem mentions fund-raising concerts and plays, and we even see a concert programme. One of the aims of my planned research project is to investigate this aspect of life in Polish Tehran and in other cities: what opportunities were there for individuals to use their music skills to make a living, bearing in mind also that it was mainly women and children and those men unable to fight who remained in Iran for the remainder of the war?
The Lost Requiem features a great deal music, including both diegetic: Anna singing and playing piano and later her son accompanying her, the now adult ‘Tehran Children’ (who were taken to New Zealand in 1944) singing Polish songs in a bus on their way to a 30-year reunion, hymn singing in church; as well as non-diegetic Polish songs and various piano pieces by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), a fitting choice given that the composer spent much of his adult life exiled from Poland following the 1830 November Uprising against the Russians. Further, the film is saturated with references to music and sound, remembered and imagined: indeed, Sinai’s attention to the sound worlds of the refugees is quite striking. He invokes the marching of soldiers on the streets of Bandar Anzali; the singing and laughter of children in Esfahan; and we see brief film footage from the Polonia club and restaurant located in a basement on Lalehzar Street, providing entertainment for the large number of British and US troops in Tehran at the time, and where ‘Allied servicemen mingled with Polish girls’ (Sternfeld 2018b:112). There were already a few European-style cafés in Tehran by the 1930s, but the Polonia no doubt offered what felt like a more authentic European ambience for troops and refugees who shared the war-time city. In the film, Sinai visits the basement space which at the time of filming in 1975 had become a chocolate factory (and later became a print shop).
Steps leading down to the Polonia Club. Screenshot from A Lost Requiem (1983)
And then there would have been the sounds of religious spaces. Local Christian and Jewish communities established relief committees to help their co-religionists (Sternfeld 2018b:107), the latter including both the long-established Iranian Jewish community but also Iraqi Jews who had arrived in Iran shortly before the Poles. According to Sternfeld: ‘Jewish refugees were given accommodations in synagogues and clubs or with Iranian Jewish families who could afford to host them’ (110). The sick were cared for at the Jewish hospital in Tehran.
One gets a strong sense from the available accounts that a thriving Polish cultural presence established itself in Iran within a relatively short period of time, notwithstanding people’s sense of transience - the agreement with the British was that Iran was a temporary stop on the Poles’ journey to other destinations or back home. Many expected the latter, but the political settlement at the end of the war meant that very few returned to Poland. Many of the Jewish refugees were issued visas to British-mandated Palestine, whilst others settled more permanently in Iran (Sternfeld gives a figure of 10% of Jews who stayed on after WW2). More generally, Sternfeld suggests that even in such a short space of time there was good ‘integration into Iran’s social fabric’ (118), including intermarriage.
As one of the few scholars who has written in English on this topic, Sternfeld’s work (2015, 2018a, 2018b) has been been an invaluable source of information and inspiration, offering specific, but still tantalisingly brief (since it is not his main focus), glimpses into the musical and cultural life of refugees at this time, mainly via contemporary newspaper reports and writings by visiting journalists or military personnel:
Iranian newspapers reported on concerts and parties arranged by the Polish community and advertised invitations to the public. On April 30, 1942, the Iranian newspaper Ittila’at announced the opening of a show with Polish artists in Tehran’s theater: “A Polish minister and the commander of the Polish forces in Iran will be in attendance, and the public is invited.” Similar announcements were published periodically in different Iranian newspapers. A Polish jazz orchestra opened another night of entertainment in Café-Restaurant Shamshad: “A dance party will follow the concert until 2 A.M. All for the price of 15 rial per ticket.” (Sternfeld 2018b:112)
Could this reference to a ‘Polish jazz orchestra’ have been The Jolly Boys? Another mention of a Polish orchestra appears in an article published in the New York Times by John Greely:
Walking around the city, a visitor could easily find a hotel or garden offering traditional Iranian cuisine, excellent wine, “and very high priced European cocktails,” all to the accompaniment of a Polish orchestra’ [citing Greely 1943] … The hotel at Darband and the Firdausi in Tehran proper are gathering places for the growing number of foreigners this war has brought—soldiers, aviators, refugees, newspaper men, diplomats, and others’ (Sternfeld 2018b:112, citing Greely)
Greely also reported that ‘Warsaw’s leading artists performed in Polish theatres in Iranian towns with Polish populations and for Anders’ Army soldiers in Iraq’ (op.cit.:113).
So what of the longer-term impact of the Polish refugees on Iran's cultural life? As already noted, the war had thrown together many different groups of people, including ‘Allied troops, migrants, refugees, and aid workers … Iran hosted almost a million arrivals, mostly concentrated in major urban centres. According to existing statistics, in 1941 there were almost 14 million Iranian citizens. The wartime influx thus added roughly 7 percent of Iran’s total population’ (Sternfeld 2018b:104). This had an immense impact on the sounds of the city, for instance,
… the Red Army, for example, brought Russian girls to dance in shows in Tehran. Cafés, ballets, and theaters had surfaced in Tehran beginning in the 1920s, and non-Muslim Iranians, mostly Armenians, overwhelmingly dominated their development. This urban transformation of Tehran reflected the Pahlavis’ cosmopolitan vision for the capital. However, the emergence of cabarets resulted from the social and cultural transformations following Iran’s involvement in World War II. Polish orchestras contributed to the European leisure culture in Iran, and “dancers, singers, and actors put on a vaudeville in French, which was most artistic from a European viewpoint” [citing Greely 1943]’. (op.cit.:113)
Indeed, some concern was expressed in the local press that the new arrivals ‘might morally corrupt the local population with their habits and leisure activities that involved, among other things, dancing and consumption of alcohol’ (Sternfeld 2018b:111). For instance, an article in the daily newspaper Etelaat on 22nd August (26 Mordad) 1942 reports on the allegedly immoral activities of an unnamed Polish musician (Sternfeld cites Karimi and Karimi 1999-2000:34).
According to Sternfeld, the ‘refugees had a tremendous impact on urban life in wartime Iran’ and beyond (op.cit.:102), particularly in relation to Iran’s emerging cosmopolitan middle class and alongside the wider and longer-term socio-political implications of Tehran’s changing demographics during WW2. He cites Greely, who ‘like many observers, believed that the Poles left an indelible mark on Iran’s society and culture. Indeed, many of the wartime Polish institutions, such as art galleries, nightclubs, churches, and synagogues remained active and prospered at least until the 1979 revolution. Even today, Iran’s only Ashkenazi synagogue stands at 30 Tir Street in Tehran’ (114). Sternfeld also argues that the ‘the influx of highly visible and positively perceived foreigners into major urban centers increased the Iranian public’s tolerance toward previously marginalized communities, which in turn led to higher integration of minorities into Iranian society, a characteristic often attributed to the second Pahlavi era’ (2018:104), bearing in mind that this also coincided with the more open social, cultural and political atmosphere that followed the removal of the autocratic Reza Shah.
Reading about the Polish cafés and other establishments, I am reminded of the work of Yvonne Liao (2015) on the refugee cafés in wartime Shanghai, the term café serving as a broad catchall for establishments that also served as bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores. These were mainly run by Jewish refugees who had arrived from Europe, primarily from Austria and Germany, between 1933 and 1940. Liao focuses on an area known as the ‘Restricted Sector’, where from the spring of 1943 the occupying Japanese authorities required all refugees to live. Describing these cafés, Liao notes that the ‘provision of entertainment music both arose in response and gave rise to a time-space that was physically partitioned by the Japanese military but sonically defined by European Jewish refugees’ (2015:378). Notwithstanding the very different circumstances of the refugees in Tehran, there are some interesting parallels in that both China and Iran accepted refugees whilst themselves under occupation, by Axis and Allied powers respectively. In both cases, establishments such as cafés created ‘a unique cosmos of sound worlds, not heard or featured anywhere else in the city’ (ibid.), European sound worlds that also served as a focus for expressions of nostalgia for distant and lost homelands. Among other things, Liao examines documents relating to the licensing of eating and drinking premises and specifically permit applications by stateless refugees. These documents reveal intense power struggles between the local municipal authorities and occupying Japanese military forces; it would be interesting to know whether similar power plays were at work in Iran at this time.
The Jolly Boys were well aware of the labour camps and indeed the Krischer papers include a letter dated 8th January 1942 (i.e. before the arrival of the refugees in Iran) from Andrzej Walczak, Chairman of The Association of Poles in Iran, thanking Igo as follows: ‘The Board of Directors of the Association of Poles in Iran “Polonia” are sending heartfelt thanks for the donation of 10 (ten) sheepskins for our compatriots - Poles, the refugees in the USSR’. What we don’t have information on is their later interactions with the refugees who arrived in Iran, including any musicians, and this is something that I am hoping the archival record will shed light on.
Letter from Andrzej Walczak to Igo Krischer, 8th January 1942 (used with permission)
My longer-term aim is for this enquiry into the cultural and musical life of Polish refugees in Iran to extend into Iranian-Polish cultural interactions more broadly, interactions which in fact predate WW2 by several hundred years (Mazhari 2021). I was recently sent a poster of a concert held in Gdańsk in 1956. The singer was Fakhereh Saba (1920-2007), the wife of my great uncle, who trained at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1940s and performed at the Paris Opera before returning to Iran. Sadly, Fakhereh passed away in 2007 but I would have loved to know how she came to be performing in Poland. So many questions that I could and should have asked while she was alive. I feel a real sense of urgency in this work as so many who have memories of those times are now passing.
I have elsewhere explored the idea of sonic footprints that continue to resonate across the decades, sounds that may no longer be heard but that have shaped and changed the spaces we live in. What are the sonic footprints of the Polish people who spent part of their lives in Iran and then, mostly, moved on? The clamour of the political events that followed in Iran in the 1950s, and then revolution and war in the 1970s and 80s have drowned out earlier voices and sounds that had a profound shaping influence on Tehran. Where do such sounds go and what are their traces in the public spaces of Tehran today? As well as exploring the sonic lives of Polish refugees, I’m interested in the longer-term impact of the Polish presence in Iran, and the ways in which the affective relations continue to play out, including via those Poles who travel to Iran each year to visit the graves of their loved ones or the places where they lived. As Sternfeld notes, ‘Polish language and cultural institutions in Iran flourish, and the community of students and scholars of Iranian Studies in Poland is constantly growing’ (2018b:199). And there are other kinds of resonances that this story activates: the sonic experiences and the sounds - languages and accents, music and other sonic traditions - brought by others who have sought refuge in Tehran since WW2: the Afghan refugees (another Soviet-related exodus) who fled to Iran after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and later; and the internally displaced people from the south of Iran who found a haven in Tehran and other cities during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War (see Fakhraeirad, Nooshin and Rezaie forthcoming).
Beyond my interest in this particular story is the wider question of how the many ‘others’ who lived in or passed through Tehran during WW2 and since, including refugees, have changed the sounds of the city forever. Whilst it is clear that Polish refugees contributed to the rich and complex soundscape of Tehran during WW2, there are many unanswered questions. What were the stories of individual Polish musicians living in Tehran at this time? Were there collaborations between these musicians and local musicians or with troops posted in Tehran? What kinds of entertainment were arranged for the latter and did this include Polish musicians? Did other hotels employ Polish musicians like the Palace Hotel hired the Jolly Boys? I am just at the start of this scholarly journey and am very much hoping that the various archival sources, in dialogue with the wealth of oral testimony will yield answers to at least some of these questions.
I am most grateful to all who have shared their stories with me. Also to Bret Werb who drew my attention to the Krischer papers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in the first place. And to Barbara Cwizewicz for the translations from Polish to English.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post! I would love to hear your feedback, including
any suggestions for relevant sources. I would also be very happy to hear from anyone who was in Iran or who knows of family members or others who were in Iran as refugees between 1941 and 1945. You can use the comments box below or contact me directly on email@example.com Thank you!
References and Other Useful Sources
Ryszard Antolak (no date) ‘Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942’, Pars Times, http://www.parstimes.com/history/polish_refugees/exodus_russia.html
Ryszard Antolak (2012) ‘Echoes of Polish Esfahan’, https://poetrania.blogspot.com/2012/04/echoes-of-polish-isfahan.html?q=iran
Saskia Baron (2019) ‘Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey – Review’, The Guardian, 1st December 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/01/tehran-children-holocaust-refugee-odyssey-mikhal-dekel-review
Irena Beaupré-Stankiewicz, Danuta Waszczuk-Kamieniecka and Jadwiga Lewicka-Howells (eds.) (1989) Isfahan, City of Polish Children. Hove, Sussex: Association of Former Pupils of Polish Schools, Isfahan and Lebanon.
Norman Davies (2015) Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents. Osprey publishing.
Mikhal Dekel (2019) Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey. W.W.Norton.