Review of “The Children of Teheran” film about children saved from the Holocaust by Dalia Guttman, David Tour, and Yehuda Kaveh

The film tells the story of a group of children fleeing occupied Europe from the Holocaust and their eventual settlement in Palestine.

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In 1939, as the Nazis moved into Poland, thousands of Jews escaped eastward, toward Russia. The Russian army, no fan of either Poles or Jews, sent the refugees to Siberia. From there, many decided to try to head south, to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. In spite of the milder climate, there was simply no food for them, and many died of starvation and disease.

Some of the Jewish parents, trying to save their children, left them in local Polish orphanages in Samarkand. They hoped to find their children after the war if they survived.

In 1942, the Stalin-Sikorsky Agreement was signed between the Polish government in exile and the Soviet government, calling for the recruitment of Polish refugees into the Polish army to fight alongside the Allies (which included Russia). This army, known as the Anders Army, was to be sent to the battlefields of the Middle East through Tehran.

The Christian Polish orphanages were allowed to send children with the army to journey to the Middle East. Some 1,000 children made their way by train from the 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. Eventually they reached Tehran. There they were crowded into tents, in poor sanitary conditions with starvation rations.

Refugee tents in Iran

Refugee tents in Iran

When word of the children’s arrival in Tehran reached Palestine, the Jewish Agency sent Israeli emissaries to care for them and to bring back as many Jewish children from the Christian orphanages as possible. They had heard reports that the religious authorities were trying to convert the children. They also knew by then that these could be the last Jewish children from Europe to be alive when the Holocaust was over.

Several months later after intensive diplomatic efforts, the British authorities (reluctant to alienate the Arabs by allowing too many Jews into Palestine) granted certificates to the children to enter Israel in early January 1943. The children and their escorts left Persia through the Karachi Sea to India, and from there, after several days of travel through the minefields of the Indian Ocean, they reached Suez. On February 18, 1943, the train bearing 861 of “the children from Tehran” arrived in Atlit, to a camp established by the British Mandatory government in the 1930s. From there they continued to various kibbutzim in Israel, where their travels finally ended. Six months later, on August 28, another 100 children reached Atlit, having traveled overland, through Iraq.

Young Holocaust survivors arriving at Atlit in 1945.

Although most of the children had come from religious families in Poland, hundreds ended up living in nonreligious settlements, which caused a great deal of controversy in Israel at the time. But they were alive, and they represented hope, or “hatikvah” (the name of the Israeli National Anthem).

The movie features some of these children, now old, and their reminiscences of that time. All interviews are simultaneously translated into English. This is not as powerful a movie as Shoah (the nine-hour film completed by Claude Lanzmann in 1985 about the Holocaust, or Shoah), but it is an extremely interesting episode of Holocaust history that has not gotten much exposure in the Western press. Recommended if you already have background on the Holocaust and seek to round out your knowledge.

Arrival in Israel

Arrival in Israel

You can see a trailer for the film on youtube.

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