The ‘Teheran Children’

Sara and David Rosenzweig were among the 862 Jewish refugee children rescued during WWII and shipped from Siberia to Teheran, where they were rescued by the Jewish Agency.

Teheran Children 521 (photo credit: Dalia Gutman)
Teheran Children 521
(photo credit: Dalia Gutman)
At their home in Ramat Gan, Sara and David Rosenzweig still keep the official Government of Palestine Certificates of Arrival that they received when they made aliya almost seven decades ago in 1943. More than just dry relics of the former British Mandate, these yellowing pieces of paper hold clues to an extraordinary three-year journey that brought David and Sara from war-torn Poland to Siberia and occupied Iran, and finally to British Mandate Palestine.
There aren’t many details on the certificates, but that lack of detail is telling.
Apart from David’s name, the document notes the date of his arrival – 19/2/43 – and the name of the ship that brought him, the Noralea. The section entitled “Names of Dependents Accompanying” has been left blank. Attached to the document is a photograph of a young boy with close-cropped dark hair. He is squinting into the sun and his jacket seems a little too large for him. He is beaming with delight, almost laughing.
The Noralea was a troop ship fitted to traverse the mine-filled waters around the Arabian Peninsula. In February 1942, it carried David, Sara and 862 other Polish Jewish children, most of them orphans, from Karachi (then in India, today Pakistan) to Port Said, Egypt. These children had escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland, were exiled to the Siberian gulag and traveled with the Polish Anders Army to Teheran, Iran, where they ended up in a refugee camp. Local Jews dubbed this bedraggled group of starving, sick and scared refugees the “Teheran Children.”
In 1943, the refugees were brought to Palestine in a remarkable aid and rescue operation in which the Jewish Agency, Hadassah, the Polish Red Cross and the Jews of Teheran played a role.
These events represented a watershed for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, for whom the plight of the tiny Jewish survivors emphasized the horrors of the Shoah.
When I visit the Rosenzweigs, they immediately offer me food and drink. Eat, eat, they urge, as piece by piece they relate their life histories.
Married for 58 years, they were introduced in Israel – they didn’t know each other in Teheran – and it was love at first sight. They speak fondly of their life in Israel. Yet the legacy of their traumatic experiences remains.
David was born in Sadowne, a small village in southeast Poland. Sara is a city girl from the Polish capital, Warsaw. Just eight years old when the war broke out, she remembers little about that time. The flashes of memory she does have are harrowing.
“We escaped from Warsaw to Bialystok across the Russian border. It was hard. My mother was punched in the face by Russian soldiers,” she says, instinctively raising her hands to her face in recollection of that horrible event.
David was 12 in 1939 and has vivid memories of the day Nazi soldiers shattered his peaceful life.
“They came on Shabbat,” he remembers. “They started shooting. From 8:30 in the morning to noon, we heard gunfire. Then, at 2 p.m., there was silence.”
After several days of terror, David’s family fled the village.
“I thought my father and brothers were with us but I couldn’t see them. We couldn’t return to the house. The village was on fire,” remembers David.
The Rosenzweigs joined a huge wave of refugees – Jews and ethnic Poles – fleeing to the Soviet Union.
There, another catastrophe awaited them. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, deported Polish citizens to the Siberian gulag, forced labor camps. During that terrible, chaotic journey, countless people died and families were separated.
David Rosenzweig says the deportation to Siberia saved him from a horrific death in the Nazi concentration camps.
“There are things in life that you just can’t understand,” says David. “Stalin sent us to Siberia. But if we had returned to Poland, the Nazis would have burned us.”
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the USSR and the Polish refugees were released from the gulag. David has vivid memories of the moment he was freed.
“One afternoon, they made us all stop working. The NKVD said, you’re free to go. But nobody wanted to go – where to? There at least we had food and shelter. But in Russia there were too many refugees,” he says.
Sick, starving and desperate, the refugees wandered the forests and flooded the towns. Many starved to death. The memories of that terrible hunger have never left David Rosenzweig.
AT THE end of 1941, a sort of salvation came to the Jewish children via an unlikely source. The Soviets released Polish General Wladyslaw Anders from prison and allowed him to form an army against the Nazis.
The Anders Army was sent to Iran – then under British rule – to train. Around 24,000 Polish civilians, among them 1,000 Jewish children, traveled with them.
They sailed via the Caspian Sea to the southern Iranian port of Pahlevi, and from there, they were transported to the Iranian capital, Teheran.
When the Jewish Agency in Palestine heard about the refugees in Iran, it immediately dispatched emissaries to Teheran. Together with adult Jewish refugees, they set up a tent city.
Despite food shortages in Iran, the local Persian Jewish community mobilized to give aid to the young farzandan-e-teheran – “Teheran Children.”
“Teheran’s Jews helped us a great deal, they gave us food to eat,” Sara recalls.
Jewish leaders David Ben-Gurion and Eliyahu Dobkin negotiated with British officials to allow the refugees to immigrate to Palestine.
On January 3, 1943, the British agreed. It was time for the Children of Teheran to go home.
On the last leg of their incredible journey, David and Sara were transported on a freighter ship to Pakistan.
From there they sailed on the SS Noralea around the Arabian Peninsula and across the Red Sea to Port Said.
A baby girl born en route was named Aliya.
At Port Said, a welcome committee of hundreds of Jewish soldiers showered the children with gifts of fruit, sweets and food. A train then carried them across the Sinai. On February 18, 1943, the 1,230 refugees – 369 adults and 861 children – arrived at the Atlit refugee camp in northern Israel.
Most of the children were orphans. Sara Rosenzweig, then aged 12, lost her father at the start of the war and had later become separated from her mother in the chaos of their desperate journey east.
All had experienced terrible trauma, near-starvation, unimaginable fear.
Yet as they stepped onto Israeli soil, these children sang and waved flags. They were finally home.
“I didn’t feel foreign in Israel,” says Sara. “I immediately felt this was my home. We were sent to different places, mostly to families who took us in.
“I went to Beit Tzeirot Mizrahi in Jerusalem, a girls’ high school for Holocaust survivors. I was lucky – that was an amazing place.”
The Jews of Eretz Yisrael welcomed the refugees with wild joy and rejoicing. People flocked to Atlit to see the children. Finally the authorities issued a plea for calm.
“Public sympathy with the refugee children has become overwhelming,” announced The Palestine Post on March 3, 1943. “[The Jewish authorities] are appealing for the children to be allowed to settle down quietly.”
Much of this mass outpouring of emotion was because the Teheran Children symbolized the plight of millions of other Jews in Europe.
That the British allowed these refugees to immigrate to Palestine was exceptional. During and after World War II, the country was closed to Jewish immigration, leaving millions of Jews at the mercy of the Nazi regime in Europe.
“No further information was available concerning practical measures to rescue Jews from extermination in Nazi-occupied Europe,” reads a Post report citing a statement from British House of Commons leader Anthony Eden on February 19, 1943 – a day after the Teheran Children arrived in Atlit.
DESPITE THE significance of these events, the story of the Teheran Children has been almost forgotten in Israel. Film producer Dalia Gutman co-produced a 2007 documentary about them, the first film to tell the story of these refugees.
“All these events happened before the State of Israel.
[The Teheran Children] was how people in Israel knew about the Shoah,” she says.
“The history of the Teheran Children is an exceptional story about Shoah survivors, and these children’s rescue became a very important ‘foundation story’ at this time and during the first years of the State of Israel.”
Gutman hopes her film is going some way in educating the public about the Teheran Children.
Today, as the Teheran Children grow old, a rather less heartwarming aspect of their story is starting to be made known. Though the children were received in Israel with such love and warmth, in an ironic twist they have been denied the reparations payments given to other Shoah survivors in Israel.
Billions of dollars in reparations were paid by to Israel by Germany as part of an agreement made in 1952.
In 2004, a group of Teheran Children filed a lawsuit against the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency demanding their right as Shoah survivors to receive reparations payments.
In its defense, the state contended that only those survivors who arrived in Israel after 1947 were entitled to the compensation. When the Tel Aviv District Court rejected this argument in favor of the Teheran Children, the state appealed to the Supreme Court, and was rejected.
According to Gad Weissfeld, the Tel Aviv-based attorney representing the Teheran Children, the Tel Aviv District Court under Judge Drora Pilpel will hear the substantive claim in June.
“The case of the Teheran Children is very special and historic,” says Weissfeld, who is representing the claimants on a pro bono basis. “These were the first Holocaust survivors to come to Israel from Poland, they came here during and not after the war, they were just children.”
Sara and David Rosenzweig say that for them the lawsuit is about fairness: They are survivors, and they should be entitled to the payments. “We never wanted to be victims,” says Sara, with a sigh.
David and Sara are glad their story is being told so that Israelis will know what happened. They certainly can never forget. It’s 67 years since their aliya but their wartime experiences still trouble them.
Sara visits a psychologist once a week to talk about her traumatic memories. “I want to get it out, get it all out,” she explains. David says he suffers from depression and sometimes cannot speak.
For a minute or two, we sit in silence, listening to the noises of a weekday afternoon in Ramat Gan – traffic, children, a radio playing pop music. I think of the lines of the poem Natan Alterman wrote about the Children of Teheran: “Even after many years have aged them / Even after their appearance has been altered by time / And bald spots and white beards adorn them / We will still call them the Teheran Children.”
“Can you understand it, what happened?” Sara asks me. I tell her nobody can understand. But we can remember, and never forget.