On February 18, 1943, 861 Polish-Jewish refugee children – many of them orphans – who had made their way out of occupied Europe, arrived in Mandatory Palestine after a stay of several months in Iran. Dubbed the “Tehran Children,” they were received by the Jewish Agency and greeted warmly by the Jewish community in Palestine, grateful for some good news out of Europe.
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The Tehran Children had endured a long and arduous journey, one that for some had begun as early as September 1, 1939, when Poland was invaded – its western part by Nazi Germany, its east by the Soviet Union. Fearing the worst, some 400,000 Polish Jews from the west fled their homes for what they hoped would be safety in the Soviet-occupied east, or in the USSR itself.
The next two years saw these Jewish refugees, and approximately one million Gentile Poles too, exiled to Siberia or sent to the Central Asian Soviet republics. In some cases, there were those who even voluntarily returned to the German-occupied zone.
After Germany declared war on Russia in June 1942, the Soviets released tens of thousands of Poles they were holding prisoner and gave the Polish government-in-exile permission to assemble an army on Soviet soil, to fight with the Allies.
At the same time, Britain and the Soviet Union jointly occupied Iran, whose oil wells they wanted to secure and whose strategic geographic placement made it an important link in a supply route from the Persian Gulf into the USSR. In 1942, the Soviets allowed for the passage of thousands of Polish recruits for the so-called “Anders’ Army” through Iran, on their way to the front back in Europe, as well as for the resettlement of some 24,000 Polish refugees in Iran itself.
During the summer of 1942, some 1,000 Polish-Jewish children in that latter group made their way by train from orphanages in the Soviet Union to the Caspian Sea port of Krasnovodsk (now called Türkmenbaşy), in Turkmenistan. From there, they boarded vessels that took them across the southern part of the Caspian to the Iranian port of Bandar-e Pahlavi (renamed Bandar-e Anzali after the Islamic Revolution). Others took an overland route to Pahlavi.
In either case, waiting for the Jewish children when they reached Pahlavi were Jewish Agency officials, who brought them to an abandoned Iranian air force barracks outside Tehran. There, a tent camp – grandiosely dubbed the Tehran Home for Jewish Children – had been set up for them, with the help of local Jews as well as the Hadassah Women’s Organization and the Joint Distribution Committee.
All the while, David Ben-Gurion and Eliyahu Dobkin, representing the Jewish Agency, negotiated with both British officials and the Polish government-in-exile over the request to bring the children to Palestine. This, of course, required that the British issue them immigration certificates, something the United Kingdom was very reluctant to do during the war. In this case, however, the British not only gave visas to the children and to a number of adults meant to accompany them, but also put a ship at their disposal.
The next leg of the trip involved travel from Tehran to the Persian Gulf, over sea to Karachi, Pakistan, another sea journey to Suez, and then travel by train across the Sinai desert to Atlit, a British military base on the Mediterranean coast, south of Haifa.
On February 18, 1943, 861 children arrived at Atlit, with their train greeted by excited local residents bearing candy and other gifts. Six months later, on August 28, another 100 children reached Atlit, having traveled overland, through Iraq.
The children were not kept long at the military camp, but rather were distributed to kibbutzim and moshavim (cooperative farms) for adoption. According to the online Holocaust Encyclopedia of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 35 of them went on to lose their lives, either as soldiers or as civilians, during the War of Independence, in 1948-49.
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