The Polish Community of Iraq: Here’s what we know…

After leaving the Soviet gulags in 1942, many Polish soldiers and civilians settled in Iraq

Polish First Communion in Iraq. Photo: From the archive of General Ząbkowski via www.erbil.mfa.gov.pl

By Staff Reporter

Culture 29 January 2019

Earlier this week we came across a tweet that stopped us scrolling. Mysa Kafil-Hussain, Archive Manager at Azzawi Arts in the UK, posted the following tweet.

“Did you guys know there was a large(ish) Polish community in Iraq in the early 1940s? And did you know they had a newspaper? ‘Kurier Polski w Bagdadzie’ reported on World War 2, events in Iraq, and advertised community announcements, sports, art, music etc.”

The tweet also included three photos of said Polish newspaper whose title translates to Polish Courier in Baghdad. On a thread that has so far received 199 likes and 95 retweets, Mysa went on to write that:

“Tens of people (soldiers & civilians) were released from Soviet gulags, evacuated by the British, and shipped to or walked to Palestine via Iran & Iraq, with a lot of them settling in Iraq for a long time. Many died making the journey (snow, cold, mountains)… “Also, there were some artists in Polish communities within Iraq who collaborated with, and really influenced the first generation of Iraqi modernists by throwing elements of European modernism into the mix.”

For many Arabs, particularly Iraqis, this information might sound far fetched. So The Arab Edition went off on an online scavenger hunt to find out more. Not only was Mysa’s tweet correct and accurate, it’s probably only the tip of a fascinating did you know, historical ice burg.

Here’s what we found out so far:

Towards the end of World War II, the Polish Armed Forces in the East, known as Anders’ Army (named after its commander Władysław Anders) were created in the Soviet Union in March 1942.

Based on the British-Soviet-Polish understanding, Anders’ Army was evacuated from the Soviet Union and marched to Europe through Central Asia and the Middle East particularly from Iran to Palestine.

It seems that Anders’ Army initially arrived to Iraq through Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish mountains proved to be an ideal region for training for the army, proving to be quite useful to them during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, which lasted from January 17 – May 19 in 1944.

Polish soldiers and Kurdish locals. Photo: www.erbil.mfa.gov.pl

Anders’ Army and civilians who left Soviet Russia in 1942 and found themselves in Iraq, didn’t only organize training camps but hospitals, theaters, football teams and shops as well.  Many of them were ill or recovering from accidents due to the extreme conditions of the march from the gulags, and many also remained in Iraq for the rest of their lives.

Poster for a theatrical performance with Polish actresses. . Photo: www.erbil.mfa.gov.pl

An account by Adela Krasnopolska to the BBC’s online archive describes the conditions in Iraq when she and other civilians were traveling back to Europe. Adela was sent to the infamous gulags (labour camps) of Siberia in the summer of 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and then marched back with the soldiers when she was released with others.

“We sailed through the Caspian Sea to Persia and Iraq. Some people on the ship died during the voyage, and their bodies were thrown into the sea. In Iraq near Baghdad the temperature reached 50 degrees Centigrade. Once when visibility was virtually nil. I nearly drowned in Lake Habbaniya, after I had lost all sense of where I was.  We moved on to Transjordan (now Jordan) and I bathed my legs in the river Jordan, where Jesus was baptised.’

A Nomad met in the Desert photographed by a Polish soldier. Photo: www.erbil.mfa.gov.pl

Adela Krasnopolska’s husband Tadeusz Krasnopolski, was a polish soldier. Adela also describes his experience of Iraq at the time:

“By early 1942 Britain had been saved from the threat of imminent invasion by the Battle of Britain, in which one in every eight pilots was Polish. Many Polish soldiers were sent to the Middle East, to Palestine via the Cape of Good Hope route. Later they trained in the Iraqi desert near Kirkuk and Mosul, alongside their compatriot survivors from the battle of Tobruk and from the Soviet Union. They were also ready to defend Iraqi oil-fields from possible German air-attacks that could be launched from the Libyan Desert.’

Though Adela Krasnopolska and her husband Tadeusz Krasnopolski moved on from Iraq, many Polish people allegedly didn’t. As Mysa’s tweet mentioned, many of those that left the Soviet Gulags to return to Europe were not only soldiers but civilians as well. These included women, children and men who had different professions, which included actors who allegedly put on shows.

Polish First Communion in Iraq. Photo: From the archive of General Ząbkowski via www.erbil.mfa.gov.pl

Polish soliders attending mass in Kurdistan. Photo: From the archive of General Ząbkowski via www.erbil.mfa.gov.pl

One of the “civilians” was the famed brown bear Wojtek. On April 8 in 1942, Polish soldiers met a young Kurdish boy at a railroad station in Hamadan, Iran. The boy had found the bear cub after its mother was shot by hunters. An eighteen-year-old refugee woman by the name of Irena Bokiewicz, convinced one of the Anders’ Army lieutenants to buy him.

Wojtek the Syrian brown bear

Wojtek spent the next three months in a Polish refugee camp near Tehran and then traveled with the army to Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. By the time the polish forces made it the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek weighed around 200 pounds. Wojtek was even enlisted officially as a soldier with the rank of private, and was then promoted to corporal. After the war Wojtek lived out the rest of his days at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland.

There are still traces of the Polish people in Iraq from cemeteries, single headstones and commemorative plaques. But since the 2003 Iraqi invasion the potential damage of the remaining polish cemeteries has been mostly unknown.

The Baghdad War cemetery where many Polish soldered and allegedly civilians were buried. Photo: Marcin Faliński via www.bagdad.msz.gov.pl

Polish agencies in Iraq: Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Baghdad and the Consular Agency of the Republic of Poland in Erbil, have been actively trying to find and list Polish places of remembrance, in Iraq and in Kurdistan.

Although we haven’t found as much information about the Polish people who settled in Iraq as we would have liked, the story is still fascinating on many levels.

NOTE: This is an ongoing story where photos and new information will be added or amended. If you have any information, archival images or photos you’d like to share on this story, get in touch with out editorial team here or follow our social media platforms.

Credits:
https://erbil.mfa.gov.pl
https://bagdad.msz.gov.pl
‘WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar’ esoluteadelak, WW2 People’s War’

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