Mikhal Dekel’s Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey, published in October 2019, is located at the crossroads of memoir and historical narrative. Dekel’s research into a largely forgotten aspect of World War II began as an attempt to understand the life of her own father. This personal point of departure led Dekel to embark on a thorough archival study spanning Europe, central Asia and the Middle East, from pivotal historical moments such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 – the infamous non-aggression agreement between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany that allowed them to divide occupied Poland up between them – to the most intimate of experiences and relationships.
In this way, the story of one man has now become the story of many. Tehran Children reconstructs a history that had up until this moment been overlooked: one that took place on the margins of widespread accounts of Holocaust survival. Those Jewish refugees who passed through Tehran on their journey to liberty did not experience anything like the horrors of German occupation and genocidal racism but other, lesser-known horrors.
After the German-Soviet invasions of Poland in September 1939, between 200,000 and 230,000 Jews from Russian-occupied eastern Poland were sent to forced labor camps in Siberia. George (88) and Henry (90) Landau, two brothers who were seven and nine years old when war first broke out, recall a rough journey lasting several weeks in a packed cattle wagon from their native Lviv to an as-yet unknown destination. The only clue given to their parents by the Russian soldier who woke them in the middle of the night was “take warm clothes”.
For the Landau brothers, Dekel’s book is a long-awaited disclosure. Inspirationally lively and optimistic, they retell their story over Zoom from their homes in California and New York State. Unlike most of the Tehran Children, they were never separated from their parents. On being released from the Siberian labor camp in 1941, the family travelled to Uzbekistan. The brothers describe their journey as “full of miracles” and indeed, in a situation of acute poverty, hunger and displacement, the four encountered such extraordinary events and outpourings of human kindness that their safe arrival might well be described as miraculous. At the market in Uzbekistan, for example, their mother was briefly reunited with her brother, who was by then a soldier in the Polish army.
From there the family managed to obtain entry visas to Australia, departing a train at the last moment and leaving the Soviet Union by sea, bound for Iran. Their first impression of Iran was that of kind hospitality. The assistant of a British truck driver who drove them from a village where they were staying in the direction of Tehran saw that their father was conducting his morning prayers in the back of the truck. She recognized the prayer as she, as they found out, was a Persian Jew herself, and spoke Hebrew with them. She invited them all to her father’s home where they were welcomed with such a feast as they had not seen in a long time. Shortly afterward, to their surprise, they discovered that the “feast” was just the appetizers.
The Landau brothers remember their two years in Tehran very fondly. For the first time since the beginning of the war, George and Henry regained their childhood: they went to school, rode their bicycles and snuck into movie theaters. Once, they cheerfully recall, they went to watch a cartoon in an outdoor cinema. As it was not yet dark enough to show the movie they had to wait for the sun to set, but once it grew dark it turned out there were not enough people in the audience, so they had to wait even longer. When the movie finally began they realized it was not a cartoon at all but an American film set in New York. The brothers didn’t understand much English, and, they recall laughingly, every few scenes the movie stopped to show a written explanation of the events in Persian, which drew out this memorable experience even longer. In Tehran, they were part of a community of mostly Polish Jewish refugees that centered around a synagogue, located just across the street from the one frequented by the Iranian Jewish community.
By contrast, Moshe Blechman, speaking on the phone from his home in California, can recall little of his time in Tehran. He has tried over the years to remember, he said, but few details come to mind. He is also reluctant to speak about his experiences during the war. Briefly and sadly, Blechman recounts the death of his father in a forced labor camp in Siberia, and the loss of his mother and one of his sisters.
Blechman came to Tehran along with a group of 300 Polish Christian orphans who had been sent by Russia to England via Iran. He, one of his older sisters and his cousin were the only Jewish children in the group. His other two sisters were left behind in the Soviet camp because they were deemed too old to join. One of them survived and, after some years in a detention camp in Cyprus, would eventually make it to the newly independent state of Israel. Once the group arrived in Tehran, Blechman, his sister and cousin decided to abandon the Polish group. They were sitting on the sidewalk, hungry and lost in a foreign city, when a passerby – many years later, Blechman is still not sure how – recognized them as Jewish and spoke Yiddish to them. She took them to an orphanage for Jewish refugees where they spent a year before the Jewish Agency organized their transportation to then-British Mandatory Palestine. What Blechman does remember of Tehran, he says, is a painful shortage of food. Unlike the Landau brothers, he did not go to school there.
Blechman’s story has many parallels with that of Dekel’s father, whose own tale runs throughout the book. Dekel’s father too does not like to talk about the lives lost by the war. But he recounts much more enthusiastically his arrival to Palestine in 1943, his becoming part of a religious community, and his subsequent success as both a student and a teacher. “I have lived through the entire history of the Jewish people,” he says, again and again.
George and Henry Landau are also effusive in their praise of Mikhal Dekel’s book. “We cannot emphasize enough,” they say, “how important this is.” With the help of the typed memoirs of their own father, Dr. Majer Landau, and the many documents they kept, the brothers have also tried to make their story known over the years. “Not only were we not considered Holocaust survivors, but no-one knew we existed at all. No one knew Jews were also prisoners in the Soviet Union.”
Once, the brothers say, they gave a talk at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York only to discover that no one in the audience had heard of this important element of Jewish history before. “If that crowd doesn't know anything about it,” they say, “who would?”