BEIRUT: The Polish War Cemetery is tucked away at the end of a quiet street in Qasqas lined with a collection of graveyards that are each microcosms of a specific moment in Lebanese history.
Neat rows of tall headstones stand sentry in the grassy graveyard for British troops. The street is flanked by two separate sprawling French military graveyards where more than 1,000 soldiers who died in Lebanon between the two world wars are buried beneath flat, white marble headstones embedded in gravel.
On first glance, the smallest, most fortified cemetery at the end of the block is almost indistinguishable from the fenced off French graveyard next door, save for the barbed wire ringing its perimeter and the presence of a Polish flag.
A plaque that is only apparent to visitors admitted beyond the locked gates of the cemetery indicates that the 137 Polish nationals buried there were not military combatants, but indirect casualties of World War II who were invited to seek temporary refuge in Lebanon between 1943 and 1950.
“Here lie the Poles who narrowly escaped gulags and prisons,” the plaque reads. “They passed away on Lebanese land on the way to their fatherland. Poland remembers them. Beirut 2010.”
The Polish War Cemetery remains one of the only concrete reminders of the estimated 5,000 Polish refugees who lived in Lebanon in the late 1940s and a monument to a community that is rapidly fading from the nation’s collective memory.
The first wave of 500 Polish refugees arrived on the shores of St. Simon beach in February 1944, and 1,500 arrived the following July. After a brief quarantine period they were each given a monthly stipend of $12 to cover living costs and rent and sent to live with Lebanese families in villages like Ghazir, Zouk Mikael, Ajaltoun, Beit Shabaab, Roumieh and Baabdat.
There were an estimated 4,600 Polish refugees in the country by September 1946 when immigration peaked, according to a press conference convened by the Polish delegation in Lebanon at the time.
Many of the refugees were university-aged women who had been deported to Siberia by Soviet Troops in 1940 and and then resettled in Isfahan, Iran in 1942. In 1944, the refugees at Isfahan were transferred to different countries once again, and thousands of Polish women who needed to complete their college degrees came to Lebanon.
Marzena Zielinska Schemaly, who published a book about the experience of Polish refugees in Lebanon in 2012 titled, “Le Cedre Et L’Aigle: Les Polonais au Liban, une Coexistence Singuliere,” says the influence of Polish nationals who studied at the American University of Beirut, Saint Joseph University, and the newly established Academy of Fine Arts in Beirut (ALBA) between 1944 and 1948, particularly the 400 female students, far outstrips their numbers.
“I met a Lebanese who studied medicine in the 1940s and he said that it was sort of a Polish time at the universities,” Schemaly told The Daily Star. “If there was a woman in university they were often Polish because many of the Lebanese [women] were not studying at the time ... ALBA was just established at the time and they had a big influence there because many of them had already studied so they had experience. They made a revolution at the painting school.”
Five of the 10 graduates of ALBA’s first class of architecture students in 1948 were Polish and three were Lebanese. Though Polish architect Karol Schayer was in his 40s when he settled in Beirut in 1947, in the 30 years he lived in Lebanon, he built 150 buildings in the country including the Carlton Hotel and the old Spinney’s store. He is also buried in the cemetery.
The first female graduate of the USJ Dentistry School was also a Polish woman whose sister was studying physics at AUB. The faculty had reservations about admitting a female student in an all-male department, but they relented and three more women enrolled at the USJ Dentistry School the following year.
Aleksandra Rymaszewska was one of them. Over the phone from her home in England, she recalled only fond, distant memories of the four years she spent in Lebanon from 1944 to 1948.
“It was beautiful, my idea of heaven at the time,” Rymaszewska said. “The people were friendly, it was beautiful and we got to study. We couldn’t ask for more then.”
Since none of the Polish students who earned degrees in Lebanon were allowed to work in the country, most of them, including Rymaszewska, left and settled elsewhere in Europe.
By 1950 only 200 Polish refugees remained in Lebanon. Most of them were women who had married Lebanese men.
Zofia Lorfing, who is now buried in the Polish War Cemetery along with her brother, was among them, according to her son, Nasri Chami.
Lorfing was born in Sokol, Poland, in 1924 and sent to Siberia at the age of 18 with her mother, father and brother. They moved to a refugee camp in Tehran for a few years, where her father died from an illness. In 1945, her family moved to Beirut and she enrolled at USJ to study nursing. Lorfing’s aunt was also living in Beirut at the time in the home of a Lebanese family. In 1947, she paid her aunt a visit at Chami’s family home and three years later the couple were married.
Nasri Chami said their marriage was a happy one, and the only cultural conflicts were linguistic.
“The only thing they couldn’t agree on was which language to speak,” Chami said over the phone from his home in Paris. “The agreement was that no one in the family would speak Arabic or French, only Polish.”
Chami says his mother visited Poland every two years and took the whole family there for the first time when he was 13. She also remained close with a community of about a dozen Polish women who had married Lebanese men. Every year on Nov. 1 the group met at the Polish Cemetery with their children to mark Remembrance Day. Chami met one of his closest friends at one of those ceremonies.
Przemyslawa Azzi remembers a more difficult transition into a Lebanese household when she married her husband, Fouad. He spotted her in the crowd at a reception in his families’ home in Ghazir thrown by the Polish Consulate. She moved to London soon after to complete her studies and he began writing her letters nearly every day, she said. In 1951, despite her mother’s opposition, she flew back to Lebanon and they were married at 9 p.m. that night.
“When you change a cultures and change your way of life, it is not easy,” Azzi said from the living room of her husband's family home where they first met.
“It was very, very hard but I don’t regret it. My husband defended me which was very nice, because men are king here.”
The language barrier, opposition from Azzi’s family whose other son also married a Polish woman, and the conventions of the Middle East all took decades for Azzi to get used to. More than 70 years since she first arrived in Lebanon, she staunchly refuses to give into certain social dictates like attending the funerals of people she doesn’t know in the village.
“What pushed me to marry him was that I needed a place to stay. They told me to go one place, I went there. Then they told us to go somewhere else and we went there. I needed to not carry a suitcase anymore.”