Growing up in the Israeli port city of Haifa, Mikhal Dekel was often asked about her parents’ background, as many Israelis are. When they asked her if her father was a Holocaust survivor, she’d say, “No, he was not. He was a Tehran Child.”
For generations of Israelis, the term “Tehran Children” has been an enigmatic designation. It denotes those who fled Eastern Europe during World War II, mostly from German-occupied Poland, and made their way to then Mandatory Palestine via Tehran. Many remained in Israel following its creation in 1948. Of course, the Tehran Children were Holocaust survivors too, having had to flee the genocide of European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, but Dekel explains that she didn’t think of her father on those terms: “Survivors had a muted aura of shame and anxiety in the Israel of my youth,” she writes in her new book, Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey. “But the Tehran Children were Israelis: kibbutzniks, army generals, media personalities, industrialists. They were not Europe’s rejected, but Israel’s desired.”
Years later, Mikhal Dekel moved to the United States and became a scholar of literature and professor of English at City University of New York (CUNY). In 2007, a chance encounter with an Iranian colleague at CUNY set her on the odyssey that, 12 years later, would lead to the publication of her ground-breaking book. Tehran Children is not just Mikhal Dekel’s retracing of her father’s childhood in Poland and the arduous journey he took before reaching Palestine in 1943; it is the story of a few hundred thousand Polish Jews ,who escaped Nazi extermination in Europe by finding refuge in the predominately Muslim lands of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, as well as India. The details of many of their individual lives, including that of Dekel’s father, have long been obscured under the collective title “Tehran Children”.
I asked Dekel what impact the 12-year journey into her father’s past had had on her knowledge of him. “It absolutely changed everything I knew of my father’s past,” she says. “I did not think of my father as a Holocaust survivor, I didn’t know anything about his wartime experiences in Iran or anywhere else, or even of his prewar past in Poland. All I knew was that he was rescued and brought to what was then Mandatory Palestine through Tehran. I didn’t really know how he got to Tehran, or who brought him. It was as if a whole, global history of my father and the Holocaust had been opened up to me.”
Hannan Teitel, Mikhal Dekel’s father, wasn’t alone on this journey. Dekel soon realized that the refugees’ trajectory that brought Hannan and his sister to Israel had been shared by hundreds of others like them. “The story that I ended up telling in the book is the story of most Polish Jewish refugees and survivors,” Dekel says, “because most Polish Jewish survivors went through the Soviet interior, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Mandatory Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, India and so on. What started as a memoir of my father became a history of most Polish Jewish survivors.”
The book is partly based on Dekel’s attempts to retrace the path her father took, but also on extensive archival research and consultation of the work of historians such as Lior Sternfeld, whose accounts of “Polish Iran” have shed light on the role that Polish refugees, including the many Jews among them, in turn had in shaping modern Iran.
From Tehran to Tehran
What compelled Dekel to begin her journey was a polemical article by the Iranian scholar Abbas Milani, who had defended Iran against the accusation of Nazi connections during the Holocaust. “When the Nazi killing machines began their slaughter of innocent Polish Jews,” Milani had written, “1,388 Jews, including 871 children, were moved to Tehran, where they lived in relative safety until they moved to Israel.” The words left Dekel staring at her screen and thinking of her father, who had passed away in 1993, and his surviving sister, Rivka (Regina), who was still alive.
“I had never thought of the Tehran in that phrase as an actual place,” she writes in the book. As an Israeli citizen, she wasn’t allowed to travel to Iran, but looking into her father’s story took her to a plethora of other locations on his painstaking journey through Poland, Russian Siberia and Uzbekistan. The book begins and ends with Iran: the one country she couldn’t visit, and for whose stories she had to rely on the help of her colleague Salar Abdoh, himself a refugee whose family had fled Iran after the 1979 revolution. Abdoh’s father formerly owned a major football club in Tehran, called Persepolis, and a bowling club that was confiscated after the revolution, although it is still informally named after him by locals.
We talk about the Iranian dimensions of Dekel’s story, and crucially, whether the oft-stated claims about the hospitality shown by Iranians to the Polish Jews are substantiated by her more complex inquiry. “I do think there was hospitality in Iran,” Dekel says. “Definitely on an individual, spontaneous level. The wartime experience of Jews is such a horrible and terrible story that even something as small as a piece of candy handed out to somebody is significant.
“When the refugees came to the shore of Pahlavi [the old name for the Caspian Sea port of Anzali in Iran’s Gilan province], around 1942, many people looked at them and saw horrible-looking children, and spontaneously brought them food and so on. They looked on them with pity rather than contempt. In Tehran, former refugees recall even the poorest porters offering to share their meager meals with foreigners.
“How refugees ended up in Iran is somewhat arbitrary. The Iranian government acted pragmatically. There was no abuse, at least not in my story. There were demonstrations against refugees and the presence of foreigners because of food shortages in the later years, but I don’t fault Iranians for this as it had become a very difficult situation in terms of supplies.”
Since the book came out, many people have written to Dekel, and she now knows that there were more Polish Jewish refugees than she initially thought. “Quite a few people remained as stowaways in Tehran,” she says. “Maybe hundreds. They lived in a different kind of Iran, in the urban sphere and not in the refugee camps. There were also German Jewish refugees who came to Iran after the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and worked as engineers, doctors and had their own experiences. Many of them lived in Iran from early 1933 until the end of the war.”
Where are the Heroes?
The strength of Dekel’s book is that it moves beyond the narrative binary of “warm hospitality” and “abuse” to show the grey spaces in between which permeated the refugees’ journeys in those testing times of war. This is not a book of heroes and villains. “I am not attracted to these heroic stories of those who supposedly acted perfectly and saved Jews,” Mikhal Dekel says. “I think it’s messy for the most part. Yes, people were tested and some acted better or worse, but it’s usually a network and hardly anybody acts alone.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dekel is not a big fan of famed Holocaust movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or 2017’s The Zookeeper’s Wife. “These films are not about the victims but about rescuers,” she told me. “They are a little bit too neat and give a skewed picture. The hero of my story is pragmatism and cooperation between organizations: people that are not necessarily friends, and sometimes they are enemies, but for the purpose of doing the right thing they collaborate, even if temporarily.”
Such pragmatic “everyday heroes” are visible throughout the book: those in the Jewish communities in both Palestine and New York who organized shipments of aid to refugees, or the management of a Jewish orphanage in Iran who made sure the children all received basic amenities like sheets on their beds.
Dekel says she was also mightily impressed by her own grandparents. In Uzbekistan, they had to take the difficult decision to let their children go on to Tehran without them, as only children were being taken in at the time, and there would be more food and a higher chance of survival for them there. “They maintained their role as parents without being sure if they were ever going to see them again,” Dekel says, adding that it was difficult for many people, especially those with children, to even comprehend such a situation at the time.
From Israel to Iran
Tehran Children is also a book about Israeli nation-building, and very much a book written by an Israeli. Another set of interlocutors with whom Mikhal Dekel has had to engage throughout her journey are her liberal academic colleagues, who sometimes have negative attitudes toward Israel. Asked about her Israeli identity as an author and how it shaped the book, Dekel says: “It is who I am.
“Friends would ask, how do you just get up and go to Uzbekistan on your own, and travel dangerously like that? It is because I am an Israeli. We just do things before we think. There is something in that sense of self-confidence that was shaped by my Israeli upbringing. I think my somewhat sentimental relationship to my motherland also enabled me to understand where Magda and Salar were coming from, even during moments of conflict with them.”
We also speak of the role of the Zionist project and Israel, and how the book sheds a light on how it gave a new life to her father. “Ultimately the book is not necessarily about Zionism as an ideology,” Dekel says, “but about Jews helping Jews. It is about Jews having to help themselves because they were not going to get the full help of other people. Although it is also a book that shows Jews integrated in a larger world.”
In a poetic twist, the long journey that taught Dekel so much about her parents’ lives also confirmed the basic kernel of truth within the Israeli version of the “Tehran Children” story. “I came full circle,” she says. “My knowledge of this story had been determined by growing up in Israel. All I knew was the role of the Jewish Agency. And it turned out to be true! It was they who had made sure these kids made it to the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine before the formation of the state of Israel in 1948]. It gave them a future, and it gave them safety, in a moment when they had very few other options.”
When we talk of Israel, however, we also talk of Iran. It is Dekel’s Israeli citizenship that has barred her from visiting the titular city of her book, my hometown, Tehran, from which I am also barred due to political discrimination. We joke about which of us will get the first chance to visit Tehran. I ask her if she’d like to visit and can feel her beaming from the other end of the phone line.
“That would be a dream,” Dekel says. “I would walk around Tehran, sit in cafes and experience the nightlife. I’d see the culture, the theater, universities. I’d go to visit the tomb of Esther in the city of Hamedan. And I’d go see the airbase that housed my father’s refugee camp.” After a pause, she adds: “I am still hpping.”
And it is hope that lies at the center of this moving, heartbreaking testimony. Not hope for paradise-like endings and unambiguous heroes, but hope that untold suffering can, and sometimes does, come to an end.