The Lost Memories of the 'Tehran Children'

On February 19, 1943, Shoshana Gilady saw a photograph in the Palestine Post.Gilady recognized herself in the photo, which had been taken the previous day. She was one of the two mothers, and the baby was her son, Alex.

On February 19, 1943, Shoshana Gilady saw a photograph in the Palestine Post. It was a black-and-white picture of two women peering out the window of a train, their hair covered with kerchiefs, each holding a baby wrapped in a blanket. Gilady recognized herself in the photo, which had been taken the previous day. She was one of the two mothers, and the baby was her son, Alex.

Several decades later, Alex Gilady received a copy of that photograph and decided to show it to a man he had recently befriended.

"When I received the photo," recalls Gilady, "I had a copy made and I took it to the office of Arie Mientkavich, whom I had met at a convention of Holocaust survivors. When I showed him the picture, he looked at it, then at me, and said, 'Alex, we are brothers.'"

To this day Gilady, president of Keshet Broadcasting and a member of the International Olympic Committee, and Mientkavich, former chairman of Israel Discount Bank - the two babies photographed with their mothers at the train window - consider themselves brothers, even though they are not blood related.

Refugees from Poland

Today they and some 700 orphans who immigrated to Israel in February 1943 are the subject of "Tehran Children," a documentary film currently in the making, directed by Yehuda Kaveh ("Avidanium 2005," "Letters from Lebanon"). The film interviews now middle-aged "Tehran Children," to find out how they are coping with their memories or lack of memories of their arrival in Israel, which at the time caused a tumult in the pre-state Jewish community.

The story of the "Tehran Children" began during World War II, when Jewish refugees from Poland crossed the border into Russia to escape the Nazis.

In order to save their children from the hunger and harsh living conditions in Russia, many parents sent their children to local orphanages.

In 1942, the Polish II Corps was established to fight the Nazis alongside the Russians and the troops were sent to Tehran to train; they were accompanied by a few thousand civilian refugees, including several hundred orphans.

In Tehran, the Jewish Agency assisted the refugees, who were housed in tent encampments, and after lengthy negotiations with the British administration in Palestine, the children were granted immigration certificates.

In February 1943, the "Tehran Children" arrived in Israel and were greeted with great excitement. "Here, people still did not know exactly what was happening in Europe," says Dalia Gutman, who is producing the documentary with David Tor.

"People were worried about their relatives they left behind, and these children were the first representatives who arrived here from the war. People greeted the refugees at the station with questions of 'where are you from?' and 'do you know this or that relative of mine?'" she adds.

Gilady and Mientkavich were photographed with their mothers while they were waiting to get off the train.

Locked in oral history

Gutman, formerly the programming director for Israel Television's Channel 1, relates that the idea for the film was born following a meeting she had with Avigdor (Yanush) Ben-Gal, another Tehran child, about 10 years ago.

"He told me about the separation from his parents at age 5, and it was such a heartrending story that it prompted me to find out more about that chapter [of Jewish history]," relates Gutman. "I quickly realized that all the children's stories had become an oral history, and that apart from the academic works and one book written for teenagers by author Devorah Omer, there were no films or orderly documentation of these children's story, which was, of course, intertwined with the story of Zionism and the story of the Jewish immigration to Israel."

The film details the historical facts, but the main focus is on the children's memories.

"The film examines what people do when they bury their memories, how they confront their lack of memories today," explains Gutman. "Gilady and Mientkavich are not typical 'Tehran Children.' They have no memories of that time, as they came to Israel as infants. The other children underwent difficult wanderings, have no personal documents and do not even remember their parents.

"Many of them now travel to Poland in search of landmarks that will help them relive the childhood memories that were erased, probably out of necessity, to protect themselves."

"Tehran Children," is being filmed by Yoav Kush and financed by the Avichai Foundation, the Rich Foundation, Israel Discount Bank and Channel 10, which plans to broadcast the film on Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day (April 15, 2007).