When Iran Welcomed Jewish Refugees
In the middle of World War II, Tehran became a haven for both Jewish and Catholic Polish refugees who were welcomed as they arrived from Soviet Central Asia.
In the summer of 1942, Bandar Pahlavi, a sleepy Iranian port town on the Caspian Sea, became a city of refugees. On its shores were clusters of tents, a quarantine area for typhoid patients, and a large area for distributing food. Outside the tented area, local peddlers hung baskets of sweet cakes and sewing thread, disappearing periodically when club-wielding policemen appeared.
The refugees were Polish citizens who three years prior, with the outbreak of World War II, had fled into the Soviet Union and now, having journeyed nearly 5,000 miles, sailed from Soviet Turkmenistan to northern Iran. More than 43,000 refugees arrived in Bandar Pahlavi in March 1942.
A second wave of almost 70,000 came with the August transports, and a third group of nearly 2,700 was transferred by land from Turkmenistan to Mashhad in eastern Iran. Of these, roughly 75,000 were soldiers, cadets, and officers of what was known as Anders’ Army, a Polish army in exile that had assembled in the Soviet Union under the command of Gen. Wladyslaw Anders.
The rest were mothers and babies, elderly men and women, and unaccompanied children. Three thousand, perhaps more, 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.
From the vantage point of the world we live in today—a world of turmoil in the Middle East and peace in Europe, a world of refugees fleeing the Middle East into Europe, a world in which Iran and Israel are locked in a seemingly eternal conflict—it is hard to imagine that another world existed.
In that world, refugees fled war-torn Europe into Iran, Turkey, and Mandatory Palestine, and they lived there in relative peace for the duration of the war.
In the early 1970s, Iranian film director Khosrow Sinai stumbled on the story of the Polish refugees in wartime Iran accidentally, while attending a memorial service at Doulab, Tehran’s Catholic cemetery. His documentary film The Lost Requiem is a search for the traces of these refugees’ lives, first in the gravestones carved with Polish orthography, then in interviews with Poles who still lived in Iran and elderly Iranians who still remember their arrival.
“One day we woke up and saw them descend on shore,” a resident of Bandar Pahlavi, which was renamed Bandar Anzali after the Iranian revolution, recounts in The Lost Requiem. “They were in very bad condition, thin and ill.” Reader Bullard, then the British ambassador to Iran, also reported that the “thousands of civilian refugees—women and children and old men” descended in Iran very suddenly and unexpectedly.
Those who arrived in Bandar Pahlavi on the first transports in March 1942 were placed in small hotels and in the Cinema Shir-o-Khorshid movie theater. The gravely ill were transferred to local hospitals, the mildly ill were quarantined in a separate tent area, and the rest were shaved, stripped of their lice-infested clothes, given a blanket and a new set of clothing and underwear, and within weeks transferred to one of six refugee camps in Tehran, Isfahan, or Ahvaz.
The world that the refugees came to was one in which the British and Soviet empires had not yet collapsed; the State of Israel had not yet been born; and the Islamic Republic of Iran was decades away from existence. Months earlier, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Anglo-Soviet troops invaded Iran, deposed and exiled the Germany-friendly Reza Shah, and anointed his pro-British son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who would go on to rule Iran until 1979.
A combination of factors had spurred the invasion, not least fears that the Iranian oil fields, which had been under the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company since 1909, would fall into German hands. Both the British and the Soviets now carved out spheres of influence in Iran, the former in southern Iran and the latter in the north. And by the time the Polish refugees arrived there, and despite continual, low-grade attacks by pro-German Iranian groups, Iran had become a center of gravity for Allied soldiers and an array of Jewish refugees from Europe, Soviet Central Asia, Iraq, and the Caucasus.
In an “Urgent Report on Polish Refugees in Persia,” British Col. Alexander Ross, who was charged with the care of civilian refugees, wrote that nearly all the new arrivals suffered from some disease due to prolonged malnutrition, and 40 percent had malaria. Gen. Anders said that he expected a quarter of the refugees to die in Iran, and Polish Ambassador Stanislaw Kot reported that of the 9,956 children who were evacuated during the August transports, 60 percent suffered from malnutrition and 366 had died on route.
But 15-year-old Emil Landau, a Jewish boy from Warsaw, recalled the arrival in Iran as momentous in his diary:
On the historic day of August 16, 1942, … In forty degrees and some weather, the first group of passengers leaves on the tugboat’s dock and after a half hour sail arrives at the small port Bandar Pahlavi. Difficult to transmit in writing the first impression. Each one feels as if he is born again, has come to a place out of this world. The port’s waters are littered with colorful boats; the surroundings are mowed lawns and flowerbeds; rows of impressive Chevrolets and Studebakers wait for transport, and everything seems good and beautiful, everything smiles together with the Persians, and with the Indian soldiers who gaze at the arrivers with pity. After we are on shore everyone hugs everyone.
Iran was the dream of every Jewish and Christian Polish refugee in Central Asia, a respite from years of starvation in the Soviet Union. It was the first country they had encountered since the beginning of the war that had not been ravaged by war, hunger, and disease.
“To us … it is a heaven,” Hayim Zeev Hirschberg, a Warsaw-born rabbi, wrote.
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.
Yet the evacuations to Iran, which excluded most Jewish refugees and left them in the famished Soviet Union, brought tensions between Christian and Jewish Polish refugees to a boiling point. Now, in the safety of Iran, ethnic Polish and Jewish national identities would begin to diverge altogether.
In Bandar Pahlavi, next to the 75-member Polish delegatura that welcomed the Polish refugees, stood a lone representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the governing body of the Jewish population in then British-controlled Palestine. The man, Rafael Szaffar, had immigrated to Palestine from Poland before the war and was now sent to Tehran clandestinely to aid and organize Jewish refugees. Szaffar reported to the Agency that the Jewish refugees were arriving to Iran: “swollen from starvation, dressed in rags” andlooking “much worse than the Poles.”
On shore in Iran, he met a Zionist activist and well-known lawyer from his Polish hometown, and asked him to identify from among the refugees other Polish Jews who had been active in Zionist movements in Poland. The lawyer pointed out 23-year-old David Lauenberg, a member of the socialist Zionist movement Hashomer Ha’tsair. Before the war, Lauenberg had been an officer cadet in the Polish army.
When the war began, he fought in the first battle of Warsaw, was wounded, evacuated east, and was eventually captured by the Red Army as prisoner of war. After his release he tried to reenlist into the Polish Army in exile, but, overhearing Polish soldiers at a recruitment center in Kremina say, “How do we get rid of these filthy Jews? They are shoving themselves everywhere,” he bartered his jacket for the uniform of a drunk soldier and sailed to Iran as a stowaway.
“I was furious to the bottom of my soul. Here I go to reenlist, and these Poles, with whom we went side by side through the horror of the Gulags, in their eyes I was a filthy Jew again,” Lauenberg wrote. In Bandar Pahlavi, he was handed a fresh set of clothes and instructed: “Change your clothes, speak no language but Hebrew, and pretend you are an emissary from the Land of Israel.”
At that moment, Lauenberg wrote, “I was no longer a hapless refugee, a migrant without a home, but belonged to a nation.” He assembled Jewish children from among the general Polish camps and was appointed director of what was known as “Zydowski sierociniec”—“the Jewish orphanage”—in the outskirts of Tehran.
Several hundred unaccompanied Jewish refugee children were transferred directly from Bandar Pahlavi to the Jewish orphanage, which was located inside Dushan Tappeh, a former Iranian air force base that now served as refugee camp for Polish civilians. Five miles to the east of Tehran, the silhouettes of the Alborz Mountains hovering above it, the camp had a handful of buildings—the air force’s former Technical University, some aircraft hangers, the artillery regiment building—and rows of barracks and canvas tents, six of which had been allocated to the Jewish orphanage. In the orphanage’s one cement building lived the littlest children, ages eight and under; 120 such children slept on cotton mattresses and pillows strewn on bamboo carpets.
“[The orphanage] does not evoke much sympathy even among the Jewish refugees, and it is a real find for the anti-Semitic Poles,” Landau wrote. Dushan Tappeh housed hundreds of Polish women and children.
The majority of unaccompanied Christian children were transferred from Bandar Pahlavi to Isfahan, where they were housed inside the Convent of French Sisters; at the Church of Swiss Lazarist Fathers; at the house of Father Iliff; at an English Protestant missionary; and at the estate of the pro-British former governor of Isfahan, Prince Sarem od-Doleh.
Within the sprawling Doleh estate, with its whitewashed arched balconies, its shaded gardens, and its pools and fruit trees, the children studied Polish language, history, geography, Latin, religion, history, and biology in what the Iranian photographer Parisa Damandan calls “lives lived behind closed doors in a Polish environment.”
A Polish school board standardized the curriculum. Polish-language publishing houses in Jerusalem shipped Polish textbooks to Iran. Everything including diet, school curriculum, and elaborate celebrations of the Catholic Fathers, St. Nicholas Day, and Easter was designed to instill in the children a Catholic Polish national identity, and Isfahan circa 1942 became known as “the City of Polish children.”
“The ‘Poland of Isfahan,’” Damandan wrote, “was in fact an independent state within Iran.” In Tehran as well, Catholic holidays were celebrated, and the Polish coat of arms—a white eagle—was carved into the earth at the camp at Dushan Tappeh.
Meanwhile, Jewish children continued to pour into the Jewish orphanage “from all manners of homes and Polish orphanages,” as Landau put it. Unlike in Isfahan, their lodgings, food, and educational curriculum were impoverished. There was no school board, no books, and no teachers; those with an educational background among the Jewish refugees had remained in the Soviet Union.
The counselors, picked from among the adult Polish Jewish refugees in Tehran, were barely older than their charges and had little Jewish education and no pedagogical experience. They began with teaching the anthem of Hashomer Ha’tsair: “We sing and rise! Atop ruins and corpses/We stride and pass … and in the darkness/And with and without knowing where we go, we walk the path/We rise and sing!”
By November 1942, the Polish name Zydowski sierociniec was changed to the Hebrew Beit ha-Yeladim ha-Yehudi b’Teheran, the Jewish Children’s Home of Tehran. A flag embroidered with the camp’s Hebrew name was hung, Hebrew songs were taught (Lauenberg reported that only 50 of the children knew Hebrew), and Sabbaths were celebrated. “It was decided,” an Israeli author would later write, “that the children were no longer orphans; the Jewish Nation was now their home!”
Iran, with its decentralized, multiethnic, multilinguistic national makeup, so radically different from the nominally homogeneous European nation-states, tolerated, at least initially, the development of a Polish, and to a degree even a Jewish, independent state within its borders.
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 transfer 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. Like Tehran, Tel Aviv became a city of Polish refugees.
Polish citizens studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, conservatories, and technical schools; they played in jazz bands, directed plays, and held literary soirees. They published Polish-language periodicals: the Gazeta Polska, the Drodze, and printed new editions of books of Polish poetry, anthologies, and textbooks from old editions owned by the Hebrew University. Alongside and sometimes together with the local Jewish population, they dispatched aid to Jewish and Christian refugees in the Soviet Union, Africa, and elsewhere.
In Palestine, tensions between Christians and Jews subsided considerably. Most civilian Christian refugees stayed there until 1947, when the British mandate over Palestine ended. Few remained forever.
Today, few Poles, Israelis, or Iranians remember this chapter in their history, though the traces—graves of Polish Jewish children in Tehran’s Jewish cemetery, graves of Poles in Jerusalem and Jaffa, plaques thanking God for the deliverance of Polish children from the Soviet Union to Jerusalem, memoirs written in Tehran and Tel Aviv—remain as testaments to this forgotten past.
Collective memory is a political business, and in the current political climate, the memory of Tehran as hospitable to Jewish refugees and of Tel Aviv as hospitable to Christian Polish refugees serves no purpose for the ruling Iranian, Israeli, and Polish governments.
It is ironic, even tragic, that the leading cities of two countries now steeped in conflict with one another were in the 1940s cosmopolitan and mostly peaceful homes to thousands of refugees. But it also provides hope that, one day, such a world might exist again.
Mikhal Dekel is a professor at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey. Twitter: @DekelMikhal