Lior Sternfeld on Polish Refugees in Mid-Century Tehran, War and Migration in the Cosmopolitan City

Emerging Scholarship is a series showcasing the research and interests of new voices emerging from academia that focus on the social worlds, histories, and traveling cultures of Central and West Asia.

Lior Sternfeld received his PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin (2014). He is currently a lecturer of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and will be joining the Department of History and the program of Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University as Assistant Professor in Fall of 2015. He is a social historian working primarily on Iran and the Iranian Jewish communities. His current book project examines the integration of the Jews in Iran in the twentieth century and their participation in nation building. His next project studies the origins of “Third-Worldism” in the Middle East.

We spoke with Lior Sternfeld at the Middle Eastern Studies Association conference in Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Our interview with Dr. Sternfeld focuses on his research concerning Polish refugees in Iran during the mid-twentieth century. Dr. Sternfeld will soon be joining the History Department at Penn State University as an Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies.

1) AjamMC: Hello everyone, we’re here with another installment of Emerging Scholarship Series for Ajam Media Collective. Today we are speaking with Dr. Lior Sternfeld, lecturer of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin [editor’s note: since this interview, Dr. Sternfeld has been hired as an Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University]. Some of you may remember him from another article he’s written for us on Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Pahlavi intellectual relationships with Israel. Today, he’ll be talking to us about his research on Polish refugees to Iran during the Second World War. Lior, it is so nice to have you here.

LS: It’s great to be here! Thanks for having me.

2) AjamMC: Ajam has published on Polish-Iranian connections in the past. We had a collaborative series with Slavs and Tatars on shared Polish Catholic and Iranians Shia culture, even similar perspectives on revolutions and revolutionary movements. We have some background, but tell us a little a bit about your own research.

LS: My research focuses on Iranian nationalism and the Iranian nation-building project during the Pahlavi period and especially how the Jewish community in Iran experienced these developments of identity.

3) AjamMC: Could you tell us about the circumstances of Polish refugees to Iran during this period?

LS: Just before the Second World War started, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. It was known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement, and it practically divided Poland into two spheres of influence or zones of occupation. The western zone was occupied by Nazi Germany, and the eastern zone was occupied by the Soviet Union. After they took this territory, the Soviets sought to have a rapid process of Sovietization, in which they technically deported all the people that they saw as “class enemies.”

These class enemies were the bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, property owners, people who had something that the Soviets wanted. These people were deported so that the Soviets could confiscate their properties. In a matter of a few months, 1.8 million Polish citizens were deported to Siberia and sent to gulags. Most of them were Polish Catholics, but there were many other ethnic groups that lived in Eastern Poland, including Ukrainians and Jews.

In 1941, after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin decided to join the Allies against Nazi Germany. The exiled Polish cabinet in London figured that it would be a good time to get amnesty for the Polish prisoners in Siberia. With the support of the British government, they turned to Stalin and asked for this amnesty, and looked for places to relocate those refugees. Out of the 1.8 exiled prisoners, only half of them survived less than two years later. 850,000 Polish refugees remained in Siberia.

At this point, the Allies had already decided to invade Iran, and the British were also in India. They decided to send about 450,000 refugees to Iran and 400,000 to India. Shortly after they occupied Iran and overthrew Reza Shah, they started to transfer the prisoners from Siberia to Iran.

4) AjamMC: That’s incredible! Can we then talk a little bit about Iran’s relationship with Nazi Germany?

LS: In the beginning of the war, Iran declared neutrality. Contrary to the popular belief that Reza Shah supported Hitler, this was not the case. Iran was neutral for the first part of the war. There were a few ties between Iran and Germany, including economic and military ties, but Iran was neutral and wanted to remain neutral for the remainder of the war. But, Britain feared for the British navy’s oil supply, and figured that if Nazi Germany would be able to gain more influence in Iran, it would be very traumatic for the way the Second World War would evolve.

After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, they figured that they must get full hold of Iran in 1941. Then, they decided to occupy in July of 1941 and they divided Iran into two spheres of influence, the northern part was under Soviet control, and the southern part under British control. Later, when the US joined the allies in 1941, they were integrated as well into this military occupation of Iran.

5) AjamMC: Iran has a complicated history with refugees. From the east, there are refugees from Afghanistan, from the west, there were and continue to be refugees from Iraq. What does the Polish story tell us about Iran’s relationships with refugees, especially since the Polish did not share a border with Iran.

LS: This goes back to the fact that they were actually in Siberia, Russia, and the Soviet Union did share a border with Iran at this point. The first part of the move was from Poland to Siberia, and then from Siberia to Iran. It is important to emphasize that it was not totally imposed on Iran to accept these refugees. As we see in documents, the Iranian government was willing and wanted to help in the war effort and save the refugees.

Iran had dealt with refugees for many, many years, and had dealt with them before the Second World War. The minorities helped absorb those refugees. The Armenian Church, for example, helped accommodate the needs of the Catholic refugees, and helped them establish schools, orphanages, youth clubs, and supplied them with their religious needs. The Jewish community actively helped to absorb the Jewish refugees.

The Jewish community actually faced two waves of refugee arrivals–one from Poland, another in 1941 after the Farhud in Iraq, when about 10-15,000 Iraqi Jews fled to Iran and arrived in Abadan and Tehran. It was a time for the religious minorities to help their coreligionists who came to Iran in times of need.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 7.04.22 AM
Cafe Polonia in wartime Downtown Tehran (screen shot from “Lost Requiem”)

6) AjamMC: My family is from Isfahan, and when I talk to my family, they remember the Polish refugees. They would talk about these blonde, blue eyed, beautiful children who would be running around and playing in the streets. Can we talk about the influence of Polish refugees in Tehran and in Isfahan, but especially in Tehran, in building a more cosmopolitan city, culturally and politically? What do you think?

LS: That’s spot on. As I mentioned earlier, the Polish refugees were the elite of Poland. After two years in the gulags, they were willing to accept anything. They arrived to Tehran and Isfahan, and all of a sudden, after two years of imprisonment in very harsh conditions, they were free people. They could create and establish the same kind of cultural life that they had before the war. In a few months, after their arrival to mostly Tehran and also Isfahan, we see many cultural institutions that were built by the Polish people for the Polish people. Later, these institutions were adopted by the Iranian middle class, including bars, cabarets, and cafes. For example, until the revolution, there was a Cafe Polonia on Lalehzar Street in Tehran.

It was also part of the war economy. On top of the 450,000 refugees, there were about 500,000 British, Indian, and Russian soldiers in Iran. The Polish refugees had people to interact with in terms of exchange of cultural products. The entire industry of Polish entertainment flourished in Tehran at this time. Theater, cabarets, prostitution, these are all examples of industries that evolved around the war economy.

7) AjamMC: This seems like such a vibrant period. You mentioned that there was a Cafe Polonia right up until the revolution. What happened to the refugees during the revolution? Were they still there? Did they leave?

LS: Most of the refugees left in 1945 after the war. Very few of them returned to Poland. The majority of them went to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. About 5-7% decided to stay in Iran, mostly in Tehran. In Tehran, we still have Polish churches and cemeteries. Very few cultural establishments from before the revolution remain there, but they stayed for a while.

Today, we cannot really speak of a Polish community in Tehran. But the fact that there are still Catholic churches whose ministers are Polish-speaking attests to the vibrant Polish environment of the 40s and 50s and later on.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *