Most Holocaust refugee stories center on finding safety in the US or Great Britain, where sufficient degrees of European tastes and values provided familiarity and a sense of welcome to those forced to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. Mikhal Dekel’s fascinating true story of a flight out of danger and into safety, however, brought her father and aunt from Poland to the strange new world of Iran, where they initially felt a sharp sense of exile and dislocation.
The story of Jewish refuge in Muslim countries has rarely been told. In this rich and detailed narrative, we learn that Dekel’s father and aunt were two of the nearly one thousand Jewish refugee children evacuated by the Polish military to Iran during the Holocaust. Ultimately, they became part of the unfamiliar Persian Jewish community in Tehran. And with time, they were embraced by a group of Zionist caregivers, who brought them to Palestine in 1943 via India, bringing to fruition their astonishing 13,000-mile journey to safety.
The sweeping story of the group of young refugees who became known as the “Tehran Children” is largely unknown to many who are otherwise well versed in Holocaust history. As such, it reveals new depths of refugee and rescuer relationships, showing how resettlement can reshape and redefine young lives and identities. As Dekel tells us, “This book is not only about the unmaking of the world of Holocaust refugees during World War II, but also about its imperfect remaking.”
While most would-be refugees fled Nazi-occupied Poland by going west, Dekel’s father went east to the Soviet Union at the start of the war. She explains that though the family had lived in Poland for eight generations, the way of life that had nurtured them there was so completely destroyed by the Holocaust that she gleaned almost no understanding of it.
Despite her father’s Polish roots, she and her family saw themselves as completely Israeli, “Not Europe’s rejected but Israel’s desired, the ‘lucky ones’ who had been rescued by the burgeoning Jewish state.” She explains further, “I didn’t even think of my father as a survivor. Survivors had a muted aura of shame and anxiety…but Tehran Children were Israelis.” Her father wanted to raise her as “a child without a painful Jewish past.”
Dekel deftly combines personal narrative and historical investigation to craft a narrative that takes the reader through the Soviet Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Iran. Tens of thousands died of disease and starvation on the journey, but those who survived to live in the teeming refugee world of 1940s Tehran have a valuable story to tell us.
The task of uncovering her father’s past was complex and arduous, Dekel says. “It wasn’t easy to uncover a history of refugees, who leave little trace and fall outside the memory and memorialization work of nations.”
The author is a professor of English and comparative literature at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Because she grew up in Israel and was trained to read across national boundaries, the book is filled with new insights of historical significance. A full set of notes and a deeply detailed bibliography add to the scholarly aspect of the work, yet her well-crafted prose makes it accessible to all.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.