Three Polish Jewish girls in Tehran (USHMM / courtesy of David Laor)
Nearly a thousand Jewish children were among the more than 100,000 Polish citizens evacuated from Soviet Central Asia to Iran in 1942. The refugees were fleeing years filled with political upheaval, mass violence, arrests, deportations, starvation, and dislocation—all consequences of the division and occupation of Poland by Nazi German and Soviet forces in 1939, and the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, where thousands of Poles had escaped to avoid the occupation. They arrived in Iran as the Nazi genocide of Jews raged in their homeland.
For some of the children, who were among the roughly 5,000 Jewish civilians in the evacuation, the war had other consequences. These young people who would come to be known as the Tehran Children were among the many in Poland who had been separated from their parents, orphaned, and placed in shelters. Traumatized by all they had witnessed, many refused to admit they were Jewish.
For up to a year, they lived in former military barracks of the Iranian Air Force under the care of the Jewish Agency. The relief workers, mostly from Zionist youth organizations, cared for the sick and malnourished young refugees before they were eventually permitted to emigrate to Palestine, where they were embraced by an ancient Persian-Jewish community.
While many Iranians know that their country sheltered Polish refugees during World War II, fewer are aware that many of these refugees were Jewish. Mikhal Dekel, author of Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey, has a direct connection to the events: Her father and aunt were Tehran Children. Join her and journalist Arash Azizi as they explore why some aspects of this wartime history might be obscured, as well as the significance of the critical role that Iran played in helping local Jews as well as Polish Jewish orphans during the Holocaust. Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, serves as moderator.
Azizi is a New York–based writer, translator, and scholar. Dekel is a professor of English and comparative literature at City College of New York and director of the college’s Rifkind Center for the Humanities and Arts. Her book on the Tehran Children is available for sale and signing.
Note: Check-in starts at 6 p.m. at the museum’s 15th Street entrance.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl SW, Washington, DC