Polish cemetery in Tehran

Polish refugee section of the Catholic cemetery in Tehran

Polish refugee section of the Catholic cemetery in Tehran

When Kimie Takahashi and myself interviewed participants for Japanese on the Move, our video exhibition of transnational life-stories, one of our interviewees, artist Mayu Kanamori, asked to conduct the interview in Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery, where she wanted to show us the final resting place of the first known Japanese settler in Australia. Mayu raised a number of questions about the spiritual belonging of transnationals and about ‘death on the move.’ I was reminded of that conversation with Mayu during my visit to Tehran’s Christian Doulab Cemetery.

Death far from home

The Polish section occupies about three quarters of the Catholic cemetery and constitutes the final resting place of almost 2,000 men, women and children who died in Tehran between 1942-1945.

The story of the Poles lying in Iranian soil is one of the less well-known tragedies of World War II. As part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact what was then Eastern Poland (and is today part of Belarus and Ukraine) was annexed by the Soviets in 1939. Around 1.5 million Poles were deported from the area to camps in Siberia. The vast majority of these died in the following months under horrific circumstances. Only around 250,000 of the deported Poles are known to have survived in Siberia. The survivors were released in 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union so that they could join in the war effort against the Nazis. However, many of these survivors chose to flee instead and around 115,000 managed to reach Allied-occupied Iran.

Two of the headstones in the Polish refugee section

Two of the headstones in the Polish refugee section

Making it to Iran was like reaching the Promised Land for the evacuees, as one of them recalls in her memoirs:

Exhausted by hard labor, disease and starvation – barely recognizable as human beings – we disembarked at the port of Pahlavi [present-day Bandar-e Anzali]. There, we knelt down together in our thousands along the sandy shoreline to kiss the soil of Persia. We had escaped Siberia and were free at last. We had reached our longed-for Promised Land. (quoted from Ryszard Antolak, “Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942.” ParsTimes)

For a few years, the Polish community flourished in Tehran:

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.

Among the organizations formed to care for the educational and cultural needs of the exiles was the influential Institute of Iranian Studies begun by a small group of Polish academicians. In three years from 1943 to 1945 this group published three scholarly volumes and scores of other articles on Polish-Iranian affairs. (Ryszard Antolak, “Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942.” ParsTimes)

Memorial stone at the center of the Polish refugee section: French-Persian plaque (the Polish version is on the other side of the monument)

Memorial stone at the center of the Polish refugee section: French-Persian plaque (the Polish version is on the other side of the monument)

However, death was ever-present in this group of weakened survivors, as the Catholic cemetery in Doulab vividly demonstrates. Each of the small 1,869 refugee graves (see here for a map of the cemetery) has an identical headstone inscribed with a number, the Polish abbreviation ‘S.P.’ (‘swietej pamieci,’ ‘in memory of’), a name, the year of birth and the year of death, and the Latin abbreviation ‘R.I.P.’ (‘requiescat in pace,’ ‘may s/he rest in peace’).

In the center of the Polish refugee section are two memorial stones, one with a trilingual inscription in Polish, French and Persian and the other bilingual in Polish and English. The trilingual one is roughly similar in the three languages and the Polish version reads as follows:


To the memory of the Polish exiles who, on their return journey to their homeland, found the peace of God, 1942-1944 (my translation from the French and Persian inscriptions)

The English version of the bilingual memorial stone, which looks more recent than the trilingual one, is similar in content but provides more detail and reads as follows:


As it so happens, the inscriptions on both these monuments are historically incorrect: the Polish refugees were not on their way “to their homeland” because – also in Tehran in 1943 but worlds away from the refugees – Churchill and Roosevelt conceded what had been Eastern Poland to Stalin’s USSR and the remainder of Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence.

Death in a new home

One of the tombstones of the Poles who settled in Tehran. The mixed name shows that Yanina Kaganowska married into a Persian family

One of the tombstones of the Poles who settled in Tehran. The mixed name shows that Yanina Kaganowska married into a Persian family

For the majority of the survivors, their stay in Iran was temporary and they later resettled in the UK, the Americas, Africa and Australasia. However, some also chose to stay and to rebuild their shattered lives in Iran as is evidenced by the graves in the far corner of the Polish section. There, a number of larger and personalized tombstones have been erected to the memory of people born in Poland who died in Tehran as recently as 2002. Most of these commemorate women who married Iranian men as is evidenced by their Persian surnames.

I looked at these graves with mixed feelings: on the one hand, their personalized details, the fact that they were commemorating much older people than the refugee graves, and the names in which Polish and Persian have become mixed speak of lives lived fully in a new home. On the other hand, they are all single graves and the Iranian husbands and families of these women thus must lie elsewhere (maybe in Tehran’s huge Behest-e Zahra Cemetery, where the city’s Muslims find their final resting place). The fact that none of these graves are family graves – despite the fact that the women obviously had new families in Iran – speaks to the fact that faith and nation continue to divide in death those who were joined in life.

Parceling up the dead

French flag marking a little girl as French national

French flag marking a little girl as French national

The divisions of faith are made concrete in the architecture of the Doulab cemetery complex, a feature that is, of course, not unique to Iran’s cemeteries. To begin with, Tehran’s dead Christians are physically separated from the city’s Muslims and Jews, who have their own cemeteries elsewhere. Second, even within the Christian complex the various denominations are divided into their own separate compounds: the Catholic cemetery is separated by large walls from the adjoining Armenian and Russian cemeteries (the so-called ‘Russian’ cemetery seems to house all non-Armenian and/or non-Iranian Orthodox Christians).

Divisions of nation of origin also continue to persist within the Catholic cemetery. Although widely known as ‘Polish cemetery’ because such a large number of Poles are lying there, the cemetery was started in 1855 with a mausoleum for Dr. Louis André Ernest Cloquet, a Frenchman who died prematurely while serving as personal physician to the Shah. The memorial to this Catholic was placed close to – but outside of – the Armenian cemetery. Since then Catholics from most European countries have also found their final resting place there and the cemetery’s sections are more or less clearly divided into national sections.

The banal nationalism of death is most obvious in the cases of the French and Italian dead who lie in Doulab: their embassies have taken the trouble of placing little metal French or Italian flags at the foot of each French or Italian grave.

This tombstone could be located anywhere in Germany. There is nothing in the inscription that suggests that Franz Sänger actually lies in Tehran

This tombstone could be located anywhere in Germany. There is nothing in the inscription that suggests that Franz Sänger actually lies in Tehran

While such flags are absent from the graves of other nationals lying in Doulab, the language of the tombstones is in most cases the language of the country of birth. None of the German graves I visited, for instance, shows any sign that the person lying there must have lived a transnational life and must, to a smaller or larger degree, have been part of the fabric not only of German but also Iranian society during their lives. The inscriptions on the tombstones bear no traces of a life partly lived in Iran: for all that the inscriptions suggest, the graves might have been located in Germany.

How could a tombstone inscription suggest a transnational life? At the Doulab cemetery, I saw two options: a multilingual inscription or a lingua franca inscription.

A multilingual inscription is exemplified by the Polish, French and Persian trilingual memorial discussed above. On individual tombstones in the Catholic section multilingual inscriptions are rare and, unless I overlooked something, absent from the graves of Europeans. The few that I noticed are bilingual in various combinations of Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, French, Persian and Russian. In some cases, it was impossible to identify the languages other than to say that the inscriptions were both in the Latin and Arabic scripts.

A bilingual tombstone in French and Assyrian is suggestive of the complex life that Paul Sarmas must have led

A bilingual tombstone in French and Assyrian is suggestive of the complex life that Paul Sarmas must have led

While monolingual tombstones predominate in the Catholic section, over in the Orthodox section the situation is different and tombstones inscribed in multiple languages and scripts – Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Georgian, Greek, Latin and Russian – are more frequent there.

As regards lingua franca inscriptions, I consider an inscription as lingua franca if the tombstone is inscribed in a language other than a/the language of the country of origin of the deceased or a language of Iran (in practice, in this case, that means Armenian, Assyrian and Persian). The most frequent lingua franca by far is French and one final surprise was the absence of English in this international space: other than in the Polish-English bilingual memorial mentioned above, there was only one single tombstone inscribed in English:


The nationality of the deceased is listed as German in the cemetery’s registry, a country where she was neither born nor died, further illustrating the complexity of transnational life and death.

Where the spirit rests

Keeping the dead within the boundaries of the living: the gate to the walled-in Catholic section of the Doulab Cemetery Complex

Keeping the dead within the boundaries imagined by the living: the gate to the walled-in Catholic section of the Doulab Cemetery Complex

Dying away from ‘home’ is often invested with special sadness. According to an overview of Polish cemeteries in Iran, a number of the commemorative plaques in other Polish burial sites in Iran stress the fact that these people died “on foreign soil.” There is indeed a deep sense of sadness and loss emanating from the refugee graves. However, that is because of the evil that cut short the lives of the people who lie there and that made the circumstances of their final years so horrific.

By contrast, the graves of those Poles who had decided to stay on in Tehran after the war and to rebuild their lives there and those of the other foreign-born lying there did not move me in this way. What is striking about those is the desire of the living to inscribe the boundaries of faith, nation and language even on those who obviously led lives that transcended those very boundaries.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Li Jia

    Dear Ingrid, thanks for being our “eyes” discovering the unseen world of language for us. Honestly I’ve never considered the language ideologies embedded in tombstone inscription. What an inspirational discovery of transnational life and death! I’m just curious about the predominate monolingualism found in the Catholic tombstones section and I’m wondering if such monolingual representation is closely related with its homogenized pursuit of being Christ-like?

    • Thank you, Li Jia!
      As regards your question (and with the disclaimer that I’m not a theologian), I don’t think that monolingualism has any particular meaning in the Catholic faith. If anything, there has always been the duality of Latin as the language of the Church and the vernaculars. Of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition generally sees linguistic diversity as an evil, as evidenced by the Tower of Babel myth. Interestingly, this monolingual ideology is not shared in Islam, where linguistic diversity is regarded as one of the signs of God (as I learnt during another visit to Tehran).
      I’d be interested to learn what, if anything, other religious traditions have to say about linguistic diversity?

  • Thank you for this most interesting writing. Our constant wish to create borders and boundaries is indeed mysterious. I wonder about this human need often.

  • Guo Jian

    There is an old Chinese saying “落叶归根”,which means fallen leaves return to the roots — to revert to one’s origin.

    For many people, the desire of going back home and being buried at home is quite strong. But I think the feelings of acception and belonging in a community may relieve a foreigner’s fear for death.

    What moves me is the woman who was buried seperately from her spouse and family. I wonder how did she feel when she knew that she would be buried lonely instead of being together with her family. That must have caused a horrible feeling and desperate loneliness if she thought a lot of death. She had transcended the boundaries of faith, nation and language, but she was still labeled as a foreigner and outsider.

  • Mohsen Alipour

    This is a very thought provoking piece of writing and points to some subtle attitudes existing in the Iranian community that even I was not explicitly aware of even though I’m an Iranian. especially the part that talks about polish people who chose to integrate themselves into the Iranian society and yet were divided from their Iranian families after death.I’ve also felt this tendency among majority of Iranians to keep their distance from other communities that have a different religion, race, etc. for example, the Armenian minority in Isfahan(central Iran) live in an area called jolfa. although they’re not physically separate from other people who live in the same city but still there are some kind of invisible wall between them and other people and you could just feel that by walking in the streets of Jolfa, the same can be said about Zoroastrians and Jewish community in Yazd (another city in central Iran) . I think this is a really interesting part of collective Iranian psyche and could be investigated further.

  • Paul Desailly

    I wish I’d seen your essay earlier Dr. Ingrid; so much of your research connects with my next book – From Babel to Bahai. I decided to examine your work in more detail on receiving your post on Ferdinand de Saussure as his brother had an enormous impact on Esperanto, my hobby. Have I got it right that you speak and write also Farsi? Given the date I’m not surprised that the language of my ancestors is the main lingua franca then in Tehran: Ephemeral signs of the power of French remain even today in many ways: French is sometimes called the language of diplomats.
    Kings, Queens, princesses, dukes etc. often use it to this day. Modern Olympics: reconstituted by the French in 1896. Even when the Olympics were in Beijing and Sydney one heard announcements first in French. Every post office in the world accepts in principle written French for parcels etc. Fashion, perfume, tourism, international words etc. etc Approx 50 countries list French as an official language, an unmatchable stat, I believe though I haven’t fully researched all this

  • Christina Szulc-Krzyzanowska

    I believe my grandmother is buried in this Cemetery. She died of typhoid after leaving the Soviet labour camps in Alma Aty with her daughter. My grandfather was executed in the camp. How can I find out whether she is buried there?
    Her name was Leokadia Burian ( maiden name Krycuiz) born 1891.) I’ m not sure of the year she died. Possibly 1944.
    If anyone could point me in the right direction I would greatly appreciate this.

    • Hi Christina, the cemetry has an online database at http://doulabcemetery.com/en/search.asp; Leokadia Burian is recorded there as having died in 1942; an image of her gravestone can be accessed here. Best wishes, Ingrid

      • Christina Szulc-Krzyzanowska

        Thank you so much.
        Best wishes

        • Christina Szulc-Krzyzanowska

          Just to say thanks again. This will mean a lot to my mother who will be 90 in January 2014. She was one of the luck ones to have survived.

          I wondered if you knew how the graves are made up in that on the headstone it says 306 but her ID number is 138 and the grave site number is 173 Section II.
          Also would it say anywhere which hospital my grandmother died in?
          Thank you

    • Please contact me about your family. Stefan.Wisniowski (at) kresy-siberia (dot) org

  • I am interested in the email adress of the above cemetary as I have written to the Polish embassy in teheran in connection with lighting candles and laying of wreaths on my grandmothers and my 2 cousins graves, but so far have received no reply. Any information will be useful.

    Thanks in advance

    • Hi Helena, I think the only route is via the various embassies. There is a list of relevant contact details at http://www.doulabcemetery.com/en/contact.asp. Best wishes, Ingrid

      • Thanks for your prompt reply. I have been in contact with the Polish embassy but they just informed me that it is possible to visit the cemetary to light candles, which is a bit difficult at the moment as I live in Greece and have only recently got information where my Grandmother and my 2 cousins were buried,

  • Hi Ingrid
    Thanks for your post. More of the story is at the Kresy-iberia Virtual Museum (www.kresy-siberia.org). The history is incorrect though, when you say “The survivors were released in 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union so that they could join in the war effort against the Nazis. However, many of these survivors chose to flee instead and around 115,000 managed to reach Allied-occupied Iran.” These 115,000 consisted of 75,000 soldiers of the Polish Army evacuated from the USSR to fight Nazi Germany, and 40,000 accompanying civilians. The Polish Army went on to fight the Germans in Italy, including at Monte Cassino, and many of its members also joined the UK-based Polish Air Force, Polish Navy, and other armed forces fighting in western Europe. Most of the civilians were resettled in refugee camps in India, Africa, Palestine, New Zealand and Mexico for the duration of the war. Most of the military and civilians remained in the West after the war because their eastern Polish homeland was transferred to the Soviets by the Allies and Poland itself fell under Soviet occupation.

    • Quite right, including my parents. It is important to get it correct.

  • Basia Grygierczyk

    Would like to find the passenger list of Elzbieta Kozka Grygierczyk, Zbigniew Franciszek Grygierczyk and Bronislawa E;zbieta Grygierczyk left Teheran sometime in 1942-1943 to Mexico. They arrived on the first ship that left Teheran and arrived in California in June 1943 then taken by railroad to Colonial Santa Rosa in Mexico. I don’t know which ship brought them USA then by railroad to Mexico. I think it was the USS Hermitage. Interested when they departed Teheran and what route was taken by the ship that brought them to California, USA sometime around June 1943.

  • Paul Desailly

    Re-reading previous posts re a “Polish Cemetery in Tehran” I notice an inquiry as to what other Faith groups think about the tower of Babel legend, myth or teaching and about the language issue in general. For splendiferous scholarship revealing Babel’s fascinating, enduring and multifarious impacts on many cultures we owe a debt to Wikipedia’s unnamed contributors: You’ll love it; if you aint seen it already u r in for a treat. For my part this scrivener has added without commentary – save one brief linking sentence between Genesis and Zephaniah and a longer note introducing Conlanging – one Koranic and three Biblical excerpts complementing the tower’s hubristic relationship with language, interpreted by several religions as a divine warning. I’m happy to provide gratis as a pdf document for Ingrid’s readers pages 12-25 of my latest E-book “From Babel to Baha’i” detailing an updated take on Babel’s resonance into our time along with certain etymological asides re alphabet, babble, barbarian, Baha’i and so on, all of which to some degree appear in Wiki’s polished article and at length in ‘FB2B’: