The first wave of evacuees to Pahlavi, Iran brought many seriously ill men, women and children. My mother was sent on to Tehran to receive nurses training while some of her traveling companions learned secretarial skills, and others learned to repair and drive heavy equipment. From April 1 to November 3, 1942, mom was in Tehran at a hospital which was set up at the old airport to serve many of the civilians that crossed the Caspian Sea to freedom. During that time she completed an 8 week practical nurse course through the Polish Red Cross, and subsequently received additional certifications in emergency care. The nurses and doctors busily prepared for the ill and malnourished civilians that were in desperate need of care. She, her companions, many newly conscripted civilians, and soldiers of the Polish 2nd Corps were now officially under the command of the British 5th Army.
So many seriously ill people came to Tehran from the tented city set up on the shores of Pahlavi along the Caspian Sea. The diseases they had to deal with were malaria, gastrointestinal amebiasis, dysentery, night blindness, scurvy and typhus. Misery was everywhere, my mother said, but nobody complained. At least they were out of the Soviet Union and out of Stalin’s clutches.
Many of the thousands of refugees were children either orphaned or separated from family by the harsh journey through Russia. They were painfully emaciated and malnourished. Orphanages were immediately set up in Pahlavi, Tehran, and Ahvaz to care for these children.
Because so many families were separated, everyone continued to ask about lost loved ones, and mom continued to ask about her father. But no one could tell her anything.
Once training was over she was assigned to the Third Field Hospital that was to be near some of the training units of the Polish Army in the middle east. From Tehran, she was transferred to Qisil-Ribat, Iraq, north of Baghdad. The field hospital was in the middle of the Iraqi desert. The soldiers set up huge tents for the wards and the hospital needed to be functioning as soon as possible to serve the different army units that were to train in the area. They were ready inside of a month and the patients started to roll in with all kinds of contracted diseases, complements of the Soviet Union. It did not take long for their big hospital to be full.
The desert terrain was flat and there was sand as far as the eye could see. Mom said the sand “swallowed the sun in the evening and spit it out the next morning.” The heat was intense with temperatures climbing from 100º to 140º F. and from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. nothing moved. However, if something did need to be done it was done by the nurses. They would wet their uniforms every hour to cool off and do what was necessary for the patients. At night, everyone had a bucket of water by their bed to wet down the sheets, to keep cool.
I remember when my son Christopher did three tours of duty in Iraq with the Marine Corps, he told a story about the oppressive conditions. When you went outside, it was so hot that it felt like someone just turned a hair dryer on your face.
Mom was there from November 1942 to July 1943 so part of this experience was winter in the desert. In that part of the world, winter brought on violent winds followed by monsoon rains. She recounted hearing a story that the Arabs told, “that if a man kills his wife during the monsoon (season), he isn’t punished for it; he apparently couldn’t help it.”
The rain and the winds did their damage to the hospital, which was soon cleaned up, but what she remembers best is the metamorphosis the dessert went through as a result. Instead of sand, as far as the eye can see, there were red flowers, anemones. This parallels what she and her young friends felt. Each of them experienced violent sand driven winds and monsoon rains, but what emerged was hope for the future. They believed there were anemones at the end of their journey.