How Iran Gave Refuge to Nearly 1,000 Jewish Children During the Holocaust

Jewish children in Tehran where they received refuge during the Holocaust
Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of David Laor. Date: 1942

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Professor Mikhal Dekel (GC/CCNY, English and Comparative Literature), who is also a faculty member at The Graduate Center’s Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, spent the last decade reconstructing an extraordinary, little-known chapter of history. Her new book, Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey, is a moving and deeply researched account of how Iran gave shelter to nearly 1,000 Jewish children during World War II.
Dekel’s father was one of those children, but she never thought of him as a Holocaust survivor. And until she began researching her book, she knew very little about the 13,000-mile journey that took him from his native Poland, to brutal Soviet work camps and destitute refugee settlements in Central Asia, to Iran, India, and ultimately Israel. The history of the Tehran children “was erased,” Dekel said in an interview, “partly because in the face of the extermination of millions of others, the Tehran children were considered to be the lucky ones.”
One of Dekel’s goals in writing the book was to shed light on the broader refugee experience, a topic that remains so relevant today. In some ways, she says, concentration camps have become the “governing symbol” of the Holocaust. The refugee aspect of World War II has, in turn, been neglected, even though it affected millions of people — many of whom perished amid violent and chaotic deportations, epidemics, starvation, and the homelessness that accompanied their displacement.
“This part of the story has been ignored,” she said. “When I started researching, I didn’t understand it myself.” In May, she will be giving a talk in Washington, D.C., jointly sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian Museum, on the fates of the more than a half-million Polish Jews, including her father’s family, who fled east to the Soviet Union. She’s also already had people ask her for information, saying their parents or grandparents were in Uzbekistan or Iran during the war, but they have no clear sense of how they got there. 
It took Dekel 10 years to research and write Tehran Children. Along the way, she interviewed witnesses and survivors; unearthed archives, photos, and letters; and visited as many places as she could. She traveled to Taskhent and Samarkand; found a massive unmarked burial ground outside the site of a Russian gulag; and toured her father’s hometown in Poland, where their family lived for eight generations before the Nazi invasion. There she found not a single memorial to the vibrant Jewish community that existed before the war.
One place Dekel could not visit was Iran, which bars Israelis from entering the country (she is an Israeli citizen). But a City College colleague, Salar Abdoh, an Iranian native, did research there on her behalf. Dekel also credits Abdoh with helping spark her interest in the larger story surrounding the Tehran children, including the Jewish community’s ancient roots in Iran and the remarkable humanitarianism of a Muslim nation accepting Jewish refugees in the Nazi era, when so many countries were turning them away. The contemporary enmity between Israel and Iran adds a layer of irony to the story.
The courses Dekel teaches focus on “representation of trauma in texts, theory, and visual culture,” including a course called Memory and Memoir. Her own book, she says, is part of new genre of “second-generation memoirs” of the Holocaust. An earlier wave of second-generation memoirs, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, depicted survivors’ children psychologically overwhelmed by their parents’ unknowable traumas. But Dekel says her book is part of a new approach that says “we can know, we’re ready to know, and we can face this material without ultimately being overwhelmed and crushed by it.”

Read the book review in The New York Times

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: OCT 8, 2019

Category: Diversity | Faculty | General GC News | History | Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) | Middle Eastern Studies