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How Iran Helped Save 1,000 Jewish Children From the Holocaust

Mikhal Dekel never thought of her father as a Holocaust survivor, even though he’d fled the Nazi occupation of Poland as a child. He ended up in Tehran in 1942, one of nearly 1,000 Jewish children given temporary refuge by Iran en route to Palestine. Their story was seen as a “successful rescue mission.” They were “not Europe’s rejected, but Israel’s desired, the ‘lucky ones,'” writes Dekel, a professor at City College and The Graduate Center.

The truth, of course, was far more complex, as Dekel shows in her riveting and moving new book, Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey. Many of the Tehran children, like Dekel’s father, endured unimaginable suffering, first in Soviet labor camps, then as destitute refugees in Uzbekistan. By the time they arrived in Iran, many were orphans, their families lost to starvation, epidemics, and the violent chaos of deportation and displacement. Even their final transport, from Iran to Israel, was a harrowing wartime expedition: 48 days by ship and train via India, Yemen, and Egypt. 

Dekel’s book is both a second-generation memoir and a deeply researched historical account that took 10 years to write. She unearthed archives, tracked down survivors, and deconstructed photos and letters. She also visited as many places on her father’s 13,000-mile journey as she could, from Tashkent and Samarkand, to an unmarked burial ground for a Russian gulag, to the Polish town of Ostrów, where their family lived for eight generations before the Nazis. “Nothing remained of Ostrów’s Jewish past,” she wrote, “no haunting, only plain, uncontested erasure.” 

The one place Dekel couldn’t visit was Iran. (She’s Israeli, and Iran bars Israeli citizens.) But a fellow City College professor, Salar Abdoh, an Iranian native, did research there on her behalf. She credits Abdoh with opening her eyes to the breadth of the Tehran children’s story.

Dekel calls her book both tragic and hopeful, “not only about the unmaking of the world of Holocaust refugees … but also about its imperfect remaking.” Her chronicle of that vanished world, its aftermath, and the refugees’ odyssey against a backdrop of violence, suffering, politics, corruption, and even the occasional kindness of strangers–like a Persian man who gave the Tehran children candy–is a compelling addition to the memoir genre and to the annals of history.