Tehran Chil­dren: A Holo­caust Refugee Odyssey

By – November 11, 2019

Most Holo­caust refugee sto­ries cen­ter on find­ing safe­ty in the US or Great Britain, where suf­fi­cient degrees of Euro­pean tastes and val­ues pro­vid­ed famil­iar­i­ty and a sense of wel­come to those forced to flee Nazi-occu­pied Europe. Mikhal Dekel’s fas­ci­nat­ing true sto­ry of a flight out of dan­ger and into safe­ty, how­ev­er, brought her father and aunt from Poland to the strange new world of Iran, where they ini­tial­ly felt a sharp sense of exile and dislocation.

The sto­ry of Jew­ish refuge in Mus­lim coun­tries has rarely been told. In this rich and detailed nar­ra­tive, we learn that Dekel’s father and aunt were two of the near­ly one thou­sand Jew­ish refugee chil­dren evac­u­at­ed by the Pol­ish mil­i­tary to Iran dur­ing the Holo­caust. Ulti­mate­ly, they became part of the unfa­mil­iar Per­sian Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Tehran. And with time, they were embraced by a group of Zion­ist care­givers, who brought them to Pales­tine in 1943 via India, bring­ing to fruition their aston­ish­ing 13,000-mile jour­ney to safety.

The sweep­ing sto­ry of the group of young refugees who became known as the Tehran Chil­dren” is large­ly unknown to many who are oth­er­wise well versed in Holo­caust his­to­ry. As such, it reveals new depths of refugee and res­cuer rela­tion­ships, show­ing how reset­tle­ment can reshape and rede­fine young lives and iden­ti­ties. As Dekel tells us, This book is not only about the unmak­ing of the world of Holo­caust refugees dur­ing World War II, but also about its imper­fect remaking.”

While most would-be refugees fled Nazi-occu­pied Poland by going west, Dekel’s father went east to the Sovi­et Union at the start of the war. She explains that though the fam­i­ly had lived in Poland for eight gen­er­a­tions, the way of life that had nur­tured them there was so com­plete­ly destroyed by the Holo­caust that she gleaned almost no under­stand­ing of it.

Despite her father’s Pol­ish roots, she and her fam­i­ly saw them­selves as com­plete­ly Israeli, Not Europe’s reject­ed but Israel’s desired, the lucky ones’ who had been res­cued by the bur­geon­ing Jew­ish state.” She explains fur­ther, I didn’t even think of my father as a sur­vivor. Sur­vivors had a mut­ed aura of shame and anxiety…but Tehran Chil­dren were Israelis.” Her father want­ed to raise her as a child with­out a painful Jew­ish past.”

Dekel deft­ly com­bines per­son­al nar­ra­tive and his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion to craft a nar­ra­tive that takes the read­er through the Sovi­et Cen­tral Asian Republics of Uzbek­istan and Kaza­khstan to Iran. Tens of thou­sands died of dis­ease and star­va­tion on the jour­ney, but those who sur­vived to live in the teem­ing refugee world of 1940s Tehran have a valu­able sto­ry to tell us.

The task of uncov­er­ing her father’s past was com­plex and ardu­ous, Dekel says. It wasn’t easy to uncov­er a his­to­ry of refugees, who leave lit­tle trace and fall out­side the mem­o­ry and memo­ri­al­iza­tion work of nations.”

The author is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at the City Col­lege of New York and the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. Because she grew up in Israel and was trained to read across nation­al bound­aries, the book is filled with new insights of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. A full set of notes and a deeply detailed bib­li­og­ra­phy add to the schol­ar­ly aspect of the work, yet her well-craft­ed prose makes it acces­si­ble to all.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of W.W. Nor­ton & Co. 

1. How does Tehran Chil­dren dif­fer from oth­er World War II nar­ra­tives you have read?

2. The book describes Mikhal Dekel’s father’s migra­tion through Poland, the Sovi­et Union, Cen­tral Asia, and the Mid­dle East. Does the book affect the way you view Poland, Rus­sia, Uzbek­istan, Iran, and Israel today? If yes, how?

3. Why do you think the sto­ry of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of war refugees out­side Europe has been absent from most accounts of the Holocaust?

4. How does Tehran Chil­dren explore the inter­sec­tion of reli­gions, cul­tures, and eth­nic groups dur­ing the War?

5. Describe some of the efforts of the Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee (JDC) and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and how they attempt­ed to solve the prob­lem of refugees. What worked and what didn’t work? Are there lessons we can take away for con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions of refugee aid?

6. Do you see par­al­lels between Dekel’s father’s sto­ry and the cur­rent refugee crisis?

7. How does the expe­ri­ence of refugee chil­dren dif­fer from the expe­ri­ence of refugee adults in the book?

8. How would this book be dif­fer­ent if it were told by Dekel’s father?

9. How is the fusion of mem­oir, his­to­ry, tes­ti­mo­ny, trav­el­ogue, and archival research valu­able to the work as a whole?

10. Has the col­lab­o­ra­tion with oth­ers that Dekel describes con­tributed to the book’s impact?

11. Do you think Dekel’s rela­tion­ship with her father, and to her own Jew­ish and Israeli iden­ti­ty, changed over the course of this book?

12. In what ways did this book inform your sense of col­lec­tive Jew­ish identity/​memory?

Mikhal Dekel’s Tehran’s Chil­dren: A Holo­caust Refugee Odyssey brings into focus a vir­tu­al­ly erased chap­ter of Holo­caust his­to­ry: the suf­fer­ing and sur­vival of Pol­ish Jews in Siberia, Cen­tral Asia and the Mid­dle East. Flee­ing east from Nazi ter­ror, over a mil­lion Pol­ish Jews tra­versed the Sovi­et Union. With inti­ma­cy and detail, Dekel lays bare how the sto­ries of Pol­ish Jews’ sur­vival in places like Siberia, Cen­tral Asia, and Iran are as cru­cial to the Jew­ish past as those who sur­vived on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent. The Katz­ki com­mit­tee lauds Dekel who traced her father’s con­vo­lut­ed 13,000-mile jour­ney from Ostrow, Poland to Manda­to­ry Pales­tine, by draw­ing on archives in Rus­sia, Poland, Cen­tral Asia, Israel, Eng­land, and those held by the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee and the Red Cross in the Unit­ed States. The result is a book that is both a per­son­al mem­oir and a valu­able his­tor­i­cal mono­graph that forces all to think anew about the con­tin­gen­cies of sur­vival in the Holo­caust and the many paths tak­en by Jews striv­ing to sur­vive the Nazi menace.