WWII refugee camps in Iran

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Nowadays Iran is often referred to as an axis of evil and this piece is not meant to agree or disagree with that, it is meant to show that it hasn’t always been that way. In a similar fashion it is often believed that the Soviet army were the good guys during WWII, that wasn’t always the case either.

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Following the Soviet invasion of Poland at the onset of World War II in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Pact against Poland, the Soviet Union acquired over half of the territory of the Second Polish Republic. Within months, in order to de-Polonize annexed lands, the Soviet NKVD rounded up and deported between 320,000 and 1 million Polish nationals to the eastern parts of the USSR, the Urals, and Siberia. There were four waves of deportations of entire families with children, women and elderly aboard freight trains from 1940 until 1941.

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These civilians included civil servants, local government officials, judges, members of the police force, forest workers, settlers, small farmers, tradesmen, refugees from western Poland, children from summer camps and orphanages, family members of anyone previously arrested, and family members of anyone who escaped abroad or went missing.

Their fate was completely changed in June 1941 when Germany unexpectedly attacked Soviet Union. In need of as many allies it could find, the Soviets agreed to release all the Polish citizens it held in captivity. Released in August 1941 from Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka Prison, Polish general Wladyslaw Anders began to mobilize the Polish Armed Forces in the East (commonly known as the Anders Army) to fight against the Nazis..

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Forming the new Polish Army was not easy, however. Many Polish prisoners of war had died in the labor camps in the Soviet Union. Many of those who survived were very weak from the conditions in the camps and from malnourishment. Because the Soviets were at war with Germany, there was little food or provisions available for the Polish Army. Thus, following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941, the Soviets agreed to evacuate part of the Polish formation to Iran. Non-military refugees, mostly women and children, were also transferred across the Caspian Sea to Iran.

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Starting in 1942, 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.

Despite these difficulties, Iranians openly received the Polish refugees, and the Iranian government facilitated their entry to the country and supplied them with provisions. Polish schools, cultural and educational organizations, shops, bakeries, businesses, and press were established to make the Poles feel more at home.

 

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The refugees were weakened by two years of maltreatment and starvation, and many suffered from malaria, typhus, fevers, respiratory illnesses, and diseases caused by starvation. Desperate for food after starving for so long, refugees ate as much as they could, leading to disastrous consequences. Several hundred Poles, mostly children, died shortly after arriving in Iran from acute dysentery caused by overeating.

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.

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Between 1942–1945, approximately 2,000 children passed through Isfahan, so many that it was briefly called the “City of Polish Children”. 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.

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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. By 1944, Iran was already emptying of Poles. They were leaving for other camps in places such as Tanganyika, Mexico, India, New Zealand and Britain.

While most signs of Polish life in Iran have faded, a few have remained. As writer Ryszard Antolak noted in Pars Times, “The deepest imprint of the Polish sojourn in Iran can be found in the memoirs and narratives of those who lived through it. The debt and gratitude felt by the exiles towards their host country echoes warmly throughout all literature. The kindness and sympathy of the ordinary Iranian population towards the Poles is everywhere spoken of”.

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The Poles took away with them a lasting memory of freedom and friendliness, something most of them would not know again for a very long time. For few of the evacuees who passed through Iran during the years 1942 1945 would ever to see their homeland again. By a cruel twist of fate, their political destiny was sealed in Tehran in 1943. In November of that year, the leaders of Russia, Britain and the USA met in the Iranian capital to decide the fate of Post-war Europe. During their discussions (which were held in secret), it was decided to assign Poland to the zone of influence of the Soviet Union after the war

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The Struma Disaster-the floating coffin

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Today  is the 75th anniversary of a tragic event that took place during World War II, involving 769 Jews who perished in a ramshackle ship called Struma while escaping from Romania.

The woeful circumstances that surrounded this event were a grim global war, clumsy diplomatic maneuvers conducted by the British to keep the Jews away from Palestine, and also a hypocritical international politics. Jews all over Europe were desperately trapped in this chaos relentlessly haunted by a pathological Nazi hatred.

World War II was already in fever pitch. Against the enormity of the then-unfolding Holocaust, the loss at sea of 781Jewish lives (103 of them babies and children) was at most blithely overlooked as a marginal annotation.Moreover, although these Jews fled the Nazis, in the pedantic literal sense they weren’t executed by Third Reich henchmen.

The Struma disaster was the sinking on 24 February 1942 of a ship, MV Struma, that had been trying to take several hundred Jewish refugees from Axis-allied Romania to Mandatory Palestine. She was a small iron-hulled ship of only 240 GRT that had been built in 1867 as a steam-powered schooner[but had recently been re-engined with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine.Struma was only 148.4 ft (45 m) long, had a beam of only 19.3 ft (6 m) and a draught of only 9.9 ft (3 m) but an estimated 781 refugees and 10 crew were crammed into her.
Strumas diesel engine failed several times between her departure from Constanţa on the Black Sea on 12 December 1941 and her arrival in Istanbul on 15 December. She had to be towed by a tug both to leave Constanţa and to enter Istanbul. On 23 February 1942, with her engine still inoperable and her refugee passengers aboard, Turkish authorities towed Struma from Istanbul through the Bosphorus out to the coast of Şile in North Istanbul. Within hours, in the morning of 24 February, the Soviet submarine Shch-213 torpedoed her, killing an estimated 781 refugees plus 10 crew, making it the Black Sea’s largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of World War II.

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Until recently the number of victims had been estimated at 768, but the current figure is the result of a recent study of six different passenger lists.Only one person aboard, 19-year-old David Stoliar, survived (he died in 2014).

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Struma had been built as a luxury yacht,but was 74 years old and in the 1930s had been relegated to carrying cattle on the River Danube under the Panamanian flag of convenience.

Apart from the crew and 60 Betar youth, there were over 700 passengers who had paid large fees to board the ship.The exact number is not certain, but a collation of six separate lists produced a total of 791 passengers and 10 crew.Passengers were told they would be sailing on a renovated boat with a short stop in Istanbul to collect their Palestinian immigration visas. Ion Antonescu’s Romanian government approved of the voyage.

Each refugee was allowed to take 20 kilograms (44 lb) of luggage.Romanian customs officers took many of the refugees’ valuables and other possessions, along with food that they had brought with them.

The passengers were not permitted to see the vessel before the day of the voyage. Below decks, Struma had dormitories with bunks for 40 to 120 people in each. The berths were bunks on which passengers were to sleep four abreast, with 60 centimetres (2 ft) width for each person.

On the day of her sailing Strumas engine failed so a tug towed her out of the port of Constanţa. The waters off Constanţa were mined, so a Romanian vessel escorted her clear of the minefield. She then drifted overnight while her crew tried vainly to start her engine. She transmitted distress signals and on 13 December the Romanian tug returned.The tug’s crew said they would not repair Strumas engine unless they were paid.The refugees had no money after buying their tickets and leaving Romania, so they gave all their wedding rings to the tugboatmen, who then repaired the engine.Struma then got under way but by 15 December her engine had failed again so she was towed into Istanbul in Turkey.(Last letter from a Struma passenger to his son, while confined aboard ship in Istanbul harbor)

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There she remained at anchor while British diplomats and Turkish officials negotiated over the fate of the passengers. Because of Arab and Zionist unrest in Palestine, Britain was determined to apply the terms of the White Paper of 1939 to minimiZe Jewish immigration to Palestine.

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British diplomats urged the Turkish government of Refik Saydam to prevent Struma from continuing her voyage.

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Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark. While detained in Istanbul, Struma ran short of food. Soup was cooked twice a week and supper was typically an orange and some peanuts for each person. At night each child was issued a serving of milk.

After weeks of negotiation, the British agreed to honour the expired Palestinian visas possessed by a few passengers, who were allowed to continue to Palestine overland. One woman, Madeea Solomonovici, was admitted to an Istanbul hospital after miscarrying. On 12 February British officials agreed that children aged 11 to 16 on the ship would be given Palestinian visas.The United Kingdom declined to send a ship, while Turkey refused to allow them to travel overland. According to some researchers, a total of 9 passengers disembarked while the remaining 782 and 10 crew stayed on the ship. Others believe that there had only been 782 passengers initially, just Madeea Solomonovici being allowed to leave the ship.

Negotiations between Turkey and Britain seemed to reach an impasse. On 23 February 1942 a small party of Turkish police tried to board the ship but the refugees would not let them aboard.Then a larger force of about 80 police came, surrounded Struma with motor boats, and after about half an hour of resistance got aboard the ship. The police detached Strumas anchor and attached her to a tug, which towed her through the Bosphorus and out into the Black Sea.As she was towed along the Bosphorus, many passengers hung signs over the sides that read “SAVE US” in English and Hebrew, visible to those who lived on the banks of the strait.

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Despite weeks of work by Turkish engineers, the engine would not start. The Turkish authorities abandoned the ship in the Black Sea, about 10 miles north of the Bosphorus, where she drifted helplessly.

On the morning of 24 February there was a huge explosion and the ship sank. Many years later it was revealed that the ship had been torpedoed by the Shchuka-class Soviet submarine Shch-213, that had also sunk the Turkish vessel Çankaya the evening before.

Struma sank quickly and many people were trapped below decks and drowned. Many others aboard survived the sinking and clung to pieces of wreckage, but for hours no rescue came and all but one of them died from drowning or hypothermia. Of the estimated 791 people killed, more than 100 were children.Strumas First Officer Lazar Dikof and the 19-year-old refugee David Stoliar clung to a cabin door that was floating in the sea.The First Officer died overnight but Turks in a rowing boat rescued Stoliar the next day. He was the only survivor. Turkey held Stoliar in custody for many weeks but released him after Britain gave him papers to go to Palestine.

On 9 June 1942, Lord Wedgwood opened the debate in the British House of Lords by alleging that Britain had reneged on its commitments and urging that the League of Nations mandate over Palestine be transferred to the USA. He stated with bitterness: “I hope yet to live to see those who sent the Struma cargo back to the Nazis hung as high as Haman cheek by jowl with their prototype and Führer, Adolf Hitler”. Anglo-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, serving in the British army at the time, wrote a scathing poem, mourning the loss and betrayal of Struma. Having volunteered in the British army to fight the Nazis, he now called the British khaki he wore a “badge of shame.”

For many years there were competing theories about the explosion that sank Struma. In 1964 a German historian discovered that Shch-213 had fired a torpedo that sank the ship.Later this was confirmed from several other Soviet sources.The submarine had been acting under secret orders to sink all neutral and enemy shipping entering the Black Sea to reduce the flow of strategic materials to Nazi Germany.

Harold Alfred MacMichael High Commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine was blamed for sending at least 768 Jewish refugees aboard MV Struma to their deaths. The Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine, whom the British called terrorists, pasted posters bearing his portrait everywhere in the country saying he was wanted for murder.

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Walter Edward Guinness was regarded as one of the architects of Britain’s strict immigration policy, and to have been responsible for the British hand in the Struma disaster,which followed a refusal to grant visas to Palestine for its Jewish refugee passengers.

NPG x133257; Walter Edward Guinness, 1st Baron Moyne of Bury St Edmunds by Walter Stoneman

https://dirkdeklein.net/2016/11/06/the-assassination-of-walter-guinness-1st-baron-moyne/

Israeli politics still refers to the Struma disaster. On 26 January 2005 Israel’s then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Knesset:

The leadership of the British Mandate displayed… obtuseness and insensitivity by locking the gates to Israel to Jewish refugees who sought a haven in the Land of Israel. Thus were rejected the requests of the 769 [sic] passengers of the ship Struma who escaped from Europe – and all but one [of the passengers] found their death at sea. Throughout the war, nothing was done to stop the annihilation [of the Jewish people

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