The steamer docked.
Barely recognisable as human beings, exhausted by the hard labour of the Siberian gulags, disease and starvation, we formed a line and shuffled across a short boardwalk and onto the sands of Pahlevi beach.
Large numbers fell down on their knees and kissed the sand. Others silently prayed. We had reached the promised land.
In that moment we Poles owed a massive debt of gratitude to Persia (modern day Iran). The country had been incredibly generous to us and we would never forget this.
The air was chilly, it had snowed just days ago and a little evidence of it was still lying around. I was lucky to be one of 43,858 Poles who were evacuated in Wave 1 over a period of 11 days starting on 25th March, a little snow was the least of my worries! We had endured much more in Siberia.
Fellow countrymen who had arrived ahead of us greeted us, shook our hands, patted our backs. Life suddenly felt good! A photographer near us took a few photos of us.
One day I thought, this moment will be famous, this photograph will tell the world ll about Stalin and his plot to annihilate us by hard labour.
Fairly quickly a Polish officer came over to us and told us to proceed to a cordoned off area where we would be disinfected, deloused, have our heads shaven and sprayed with disinfectant. It seemed a little strange but also reassuring because at last someone was caring for us.
Well, I entered the tent and had all of the above done to me, strange, we all looked alike with shaven heads! There were many laughs amongst us about this, our first haircut in years.
We were then issued with British Army uniforms and told to head to the canteen for food. I could not believe my ears! For years we had scrapped around for scraps of food and now a feast awaited us!
I was completely intoxicated with the spirit of Polish friendliness that was all around me. A new life was about to begin, I was a free man, there was food and shelter, I wanted for nothing more in that moment.
On the way to the canteen I looked up the beach, a sea of tents were there all the way to the horizon, maybe even as many as 2000 tents.
They were all full with refugees. There was bathhouses, latrines, disinfection booths, laundries, sleeping quarters, bakeries and a hospital. I could not believe my eyes!
I asked the officer leading us, "Has all this been put together for us?" "Yes" he replied "The British Army has worked together with the Polish forces that were already present in Persia to ensure that we could accommodate all of the evacuees from the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, we don't know how many of you there will be or on what days or times, or even in what health state you will be, so please excuse the dis-organisation. We have even requisitioned every available house and even chairs from cinemas, you have no idea how busy we have been".
Wow, I thought, this is all too much to take in after the Soviet paradise experience.
Just then we passed a group of skeletal people in rags, clearly ravaged by lice but still fiercely holding their bundles of possessions for fear of losing them.
I felt such pity for them and what they had been through. But, they were free and that was worth more than anything else right now.
Just before reaching the canteen we passed the hospital where people who had suffered years of starvation, hard labour and disease were being treated for malaria, dysentary, typhus, skin infections, exhaustion, scabs and a thing called chicken blindness.
We silently continued onwards, counting our blessings and reached the canteen. At the canteen the aroma of fresh food filled our lungs.
There as definitely Polish food there but I detected another smell, very aromatic. This must be Persian food I concluded.
We were warned to only eat a little because our bodies were not used to large quantities of food and certainly not used to Persian food.
When a man has been starved for 4 years he will go crazy when he comes near food and shamelessly I along with others overfed.
We left the canteen and made our way back to the tents. On the way back we all were very, very sick, clearly not used to so much food and strange food at that! I must be more careful in future I thought.
That night, I slept in a tent on the beach at Pahlevi. In the tent were 14 other men. We talked for hours, exchanging notes, stories and the like. We could not believe our luck with this new found freedom.
The next day we went for an exploratory wander and found that they had divided the reception area for us Poles into 2 distinct areas.
One was for the infected where they were cleaned and clothed (old clothes being burned there), sometimes quarantined, the other was for the clean.
I heard there were only 10 doctors and 25 nurses in the whole of Pahlevi and these had been full time requisitioned to the Polish camp to look after us. I felt very indebted to the Persian people.
We walked past a body being loaded into a van. Apparently the person had died from eating! I had never heard of this and asked the stretcher bearers how this could happen.
They told me that the stomachs of the Poles could not tolerate rich, fatty foods and that complications arose leading to death. Shock! Stalin was still taking victims, even right here in Pahlevi!
On our walk about we encountered many Iranian locals who greeted us with warm smiles and generosity.
This armed our souls much more than the food did for we had been oppressed for so long by the Russians that it was encouraged to be so well received.
We also encountered some Russians there, apparently they too had a center nearby and we observed very strained relations between the Russians and the British and also between the Russians and the Polish.
This was in contrast to the Persian military who received voluntary salutes from the Polish soldiers.
Mass On The Beach (April 5 1942)
On the 5th April 1942 on the beach at Pahlevi there was a Polish Mass. So many turned out, it was our first chance since 1939 to engage in a religious activity freely. It felt so liberating.
The Easter Sunday mass took place from a field alter that had been erected on the beach. Prayers were said for the living and the dead. Thanksgiving hymns sung enthusiastically, rays of sun broke out halfway through, we felt liberated as if God himself were shining his light upon us after all the years of darkness in Siberia.
Our joyful hearts sang out loudly and happily yet with christian devotion. Our voices carried across the Caspian Sea, could Stalin hear us we wondered?
A Mass of Resurrection was celebrated and the priests then offered the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Funny to think how days before these Polish priests had been incarcerated in the Soviet Union!
We prayed for the dead and the ill and thanked God for our safe passage to Pahlevi.
There were many humanitarian organisations that had come to Pahlevi to assist the Poles. We must have been a very scary sight to them as we disembarked from those rusty Soviet ships that brought us across the Caspian Sea. We were sick, malnourished, exhausted and in many cases covered in ulcers, lice and too weak to walk.
When they saw us undertake our religious celebration they must have been emotive too, to see a downtrodden people enjoying something that meant a lot to them and which had been denied them in the Soviet Union.
Life In Pahlevi
Looking back, Pahlevi was no paradise but it certainly seemed so to us at the time. Compared to the labour camps, Bolshevism and Stalin's country this place Pahlevi seemed to have it all. There was evidence of money everywhere. Shops, food, belongings, the shops sold it all. It was too much to take in.
In the Soviet Union shelves were bare, even shop windows. This was such a contrast! This was a paradise, heaven even!
Those days we lived on the beach, ate well and spent the day sightseeing in Pahlevi would come to an end. We all knew it. There was a war to be won and we had to get back to training. But the beauty of the place with its Mosques, bazaares mystically spellbound us!
I would have so many tales to tell Stanislaw, Lucyna and Zdzislaw when I got back to Poland. They might never believe me such was the fantastical nature of it all.
The improved diet, improved sanitation and access to healthcare improved our own health rapidly. In days we were unrecognizable from our former skeletal beings.