Almost half a century after World War II, in an abandoned, dust-filled storage shed beside an old photography studio in Esfahan, Iran, Parisa Damandan found a unique collection of stunning Diane Arbus-esque photographs shot by Abolqasem Jala that are reminders of war in general and World War II’s human displacement. Four years ago, these discoveries were revealed in a book titled The Children of Esfahan, published in Tehran. The images were studio photos of Polish refugee children who found haven in Iran as Germans and Russians laid waste to their homeland.
Majid Abassi, editor of Neshan, the Iranian design journal, who sent this to me after reading my piece “A Sad Smile,” told me that many of the Polish children settled in Esfahan (Isfahan) and south Iran after being imprisoned by Russian captors. “The point of this book is that these were not always sad times but sometimes happy,” he noted. “They found Iran as a safe place for their life.” The following is Damandan’s fascinating Introduction:
My search for the historical roots of photography in my city of birth led me to old photography studios and into the lives of their photographers. Early in my research, consulting with older photographers, I realized that the Sharq Photography Studio on Chahar Bagh Street was one of the older studios in the city. The studio was still in operation and was being managed by the sons of the late Abolqassem Jala, the accomplished Isfahani photographer.
Both sons, Reza and Ali Jala, were welcoming of my inquiries and provided valuable information about their father. Sharq Photography Studio owed its fame in part to the precision and expertise of Abolqassem Jala in portrait photography and in other parts to his many years of experience in photojournalism and documentary photography. The results of his efforts, stored on dusty shelves in the abandoned shed behind the studio, were thousands of forgotten glass negatives packed in old boxes bearing names of Kodak, Agfa, Lumière and Gevaert. Each box was carefully marked by the photographer, with information indicating the subject of the photographs as well as their date. Over 20 boxes were labeled Lahestani-ha, 1321-23 (“Pols, 1942-44”). Abolqassem Jala’s sons explained that their father had taken studio photographs of thousands of Pols who had taken refuge in Isfahan during World War II. The sons of Abolqassem allowed me access to their father’s collection, including the Pols, so that in due time I could examine them and use them for my research. In so doing they have honored me greatly with their trust and generosity. It has been ten years now since I first laid eyes on this valuable collection.
The Polish collection included 11,000 negatives ranging in size — 4×6, 6×6 and 12×9 centimeters — and included studio portraits of individuals and groups as well as a limited number of portraits taken outside the studio, in the homes of the Polish refugees. Interestingly, the majority of those appearing in these portraits are children, women and youth. Except for a few older men, or uniformed men, grown males are largely absent from the frame.
More research led to more historical information on their odyssey and their trail to Iran. Captured as war prisoners by the Russian Army in East Poland during WWII, a group of Polish citizens spent several difficult years working in forced labor camps in Russia before migrating to Iran following an agreement between the Russians and the Allies. A small group of about 3,000 of these refugees consisted of orphaned children, who were transferred to Isfahan along with their caregivers. The hands of fate changed the course of their lives forever, allowing them to escape the hell of taigas, the steppes of Kazakistan, the deserts of Turkmenistan and Siberia and to be taken to a green and flourishing oasis in the heart of the desert — this paradise known as Isfahan. They found an opportunity to rest and to some extent forget the bitterness of their experiences. In the tranquility of this city they regained their lost strength and found hope in life and the promise of a better future. Their residence in Isfahan was also their place of eduction, which could bring a better understanding of their own culture. Their residence also provided valuable space for the happiness and play of children.
According to available statistics, approximately one million Pols were transferred to Russian. Of these, nearly 116,000 came to Iran as refugees. Only 2.5% of those who survived the labor camps were transferred to Isfahan. This is not a significant percentage.
After several years in Isfahan, most of the Polish children were transferred to Lebanon. They continued their education there, but like a spiritually connected group, these individuals identified themselves as the children of Isfahan, until they were relocated to other parts of the world, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Poland, England, as well as other European cities. They dispersed after this final relocation. They settled in new neighborhoods, got married, became home owners and had children of their own. But time and distance was no match for their deep spiritual connection. Eventually, these polish children grew old and retired, and some passed away. But those who are still alive remain in contact with one another. In fact, once a year, they come together in one corner of the world to visit with each other and speak of their memories, which they have published in the form of a book titled Isfahan the City of Polish Children.
Since the book before you has freely drawn upon several resources, including the translation of sections of diaries in Isfahan the City of Polish Children, the writings of Ms. Christina Escuarco, and documents at the National Iranian Documentary Organization, I have not footnoted individual references but refer the reader to the bibliography for further readings. Additionally, my friend Leo Davindal, the renowned Dutch writer and photographer, has written an introduction to this book. I would like to take the opportunity to thank him and others who have assisted me in the preparation of this book. I would especially like to express my gratitude to Reza, Ali and other members of the Jala family, Khosrow Sinaiee, Leon Minasian, Soheil Nafisi, Houshang Dayyari, Mahmoud Bahmanpour, and all those who contributed to the printing and publication of this book with their precision and expertise.
The main goals of this book, of course, is to introduce the unique collection of photographs of Polish Refugees taken by Abolqassem Jala. These photographs not only provide an insight into a chapter in the history of World War II, but are of particular aesthetic value. Although outside the photography studio the bitter realities of war and migration persisted, looking at these photographs, it appears as if the essence of life has, even if momentarily, pushed violence and ugliness to the side and recorded another reality on glass negative. For only a few seconds the war disappears behind dust and fog, guns stop roaring, and polonaise is heard as young girls begin to dance in the rigid silence of the photograph.
Learn even more about the history of design with Steven Heller’s Evolution of Design. Covering everything from advertisement to clip art to topics you didn’t even realize had a lengthy design history, this is the collection of your favorite columnists’ work.