A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey
by Mikhal Dekel
Pub Date 01 Oct 2019
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Fleeing East from Nazi terror, over a million Polish Jews traversed the Soviet Union, many finding refuge in Muslim lands. Their story—the extraordinary saga of two thirds of Polish Jewish survivors—has never been fully told.
Author Mikhal Dekel’s father, Hannan Teitel, and her aunt Regina were two of these refugees. After they fled the town in eastern Poland where their family had been successful brewers for centuries, they endured extreme suffering in the Soviet forced labor camps known as “special settlements.” Then came a journey during which tens of thousands died of starvation and disease en route to the Soviet Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
While American organizations negotiated to deliver aid to the hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews who remained there, Dekel’s father and aunt were two of nearly one thousand refugee children who were evacuated via Polish military transport to Iran, where they were embraced by an ancient Persian-Jewish community celebrating familiar rituals in unfamiliar ways.
Months later, their Zionist caregivers escorted them via India to Mandatory Palestine, where, at the endpoint of their 13,000 mile journey, they joined hundreds of thousands of refugees (including over one hundred thousand Polish Catholics). The arrival of the “Tehran Children” was far from straightforward, as religious and secular parties vied over their futures in what would soon be Israel.
Beginning with the death of the inscrutable Tehran Child who was her father, Dekel fuses memoir with extensive archival research to recover this astonishing story, with the help of travel companions and interlocutors including an Iranian colleague, a Polish PiS politician, a Russian oligarch, and an Uzbek descendent of Korean deportees. The history she uncovers is one of the worst and the best of humanity, of fate and destiny, of hospitality and of cruelty, of love and hate.
The experiences her father and aunt endured, along with so many others, ultimately reshaped and redefined their lives and identities and those of other refugees and rescuers, profoundly and permanently, during and after the war.
With literary grace, Tehran Children presents a unique narrative of the Holocaust, whose governing symbol is not the concentration camp, but the refugee, and whose center is not Europe, but Central Asia and the Middle East.
About the Author: Mikhal Dekel is professor of English at City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Tehran Children, The Universal Jew: Masculinity, Modernity and the Zionist Moment, and Oedipus in Kishinev.
“Though their story is seldom told, most Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust did so by taking the road east, into the Soviet Union. In tracing the harrowing journey of her father’s escape, Mikhal Dekel provides a multilayered and nuanced account…Her exploration of the peculiar refugee world in 1940s Tehran—especially the tense relations between Jewish- and Catholic-Polish refugees in that city—makes the book an important and timely addition to the literature of the Holocaust and modern refugee history.” - Tom Reiss, author of The Orientalist and The Black Count
“An engrossing narrative that seamlessly weaves together a moving memoir, a gripping detective novel, and an erudite social history; heart wrenching in describing the agonies of the Polish Jews, heartwarming in bringing to life their defiance and the hospitality they received in places like Tehran. While voices of rancor and rage are using stereotypes and shibboleths to simplify the complexities of our human condition, Tehran Children is a must-read for all hoping against hope to cherish our common humanity.” - Abbas Milani, author of The Shah
“In this brilliantly conceived narrative, Mikhal Dekel illuminates a series of unexpected places absent from many maps of the refugee experience of the Holocaust. A striking book.” - Samuel Moyn, author of Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World
“A revelatory history, a saga of flight and welcome, of death and head-down survival, a powerful narrative built for this moment. Dekel’s sweeping storytelling is marked by heartbreaking restraint and historical sensitivity.” - Charles King, Georgetown University, author of Odessa and Midnight at the Pera Palace
“Tehran Children is a gripping account of Holocaust survival unlike any other. Blending the genres of memoir, history, and travelogue, Mikhal Dekel combines the empathy of a daughter with the insight of a scholar. This is one of the greatest, largely untold stories of the Second World War.” - Tara Zahra, author of Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World