Tehran Children: A 13,000-mile journey to escape the Nazis

In her book, Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey, Mikhal Dekel retraces the journey of her father, Hannan, who escaped the Nazis, including by taking refuge in Iran.

Boys at the Children’s Home of Tehran, with the author’s father, Hannan, standing fifth from the left (photo credit: Courtesy)
Boys at the Children’s Home of Tehran, with the author’s father, Hannan, standing fifth from the left
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mikhal Dekel’s father, Hannan, told her only one story of his childhood. In April 1940, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Poles who had fled east could choose between living under Soviet rule or a return to their old homes. Two brothers made opposite choices.
The one who made the “wrong” choice, to return with his family to Nazi-controlled Poland, survived; the other decided to remain in the Soviet Union and perished. She was only “vaguely” aware that Hannan was referring to himself and his brother Izhak, whose whole family disappeared without a trace in Bialystock.
To learn about Hannan’s escape and 13,000-mile journey to salvation, Dekel spent 10 years researching and writing Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey.
“I gave a historical answer to a psychological question: who is my father?” she says.
Hannan Teitel’s family had run a thriving brewery in Ostrow for centuries. As was the case in many Polish towns, almost half of Ostrow’s population was Jewish until the Nazi invasion turned residents into refugees. Nearly a year later, under Soviet rule in Siemiatycze, Hannan’s father, Zindel, joined hundreds of thousands of emigres in applying for a return to their home town. When four NKVD agents subsequently knocked on the Teitels’ door one Friday night – it was always a Friday night – they thought they would be taken to Warsaw. The 12-year-old Hannan, his parents, younger sister and a cousin were instead herded onto a cattle truck that traveled 1,400 miles in the other direction, to a ‘special settlement’ in Arkhangelsk. A large proportion of Polish Jewry was suddenly cast into the Soviet, and Czarist, tradition of deportation to Siberia. The Teitels were ‘lucky’ – their brutal forced-labour settlement was not quite as punitive as the gulags.
The Soviet Union ‘freed’ its Polish prisoners after the German invasion of 1941, prompting their mass exodus to the Soviet Muslim republics. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency labeled the evacuated Jews not as evacuees, migrants or refugees but as “settlers.” Indeed some did choose to remain, wherever the tragic carriage of Jews stopped, be it Siberia, Tashkent or Tehran.
“In Uzbekistan we lived like animals, with the exception that we did not go to pasture but were confined to khusha (Arabic slang for ‘mud hut’),” recalls one survivor. Prolonged starvation ultimately led to Hannan’s death at age 66 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Conditions were so dreadful that Jews begged for admittance to Wlayslaw Anders’ Polish army in exile, despite their erstwhile compatriots’ ongoing antisemitism.
In the spring of 1942, Polish and British authorities agreed to allow 1,000 Jewish refugee children, including Hannan (15), Rivka (11) and Noemi (10), to move on to Iran. It was here in Persia, in a Polish refugee camp’s Jewish orphanage the children finally glimpsed freedom. “From this point on, and for the rest of most of their lives, they would live in a Jewish world.”
A British cargo boat (the Dunera, which in 1940 had infamously transported to Australia 2,500 ‘enemy aliens,’ most of them Jewish refugees, under the guard of sadistic British soldiers), conveyed 858 Tehran children to Karachi then a British warship took them to El Kantara in Egypt. They arrived, by train, in pre-state Israel in February 1943. Waiting for them at Atlit internment camp was Henrietta Szold, the indomitable, 82-year-old head of Youth Aliyah, which had been working to bring the children to Mandatory Palestine while the JDC and other charities did their best to send aid. “A huge pile of oranges was laid out in the open… and was consumed within seconds and expelled shortly afterward in a bout of collective vomiting that many of those I interviewed remembered vividly,” wrote Dekel.
And still the dreadful ironies went on. Hannan, Rivka and Noemi ended up at Kibbutz Ein Harod, whose members revered Stalin. Youth Aliyah had to vie with ultra-orthodox claims to the children’s jurisdiction. Non-Jewish Polish refugees in Palestine, in receipt of provisions from their government in exile, enjoyed comforts denied to the young olim, who were about to face a new fight for existence, this time as a nation. Hannan’s parents survived only to be incarcerated for four more years in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria.
A photograph from Ein Harod’s archive shows the children Rivka and Noemi, arms around each other’s shoulders, wearing regulation kibbutz shorts and T-shirts. They look directly at the camera, traumatized yet resilient. Following the story of their long ordeal, the image brings a lump to one’s throat and remains indelibly imprinted in one’s heart.
“I cried when I first saw that photo,” says Dekel. “Especially for Noemi, who lost all her family who remained in Warsaw, and her father in Uzbekistan. She was left alone in the world, whereas at least my father and his sister had each other. I became very close to Rivka through writing the book, which was a great gift. Rivka became warmer and more mellow as she aged. Noemi is still reserved. She lives in Tel Aviv and has four very successful children. They’re reading the book; they had no idea.”
Part-history, part second-generation memoir, Tehran Children sheds light on a previously neglected episode of the Holocaust. “There was no Primo Levi of Polish Jewish exiles, no K Zetnik, no Aharon Appelfeld” of a sojourn that numbered 250,000 Jews by the time they reached central Asia. “One man in Azerbaijan said, ‘I thought it was only my family.’ He didn’t have a framework for their story. Now people are learning their own history.”
Which is not to say it’s an exclusively Jewish narrative. Dekel wanted to see “my father’s story through the widest lens possible; in conjunction with other nations’ stories, within the context of large paradigms of violence, of movement, of refugees. I wanted to avoid thinking of my father’s fate strictly through the prism of Jewish history.” She points to Stalin’s deportation of “over 30 million people who suffered in the same way in the USSR.” But, there was, she concedes, a significant difference. “Only for Jews was this the ‘better, luckier’ fate, as compared to Nazi extermination.”
In Poland, Dekel’s recognition of other peoples’ narratives goes unreciprocated. The historian and politician Magda Gawin, who also came from Ostrow, tells her the Teitels were “one of the three wealthiest, most respected families in town.” But the rosy picture Gawin paints of pre-war Poland and her story, not corroborated by Yad Vashem, of a great-aunt tortured and killed by the Gestapo for sheltering Jews raise Dekel’s suspicions. Gradually it becomes clear that her otherwise warm and lovely host will not acknowledge Polish culpability in the Holocaust.
“Magda is invested, especially now, in enshrining the idea of Polish ‘goodness’ and ‘friendship’ to the Jews,” she said. “Some people think it comes from a very cynical, populist place. In the case of Magda I do not think that’s true. She does not deny the Holocaust, only the role of Poles. She actually wants to reverse that role. But her beliefs and actions today as Poland’s undersecretary of culture do result in falsifying history.”
Dekel rejects the “binary thinking that casts one side as eternal victim and the other as eternal enemy,” citing her dislike of “the concept of the ‘goy’’. Her grandfather, she is told, employed numerous local Poles in his brewery. Dekel was amazed by “pre-war Polish Jewry’s wealth of culture, all erased. From hassidim to secular, Yiddish and Polish, in film, newspapers and everyday life… it was just astounding.”
Tehran Children is, she says, a microcosm of Jewish history inasmuch as “it’s a story of Jewish mutual aid, resourcefulness and also memory. That sense of collective responsibility is very rare.” Beyond the efforts of charities, refugee agencies and diplomatic legations, she pays tribute to Aliyah Bet agents “who tried to cross the Iranian border into the Soviet Union to rescue the children. They were killed.”
A contemporary newsreel of the children arriving at Atlit “shows local preschool children lined up with bouquets of wildflowers and adults holding Hebrew banners [but] no Arab villages or cities.” Likewise, “in no testimony, Jewish or Polish, was the Arab population of Palestine mentioned.” Dekel says she “wanted to make sure people knew there were both Jews and Arabs in Palestine. But in fact it was Jewish Palestine that hosted the Polish Christian refugees too.”
I read elsewhere that Dekel’s research turned her into “a passionate advocate for refugee rights,” who is horrified by the separation of child migrants from their parents at the US border. Which leads to the vexed question: Can Holocaust refugees be compared with today’s refugees? In her review of Tehran’s Children in The Guardian, Saskia Baron wrote, “What makes Dekel’s study so valuable is not just its assiduous detailing of one family’s fate during the Second World War, but how it also makes us reflect on our current era, with its mass migrations of desperate people fleeing conflict and hardship only to meet inflamed nativism and the desire to shift responsibility for their fate from one country on to the next.”
This, I suggest, is nonsense. It was the Soviets’ abuse of responsibility, not their “shifting” of it, that caused such epic suffering. And what makes Dekel’s study so valuable is its reiteration of the necessity and virtues of Israel. Shouldn’t Baron reflect on that?
“Yes, I think she should,” says Dekel. “But I do think there are parallels to today. In fact, it is more precise to compare the situation of caged migrant children in today’s USA to the children in my story than to those in concentration camps. I do think the Jewish wartime experiences, even at their most extreme, can teach something about other atrocities, but it has to be done carefully and with nuance. I hate simple comparisons.”
Born and raised in Haifa, Dekel is “a quintessential sabra who grew up with what you might call a negation of the diaspora and pre-Israel life. Now I’ve reversed that negation. Which, ironically, has brought me back to Israel.”
Which, ironically, has brought her to the goldene medina. Like so many successful Israelis, Dekel finds herself abroad, a professor of English at City College in New York. (One who “loves brainy, complex and unpredictable writers like George Eliot and Ronit Matalon.”) And – it goes without saying – she finds herself having to defend Israel, “primarily against Jewish colleagues. They don’t realize how much they benefit from Israel’s existence. Younger people, in particular, take Israel for granted. It drives me crazy. It’s so moralistic and righteous, which I don’t really like.”
So she hasn’t gone native, despite her Yankee twang and odd Americanism. “I’ve been in America for 20 years. When I arrived, everything in America seemed superior. Now it’s the other way around. Social services, education, health care, freshness of food: everything in Israel is better than in America for the average person.” Except, of course, for the constant threat of war. And, as she’s often reminded, the Palestinians. Maybe due to her evident intellect, or because she’s been out of Israel for too long, Dekel declines to express a trenchant political opinion. “You could say that Israel has a right-wing government, but it’s a complex situation and I don’t see how it can be solved.”
In Uzbekistan, she was told by a Korean-Uzbek son of former deportees, “We have no one in our communities writing a book like yours.” Throughout the world, descendants of the fallen and survivors will benefit from Dekel’s labor of love. Once again, you could say that we are “lucky.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is collecting materials for a new collection based on Mikhal Dekel’s research. If you have materials/ letters/ photographs/ memoirs of people who have been refugees in the USSR, Central Asia and the Middle East, please contact Mikhal Dekel via her website mikhaldekel.com, through Twitter @DekelMikhal, or via Facebook @MikhalDekelAuthor. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington is hosting a related event on June 4