Pahlevi-A Gate to Freedom Sojourn in Persia
The Junaczki stayed in Pahlevi for six weeks. During the sunny, warm days, swimming and walks on the beach were wonderful ways to pass the time. But when the rain came, life was not as pleasant. Small tents often leaked and were not very safe. One night, inhabitants of our tent woke up feeling wet. Cold tent canvas was covering our faces. Crawling from under was quite an adventure. Becoming wet brought on more malaria attacks. There was no place to dry the clothes and cool, wetness intensified the illness. In spite of it all, these were happy times for those who were healthy. Malaria and dysentery kept me down. Afraid to see the doctor, who would send me to the hospital, I suffered often with excruciating pain biting my fingers to prevent from crying out. Hospitals were filled with people having typhoid fever, dysentery, and other communicable diseases. Thousands died there. Having dysentery and getting something else could be deadly and that is why I made up my mind not to go to the hospital. Burned toast was the only "medicine" I took for the dysentery with good results. There was a long break between the malaria attacks and the recovery although slow, came just in time. The camp in Pahlevi was only temporary. It was time to move on.
I felt strong nostalgia when the large trucks came to take us to Teheran - the capital of Persia (Iran). Pahlevi was the first haven filled with the atmosphere of freedom. This beautiful ancient place secured a special place in the hearts of the Russian slave laborers. Young voices of one thousand Junaczki and Junaki singing the religious hymns said goodbye and expressed their gratefulness.
Traveling on the open truck made it easy to see and admire the beauty of the mountains, also villages and towns spreading in the valleys. Enjoying the beauty of nature eased other discomforts. The weather was very hot, but there were oranges to quench the thirst. Unfortunately, my intestines ravaged by dysentery were very painful especially when I sat down. Traveling in the standing position was very tiring. However, there was no other choice. What a relief! Toward the evening, the truck stopped in front of the large building in Kazan. Half of the journey to Teheran was over. The rest was much needed and appreciated. After a long sight seeing walk and simple supper, the blankets, spread on the hard cement floor seemed to be inviting "beds". After prayers the lights were out. In spite of tiredness, the sleep was kept away by the excitement of the day. Going farther into Persia meant putting some extra distance from the inhumane land of Soviet Union. The Caspian Sea in Pahlevi created a welcome barrier, but was it safe enough? Often the frightening feeling was overwhelming. What if the Russians cross over and made us their prisoners? It was so difficult to believe that freedom was really here to stay once the gulag became a part of a person's life. So difficult to really feel safe! What about the other members of the family? Where were they now? Loneliness and sadness! However, soon sleep overpowered a tired body and the dreams were a happy relief.
Next morning, the wake up call was about six o'clock-much too early for "sleepy heads". Soon the excitement of a new journey took over. Roll the "beds", quick wash, a bite to eat and back on the road which again led through the mountains and assumed the shape of a serpentine. The Persian driver used to the terrain was very daring as he took quick turns around the rocks almost touching them. Evidence of broken vehicles down on the lower levels of the road and a fast speed made me quite nervous. A prayer for the safe arrival was, as always, comforting. The driver seemed to be drunk, but the bus was much more comfortable than the truck. Seats were soft. My stomach was less painful so that I could travel sitting down and dozed off when fatigue overtook me.
Reaching the Teheran at the end of the day, we were again unloaded in front of the two storey building and made our "beds" again on the hard cement floor which was a normal routine by now. The girls slept side by side. My best friends Olenka and Zosia were here too as they were through the whole journey from Russia. Whenever there were decisions to be made, we made them together and comforted each other when there was a need for that.
Soon, another important decision had to be made. Our school (Junaczki) had been divided into, School A and School B. Girls joining the first one were going to Palestine and be under the protection of the Polish army while school B students were destined for Africa or India to live in the civilian settlements. The information given us was not consistent or clear. Our greatest concern was a continuation of education.
Some teachers felt that going to Palestine may mean that older girls (born in 1925 and up) would have to join the army. Since I was born in 1925, that would include me. Others felt that the schools in Africa may not be yet organized and we would be again wasting our time. No one really knew what would the future hold and it was difficult to believe strangers after being hurt by them during the past two years. Finally, Olenka, Zosia and I decided to join school B, hoping that in Africa, we may be reunited with our mothers even if we did not know what part of this country they went to. The news of their departure was given to us on our arrival in Teheran and it saddened us a great deal. Will we ever become a family again?
Wanting to remember the important events of my life, I began to write my diary. Often, through the window, watching the mountains, Elbrus (the ones we traveled through) I found myself being lost in admiration and awe. Here too, as in Karkin Batash and other camps, some of my ill friends needed help and I did what I could. Sadly I realized that soon it will be necessary to say goodbye to many of them. When will my life achieve some stability? Being only seventeen, sometimes I felt very old and tired.
But life in a free society held many promises and brooding for long was foreign to youth. How wonderful it was not to have to worry about the food! No more hunger! God was good! I had my life and a hope for a future, which I was ready to face. Hoping to be able to get an education was my most important goal.
The days were filled with many activities. Getting up at six was not very exciting, but after the vigorous exercise and normal breakfast, it was easier to face the other duties of the day. We still were treated as soldiers and everyday practiced marching. Beds had to be made, the shoes had to be shined without real polish. With so many girls in one building, the noise was quite large. Arguments, laughter, chasing each other contributed to it a great deal. Even at night when the lights went out, the uncontrollable giggling and whispers kept the whole dormitory awake. Receiving regular meals improved the health of the young girls.
Teheran was only a temporary stop. From here, people were sent to the settlement camps in Africa and India. Since I chose the "School B", our destination would eventually be one of these countries. Since my father, my brothers and Olek were in Palestine, where the Polish Army was at present, I would not see them for a long time.
After a few weeks, the leader of our group announced that shortly we would be going to Isphahan where we would be able to continue our studies. Buses were quite comfortable and the highway was in good condition, but the country seemed very dry. Only occasionally did we see an oasis with some trees and water. Buildings in villages were made of clay. The people were very poor. They were very simple and often hid when they heard an airplane or saw the train. They were afraid of these inventions and thought of them as the works of the devil. Often by the side of the road, Persians knelt down on their small carpets to pray to Allah bowing constantly in the direction of the sun. They did it several times a day. Since we stopped for the night in Kumta, our journey lasted two days. The rest was badly needed since we travelled in the hot country in the buses without air conditioning. Kumara was a typical middle-eastern city with beautiful greenery. The windows were open often and the air was fresh. By now we almost got used to sleeping on the hard concrete floor covered only by a blanket.
After two days journey buses rolled into Isphahan. The surroundings were beautiful. It was so beautiful. There was an abundance of green trees and flowers bursting with colors. Homes behind the walls were hidden in huge gardens, which gave it all a mysterious appearance. Was it possible that this place would accept us as its inhabitance for a long period of time? Did we finally come home for a while? Should we dare to hope for so much?
The long line of buses stopped before an open gate through which we saw a large courtyard in front of a large building, which looked like a palace. High walls for the protection of the inhabitants surrounded all these. The appearance of the fine ceramic floors was startling. Large army boots and ceramics! Poor floors did not last very long! Large dormitories contained real beds. Sleeping on the dirt floors or hard cement for such a long time and now there were beds! The tears of joy were many. Soon there were other wonderful surprises for the bell rang announcing suppertime. Under the huge trees, the tables and benches around them waited for our arrival. To eat at the table and not to have your knees and your stomach under your chin, during the meal! What a treat! What a life!
There were 460 junaczki living in this large building called "Goolfa" which actually was an Armenian Bishop's palace. The Bishop had gone to India to organize more missions. The classes began almost immediately and were welcomed enthusiastically. Working for the better future was so important to us. Many illnesses and other hardships suffered during the past two years contributed to forgetfulness of much of the material learned at school. For some, it impaired the memory making studying more difficult than it would be in normal circumstances. Being separated from the family and not being able to be in touch with its members made matters worse. Loneliness grew strongest during the night.
Christmas was quickly approaching and the memories of this feast celebrated with family brought a new phase of sadness which often resulted in the flood of tears. Attending a midnight Mass in the beautiful Armenian chapel gave an opportunity to seek some consolation in sincere prayer. There was someone who listened and could help. Only God could do that in these circumstances. It was in prayer that we poured our hearts out joining them with the hearts of our loved ones. Hoping that it was indeed the last lonely Christmas and that the next year we would celebrate it in a free Poland at home with our families.
During the Christmas Eve supper called Wigilia (Vigilia) when the time came to share Oplatek, no one could hold back the tears any longer. The sobbing became uncontrolled. Loneliness, longing for the parents and families and not knowing whether they were dead or alive was more than we could take. The teachers hugged and tried to console us without much success. Only the exhaustion put a stop to tears. Only then we gradually began to enjoy the food, which for once was normal and plentiful, and we were thankful to have it.
Right after Christmas, the classes resumed. There was not time for holidays as it was necessary to get back to study. We had to make up for the time lost in the Russian Kulag. Doing something constructive helped to improve our spirits. We were even able to play some pranks on our friends living in other dormitories. Draping the sheets around and becoming howling ghosts was quite popular. The windows faced the graveyard enclosed in the courtyard below the balcony, which made it easy to believe that the ghosts were real! Our "classrooms" were small monk cells. They contained a table and simple benches. The teachers worked very hard giving all the help needed for a good progress in the studies. The time went by and we began looking forward to spring and hoping constantly for news from the loved ones. Finally in February, a friend wrote that he met my father and older brother Tonek in the Polish army in Palestine and that they both were quite well. Janek was there at school. There was also talk that we might be sent to Africa. Isphahan gave certain stability and a chance to become normal students. To be moved again frightened us. When the lists for the transports were posted, my name was on one of them. Once more, there was a lot of sadness when we said good bye to many close friends, caring teachers, and beautiful surroundings. Again the anxiety about the future set in. How long would the journey last? How dangerous was it going to be? What kind of life would be at the end of it? Will there be schools to go to? Polish children (thousands of them) were living in 20 different buildings called "zaklad". The first transport was made up of 20 buses. In March of 1943, the transport travelled to Kuma. In a bus full of young people, in spite of the initial sadness, singing and joking was easy to come by. After traveling for a few hours, we noticed that the driver of our bus was having a race with another bus full of boys ages 8-14. Being afraid we asked the driver to stop but he did not listen. Suddenly the other bus swayed away and then it ran off the road where it started turning over and over. When it finally stopped rolling, we were afraid to approach it for fear that everyone there had been killed. But we had to go, the help was needed and there was no one else around. The bandages were collected and used to help the badly wounded boys. We were all very young and had very little knowledge of the first aid. Luckily other buses came by and took the most seriously wounded boys to the hospital in Kuma.
After our journey was resumed, we gave some of our food to the driver so that he would drive more slowly and carefully but he misunderstood our intentions and drove even faster. Praying hard for the safety helped to believe that we would arrive in Kuma in one piece.
The night was spent on the floor in a large office building. In the morning, the buses took us to the train for a 24-hour trip to Achwaz. The mountains were high and the tracks were so twisted that our train often made a figure 8 and looked likes a coiled snake. That too did not give a very secure feeling.
At Achwaz, huge trucks drove us to yet another camp. As our truck approached the barracks, a lady whom I knew from the camp in Russia shouted, "Your father is here!" My father? Was it possible? As far as I knew, he was in the army thousands of miles away. What would he be doing here? Maybe she was talking to someone else.
But it was true. My father was there. He was discharged from the army because of the health problems and was also going to Africa or India. Since mother was in Africa already, we were hoping to join her. However, it was not to be. After spending few weeks in Achwaz, father was sent to India while I remained in Ahwaz a week longer and then was sent to Africa.
Very early in the morning, the trucks brought us to a seaport located at the place were rivers of Tigris and Euphrates joined. The name of the seaport was Ahwaz. Here, with a few thousands other passengers I boarded the liner Dunera. Our orphanage included over 600 children aged 18 months to 17 years. There were also many mothers with children and young people.
Dunera began the slow journey through the incredibly beautiful country by Tygres and Euphrates. It was easy to believe the story that it was the place of the biblical paradise. Next came the Persian Gulf and then the Indian Ocean.
Dunera was once a passenger ship with the Cunard Line. Now it was transformed into an army carrier. The passengers slept in hammocks, which looked like spider webs suspended from the ceiling. Since we often had nightmares, falling out of the hammocks during the night happened often. During the day, everyone was required to be on the deck as the ship was in a constant danger of hitting one of the mines placed in the ocean by the Germans during the battles in Africa. Through most difficult areas, we travelled as a part of convoy of twenty ships, passenger, and battle ships. When we passed by Madagascar, two airplanes flew overhead to check our safety.
The little children needed some extra protection so that they would not fall over board while spending time on the deck. They had no mothers to take care of them, as most were orphans. The captain of the ship asked the 10 older girls to form "the Captain's Guard". The green ribbons around the sleeves indicated the authority of the members. As a leader of the group I saw that the duties were taken seriously. Our presence on the deck was necessary all day.
However, there was a great deal of trouble getting boys to come up on the deck. After all that they suffered in the Russian Gulag, loosing their loved ones, the boys became rebellious and did not think well of the human race. They were deeply wounded and often desperate. Sometimes they were ready to hurt innocent people in return for what was done to them. Among this group was a boy from our labor camp. Our families shared the same living quarters. His mother slowly faded away from illness and lack of food. Shura became the leader of the boys. He seemed to trust me and was helpful in dealing with other boys who listened to him. Often the boys became quite destructive. For example they tried to force windows to open planning to sink the ship, told the doctor that a passenger was attacked by rats, threw a knife at their teacher, etc. I was able to talk to Shura reminding him that we suffered together more than enough. Now we needed to help each other and other people to make a better life in a free world.
Our journey to Africa lasted 6 weeks. Many settlements, along the Indian Ocean shore, took grown up civilians even with children but they did not want or were not equipped to receive 600 children as young as 18 months to 17 years old. The officials claimed that the living quarters and furniture was not suitable especially for the very young.
Finally the Dunera arrived in Port Elizabeth a week before Easter. Since this city was located at the end of the African continent there was nowhere else to go without retracing the journey. This caused us to believe that now we would have to be accepted.
At first though the whole ship was quarantined for two weeks because one of the passengers had small pox, a very contagious and deadly disease.
In the meantime, the Polish Ambassador in Cape Town negotiated with authorities convincing them to accept us. Finally the orphanage found its home in Oudshoorn in the province of Cape Town, the Union of South Africa.
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