Tehran could be a jolly place in the summer of 1939; at least for those enamored with the Iranian royal family. Earlier that year, the young and handsome crown prince Mohammadreza had traveled to Cairo to marry 17-year-old Fawzia Fuad, the sister of the Egyptian king. Described as a union of two “Stars of the East,” the wedding ceremony was followed by a host of festivities in Iran, including a grand party in the newly-built Marble Palace. The gorgeous teenage couple, hailing from two ancient civilizations of Africa and Asia, captured the imagination of many in both countries and beyond. Popular magazines couldn’t get enough of their pictures. No one could know that in a matter of weeks, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, the Second World War would break out, changing everything.
Among those who arrived in Iran that peaceful summer were a group of Polish Jewish musicians who played at some of the festivities. These were the Jolly Boys.
Led by Stanislaw Sperber, the Jolly Boys were a jazz band who hailed from the rich musical scene of interwar Poland. As was popular among bands playing American-styled music, they had picked an English name and their work appealed across cultures and languages. Shortly after their arrival in Iran, their homeland was jointly invaded by Nazi Germany and its erstwhile ally the Soviet Union. The Jolly Boys could no longer return to Poland, where Jews were targeted with violence in the German-occupied parts. The country would soon become a major site of the Holocaust, a historical catastrophe that is defined by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) as “the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million European Jews by the Nazi German regime and its allies and collaborators.”
The band remained in Iran for the duration of the war and played in many venues in the Iranian capital, not least the city’s glamorous Palace Hotel, where they became the house orchestra. Located near British, Turkish, German, American, Belgian and Soviet embassies, Palace was amongst Tehran’s most sought after entertainment venues and the Jolly Boys helped add to its international appeal. They were soon to be joined by tens of thousands of Polish refugees, many of them Jewish, who found temporary safety in Iran during the war years and left a lasting mark on the country. Underscoring their luck, another member of the band who had remained in Poland, died during the Holocaust.
Much of what we now know about the Jolly Boys is due to the work of scholar Bret Werb, who has served as the staff musicologist at the USHMM in Washington, DC, since 1992. Werb is best known for his research on Yiddish songs from the Holocaust period including albums he has produced based on the songs that circulated in ghettos and concentration camps. But his research also covers Jewish musicians who survived the Holocaust by fleeing to different parts of the world, as they attempted to make a living by practicing their art in exile.
Werb first learned about Jolly Boys from Henry Baigelman, a musician whose brother, Artur, had been a pianist in the band. Fittingly, Bret and Henry met in November 1994 at a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liquidation of Lodz ghetto. From Henry, Werb would learn that Artur, whose original name was Abram, didn’t travel to Iran and was murdered during the Holocaust, as were his three sisters and six of his seven brothers. Originating in Lodz and Ostrowiec, Poland, the Baigelman family was full of professional musicians. In fact, theirs was a musical dynasty whose roots went back to at least the 1850s. He himself had trained on violin and saxophone.
“I used to visit Henry at his home in Queens,” Dr. Werb tells me in a phone conversation from his house in DC. “He would pass me old clippings of Polish newspapers which carried stories about the Jolly Boys Orchestra.”
The Baigelmans didn’t stop their musical activities even when they were imprisoned in German-created ghettos. Henry played in the Lodz Ghetto Orchestra which was led by his eldest brother, David, perhaps the most noted Yiddish composer of interwar Poland. None of Henry’s four brothers and three sisters survived the Holocaust. David died in an uncertain location in 1945, shortly after liberation. Ester (Ida) and Abram (Artur) were sent to Auschwitz and killed there in August 1944. Szlama died in Gross-Rosen, a camp now located in Poland’s western Lower Silesia province, in February 1945, at the age of 44 or 43. Rozja and Chunem died in Lodz, respectively in 1943 and 1945. The date and place of death is unknown for Chaja, the second eldest sibling in the family.
Henry, the sole survivor, was able to team up with seven fellow surviving musicians from Lodz and form a band called The Happy Boys after the war. They toured displaced persons camps in Europe, where survivors of the Holocaust and other atrocities of the war were placed for years, and left an enduring legacy. In 1949, Henry and his wife Gita moved to the US and settled in the New York area.
When Werb learned about the 1930s Jolly Boys band, it was obvious that the band’s name inspired Henry’s postwar The Happy Boys. “In a way he must have been paying tribute to his late brother’s band,” Werb tells me.
Increasing scholarly interest in Poland’s interwar fascination with musical genres like jazz, tango, and swing helped bring about new discoveries about the Jolly Boys. It was seven years ago when Werb was contacted by Dr. Katarzyna Zimek, a Polish music scholar and tango researcher who was working on this topic alongside a like-minded colleague. Together, they were able to learn more about Jolly Boys, what prompted their trip to Iran, and how they remained there for the duration of the war. In fact, the group seems to have remained in Iran for a couple of years after the war, too. Newspaper adverts show that it played in a ‘tea dance’ party at Tehran’s Railways Club on April 6, 1948, and a fundraising event held at an officers club on June 18, 1948.
Jolly Boys’ drummer Igo Krischer (born Baruch Krischer) played with the group during its time in Iran and later left for the British Mandate of Palestine, sometime after the war. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Igo served in the Israeli army and later moved to New York, dividing his life between the US and Israel. While Igo died in 1993 at the age of 87, Werb was able to locate a relative of his near the American city of Seattle. In 2016, Igo’s relative donated his archives to the Museum. They include a few letters and some photographs. Most fascinating for our story, they also include a business card that identifies Igo as a member of “Jolly Boys Orchestr [sic] of Palace Hotel” in Tehran.
There is also a letter that shows the Jolly Boys' awareness of fellow Poles who were then in labor camps in the USSR and were only allowed to leave for Iran later. In a letter dated January 8, 1942, Andrej Walczak, Chairman of the Association of Poles in Iran, thanks Igo for the ten sheepskin coats he donated to his “compatriots — Poles, the refugees in the USSR.”
Werb’s continuing interest in the Jolly Boys also helped him locate some of the music which they had recorded in Iran.
"As it happens, my father has many Iranian friends in Los Angeles,” Werb tells me. “He related the Jolly Boys story to one of them, who in turn repeated it to a family member in Tehran. And that kind gentleman found the disc, acquired it for us, brought it out of the country, and donated it to the USHMM archives. He said he wanted to do something to honor the memory of the war refugees he recalled seeing in Tehran as a young man.”” Another recording was later found on eBay. These have now been digitized and are available to the public on the online archives of the USHMM.
Werb regards the Jolly Boys as one of the most fascinating examples of the wartime diaspora of Jewish musicians. In his research, he has uncovered Jewish musicians who ended up in many places across the world: the US and Canada, Latin America, Shanghai, Philippines, India and South Africa.
“The Jolly Boys are particularly fascinating,” he tells me. “Because we have an actual band that was popular enough to be a house band at the hotel and even made recordings.”
The band is also a window to a lesser-known aspect of Jewish and Holocaust histories: refugee musicians who transitioned to their new surroundings with varying degrees of success. “For every success story, for every Bruno Walter, Andre Previn, or Paul Hindemith,” Werb reminds me, there are “dozens of names we haven’t heard of — musicians who for one reason or multiple reasons were unable to establish themselves.”
But the story of Jolly Boys is also fascinating for those interested in Iranian history.
When Laudan Nooshin first heard of the Jolly Boys, she was immediately interested. A British-Iranian scholar who teaches ethnomusicology at City University of London, Nooshin has recently launched Sonic Tehran which is “an interdisciplinary project exploring Tehran as a sounded space.” It was in response to a call by Sonic Tehran that Werb shared his findings about the Jolly Boys with Nooshin.
Nooshin was born and grew up in the UK, although she visited Iran as a child. She first visited Iran as an adult in the late 1990s when the country was experiencing a period of change, following the election of President Khatami in 1997.
“I fell in love with this city,” she tells me. “Monstrous, complex, dirty, noisy but also amazingly interesting. My first trip as an adult was in 1999 and I started recording sounds back then and was thinking about sonic spaces and the relationship between sound and urban environment and role of sound in people’s lives.”
Even before learning about the Jolly Boys, she had had an interest in the bigger story of Polish refugees in Iran. “It is such a beautiful example of the complexity of historical connections that often gets ignored or forgotten,” she tells me.
Speaking of the Jolly Boys, she says: “They didn’t come as refugees. They came and got stuck because of the invasion of Poland; a dance band playing foxtrots in Tehran is part of that very unexpectedly cosmopolitan Tehran that was flourishing, even as the war was going on.”
Links between Poland, Iran and the Holocaust have also been highlighted in Mikhal Dekel’s 2019 volume Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey, a story of about 1,000 Polish Jewish children who, like Dekel’s own father, spent much of the war years in Iran before migrating to what became Israel.
As more research reveals new aspects of this history, the enduring mark that Poles left on Iran becomes clearer. Lior Sternfeld, a historian of Iran, has long researched this topic. In a scholarly article, published in 2018 in the journal Jewish Social Studies, Sternfeld examines “the Making of Polish Iran, 1941-45.” Nooshin acknowledges his work and says: “According to Sternfeld, the Polish presence had a lasting impact as people from a different nationality and culture came to Tehran. Poles probably contributed to opening of horizons.”
Inspired by the Jolly Boys, Nooshin herself went on to write a fascinating article on “the sounds of Polish Tehran” for Sonic Tehran, placing them in the broader contours of Iranian history.
Perhaps the most legendary institution of “Polish Iran” was Cafe Polonia in Tehran’s entertainment district, Lalehzar Avenue, which Sternfeld notes as a place of mingling between Polish women, Iranians and occupying Allied soldiers. Iranians have long been fascinated with the cafe which has something like the air of the fictional Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca. Contemporary newspapers show that the cafe was opened on April 30, 1942. Jolly Boys, which were sometimes mistakenly labeled as a “Hungarian band,” played in the opening night which shows how far they had gone towards establishing themselves in Tehran.
In the absence of sources, reconstructing the sounds of a bygone era can be difficult. But some clues help us. The names on the disc recordings acquired by the USHMM suggest that the Jolly Boys had been joined by non-Polish and non-Jewish Tehrani musicians. They include Sonia Vartanian (most likely an Armenian-Iranian) and Hamid Ghanbary alongside original band members Sperber, Krischer and F. Socolow. A noted musician and performer, Hamid Ghanbary (1924-2007), is the father of Shahyar Ghanbary (also spelled Qanbari), perhaps Iran’s most celebrated songwriter of all times. In the recording, we hear Hamid sing a romantic song by poet Parviz Khatibi whose opening stanza goes: “I gave you my heart, so that you would be my lover.” The Persian romantic lyrics are set to the tune of popular Spanish song La Paloma (The Dove) written by Basque composer Sebastian Iradier and ably played by Sperber, Krischer and Socolow. The song is still mentioned as a landmark work by Hamid Ghanbary. The recordings of Jolly Boys have also been noted in newly published histories of Iranian music, although the editors of these works seem to not know about the story of where the band came from or its Jewish identity. Writing for the music website Safheye Sangi, music writer Amir Mansoor counts the Jolly Boys amongst pioneering Western groups which found popularity with younger Iranians in the wartime years.
The Jolly Boys remind us of how interwoven the histories of European Jews and Iranians could be; they illuminate the threads that bound Iran to Holocaust history. Fragments of this history don’t initially make a narrative but when studied together they come to tell a fascinating historical story: A group of Jewish musicians found refuge in Iran just as many of their colleagues and families perished in the Holocaust. Before they went on to the next chapter of their lives in Israel, the US and other places, they helped shape modern Iranian culture — in ways that they might not even have known themselves.