My husband’s grandparents are buried in a Polish Cemetery in Tehran, Iran. To find their graves is a good enough reason for us to visit Iran, and a much easier explanation to give to friends who question our travel plans.
BK’s family are Polish. During World War ll, his mother’s family were rounded up in Poland by the Russian NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and transported in cattle trucks with many other Poles to Siberian labor camps. In June 1941, following an agreement between the exiled Polish Government and the USSR, they were allowed to leave the camps.
Setting off with the few possessions they had, walking, hitching rides and working as farm labourers in return for food, they passed through Uzbekistan, Tashkent, and Kazakhstan to get to Persia. On arrival in Tehran, BK’s grandparents were critically ill. They died within days of each other leaving their children, including BK’s mother, orphaned. They were buried, along with hundreds of others who suffered the same fate, in a Polish Cemetery in Tehran.
Before Arriving in Tehran
The search for the graves begins well before our departure for Iran. Copies of death certificates provide the names and dates of who and what we are looking for. Then one evening a quick internet search for “Polish Cemetery in Tehran” turns up more than we could hope for.
The Catholic Cemetery in Tehran is called the Doulab Cemetery located in the suburb of Doulab. In 1942, the Polish Embassy purchased a large section of this cemetery to bury those Poles who died in Tehran after their long and difficult journey from Russia.
The Doulab Cemetery website has a “search” facility. Hoping without hope, I type in the surname of BK’s grandparents and click the search button. Only two names come up. Incredibly, they are the names of BK’s maternal grandparents. A click on the first name reveals limited information about BK’s Grandmother including an ID number, her name, Date of Birth, Date of Death and grave number. There is also, more surprisingly, a photograph of a simple grave stone.
The inscription simply states simply, one beneath the other, the grave number, the initials S and P on either side of a Maltese style cross, her name, dates of birth and death and ‘R.I.P.’. The letters ‘S.P.’ are an abbreviation of the Polish ‘swietej pamieci’ meaning ‘in memory of’.
The second name that comes up in the search is BK’s Grandfather.
Doulab Grave Mapping Project
Such comprehensive information is the result of the Doulab Grave Mapping Project, a collaboration between several European Embassies and the Catholic Diocese of Tehran. Every grave has been recorded, photographed and entered into the Cemetery Website. An amazing effort considering almost 2000 Polish refugees were buried in the Polish section between 1942 and 1945.
Unsure of how long it will take to find the graves, we allocate our first day in Tehran to search for the graves. We meet our driver in the hotel lobby and set off through madness that is Tehran traffic. Overwhelmed by the people, the cars and the motorbikes that we seem to miss by a whisker, we silently absorb our first real glimpse of Tehran.
Finding Doulab Cemetery
Our driver has no English, and when we drive up past a building that I already seen before, about half an hour ago, I realise that we are driving in circles. This driver obviously doesn’t really know where to go. Finally, he stops to ask for directions. It turns out we are nearly there, but without signposts, it is difficult to find. He turns into a narrow laneway lined with high dusky pink walls which ends in a dead end. The car glides to a stop.
Relieved, yet anxious at the same time we get out of the car, looking for a gate or sign of some sort. The first tall metal gates we find are signposted in Farsi. They are locked and no one seems to be around. A man walking towards a second gate sees us. Somehow, he deduces that we’re looking for the Polish Cemetery and points us to another set of gates.
Gates to the Polish Cemetery
Here the signage is clear: “Cimitiere Catholique” and there’s a red and white sticker identifying “Polska” stuck in the intersection of the arms of a cross adorning the gate. Looking at the photograph now, I see there’s even a red and white Polish scarf draped through the bars at the top of the gate.
At our knocking, the Iranian gatekeeper welcomes us, and communicating in sign language and the occasional English word, asks for the names of those we had come to find. He pages through his book, identifies the graves and signals for us to follow him. Row upon row of identical grave stones mark the final resting place of so many Polish citizens who died here in Tehran so far from their homeland.
We easily find the graves of BK’s grandparents. They are buried near to but not next to each other. I leave BK alone with his thoughts. This is an emotional journey for him, one he is doing not only for himself, but for his mother and her surviving family and offspring.
Almost 2000 Polish Graves
After some time, we wander through the cemetery looking with sadness at number of graves, and other Polish memorial stones. Almost 2000 men, women and children died here in Tehran over a period of only three years – 1942 to 1945. One grave stone in particular stands out. Instead of a name, BK reads “Kobieta” meaning “woman”. No one even knew her name.
Some gravestones are more recent. These women (only women that I can see) died in the 1990s and even early 2000s. They are the graves of women who survived the long journey from Russia and then married Persian men (as can be deduced by their Persian surnames). They are buried separately from their Muslim husbands.
Reflecting on a visit to the Polish Cemetery in Tehran
Having spent time reflecting on the plight of all these people, it is time to leave. We have done what we came for. The gate keeper offers us sweet Iranian tea and requests that BK sign the visitor’s book. He does so on behalf of his family who are not likely to visit here any time soon.
The gatekeeper tells us that this afternoon at 5pm a group of 25 Polish people is coming to visit the cemetery. He then points out a youth working in the grounds. The young man is Polish and has come to spend time volunteering here. The Polish section of Doulab Cemetery is important in the history of Poland. Many Polish people visit to reflect and remember.