The Story of Holocaust Refugees in Tehran Teaches a Lesson in Jewish Solidarity

July 6, 2020 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

In 1942, thousands of Polish-born children, most of them without their parents, were evacuated from Soviet Asia to Iran; among them were some 1,000 Jews. Thanks to the efforts of the local Jewish community, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the Zionist movement, these Jewish children were cared for and then transported to the Land of Israel. The Israeli-born scholar Mikhal Dekel, whose father and aunt were among those children, tells this story in a recent book. While Allan Arkush expected this work to be composed in the same fashionably post-Zionist key as Dekel’s previous writings, he found something quite different—both to his surprise and the author’s:

There are [several] occasions [in the book] on which Dekel muses about the accidental character and mutability of nationality, but more often, she takes note of its enduring strength. As she retraces her family’s route from Poland to Palestine, she talks with the locals—some quite knowledgeable and some not—about the tensions between the Jews and their neighbors in the past as well as the present. She also read thousands of documents pertaining to the Polish government-in-exile, which revealed precisely what she hoped not to see: “the exclusion of Jews from resources and from their very identity as Poles, and concurrently a denial of this exclusion by Polish authorities.”

Conversely, Dekel was deeply impressed by the evidence she found of a sense of Jewish mutual responsibility all over the world. In the past, she had always thought of the JDC as a somewhat hapless organization. After learning, however, of the efforts it had made to assist the wartime Jewish refugees in Central Asia, she “was amazed by the ingenuity and expediency with which the JDC purchased and shipped the medicines, and by the commitment and urgency with which it acted.”

There was help from closer by, too. When the children and other refugees showed up in Tehran, the local Jewish communities bent over backward to help them.

Reading this, I thought of the 17th-century situation [when Jewish] benefactors from all over the world chipped in to help Polish Jews who had been carried off to the East, and then, too, the local Jewish communities reached deep into their pockets to redeem them. One 20th-century difference—an enormous one—was the fact that one of the Middle Eastern Jewish communities prepared to help was the embryonic Jewish state based in Palestine, and it could do so with more than money.

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