How Iran Became a Home to Jewish Refugees from Soviet-Occupied Poland

November 1, 2019 | Mikhal Dekel
About the author:

In 1942, over 100,000 refugees of Polish origin made their way to Iran. Many had been in the eastern parts of Poland during the Soviet invasion, and were from there exiled by Stalin to Central Asia, whence they made their way to Iran. Others had been part of the so-called Anders Army, a Polish fighting force organized with the approval of London and Moscow to fight Germany. Among both soldiers and civilians were a large number of Jews; one of the officers, in fact, was the future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Mikhal Dekel tells part of their story:

Three thousand, perhaps more, [of the refugees] were Jewish, including four rabbis and nearly 1,000 unaccompanied children who were taken from Polish orphanages in the Soviet Union. There were also several hundred Polish Jewish stowaways, recent converts to Catholicism, women who pretended to be married to Polish officers, and the like.

Christian and Jewish Polish citizens had been exiled by the Soviets together, first from Soviet-occupied Poland to the Soviet interior and later to the Central Asian republics. In Central Asia, they received aid that was collected by U.S.-based and international Jewish and Catholic charities and distributed by representatives of the Polish government in exile; in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic’s cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, Jewish and Christian children were housed jointly in Polish orphanages. And amid tensions and animosity—Jewish refugees received less aid, Jewish children were sometimes taunted and beaten in Polish orphanages—there had also been the intimacy of Polish-speaking citizens who shared a common fate.

These discrepancies only worsened in Iran, until assistance from the Jewish Agency for Palestine was able to provide some support. Then the story took another unexpected turn:

By early 1943, after rising bread costs spurred widespread demonstrations among the local population, the majority of Polish refugees—both Jewish and Christian—would evacuate Iran to India, Lebanon, and Syria. The largest number would be transfered to British-controlled Palestine. There, Jewish children would be raised on kibbutzim, at boarding schools, and with foster families as future citizens of a Jewish state, while Polish children would attend Catholic schools in Jerusalem and Nazareth, and mixed schools in Tel Aviv. . . . In Palestine, tensions between Christians and Jews subsided considerably. Most civilian Christian refugees stayed there until 1947, when the British mandate over Palestine ended.

Most of the Christian soldiers swiftly departed Palestine for Italy, where they fought alongside the British.

Read more on Foreign Policy: