The “Tehran Children,” were a group of Polish children who, after suffering through the early stages of the Holocaust, followed by their enduring the monstrous conditions of the Soviet gulags, followed by experiencing extreme conditions in refugee camps in Iran, became the largest group of survivors to arrive in Eretz Israel during the Holocaust. Upon their arrival there in February 1943, they became the subject of a heated battle between the Mizrachi movement, which wanted the children to be educated in Zionist religious institutions; Agudat Israel, which demanded that the children be educated in charedi yeshivot; and secular leaders, who insisted that the children be secularly educated and raised on non-religious kibbutzim.
The tale begins on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and some 300,000 Polish Jews fled east to the Soviet Union. At the time, Russia was a German ally and, following the time-honored Czarist tradition, it proceeded to stuff the Polish refugees into Nazi-like cattle cars and deport them to Siberia and to the infamous Soviet gulags, where they bore unimaginable hardships. When Hitler violated Germany’s non-aggression pact with Russia and invaded it on June 22, 1941, in Operation Barbarossa, many more Polish Jews perished or were killed, leaving many Jewish children dead or orphaned.
Meanwhile, Russian and British troops occupied Iran and deposed Shah Reza Pahlavi, a Nazi Germany supporter, and installed his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (who went on to serve as Shah until the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Iranian revolution in 1979). The new Shah cooperated with the occupying troops in creating “the Persian Corridor,” a critical new passageway for channeling British and American supplies to Russia. The British and the Russians controlled different areas of Iran, but the British command of southern Iran, where the Jewish refugees were situated, became significant when the Jews later sought passage to Eretz Yisrael, then under the British Mandate.
In early 1942, Russian authorities authorized the resettlement of 24,000 Poles to Iran pursuant to an agreement with the Polish government-in exile, and Jewish Agency negotiations with the Polish government secured approval for the transport to Iran of thousands of Jews. The immediate problem, however, was that the Jewish children in the Soviet Union were scattered all across the county, so Aliyah Bet agents, some of whom were killed in the operation, were sent to Russia to find them and gather them together for transport.
Jewish Agency representatives met the arriving transports, which included some 1,000 unaccompanied Jewish orphans, four rabbis, and adults, mostly elderly men and women. It identified the Jewish children, most of whom were ages seven to twelve, and separated them from the Christian Poles; this proved to be a particularly difficult undertaking because many of the children, traumatized by their Holocaust experiences in Poland and Russia, were reticent about admitting that they were Jewish.
The Jewish children were initially kept in refugee tent camps set up on the grounds of a former Iranian Air Force barracks at Bandar Pahlavi, an Iranian port town outside Tehran on the Caspian Sea, which became known as the “Tehran Home for Jewish Children.” They lived under harsh living conditions, including starvation, extreme heat, and abuse from their fellow (non-Jewish) Poles and, although they initially received important assistance from the local Jewish community in Iran, their welcome wore out somewhat when supplies grew scarce with the approach of winter.
The children were initially welcomed by the Iranian public, but it grew hostile to the Jewish refugees, particularly after rising bread costs led to mass demonstrations in Iran. The local newspapers denounced the Polish refugees as “parasites of the Allies” and graffiti across Tehran proclaimed that “all of Persia is hungry as it watches the Poles and the British eat its bread.”
The situation changed for the better when the Jewish Agency opened an office in Tehran, established an orphanage for the Jewish children – its director was Zipporah Shertok, wife of Moshe Shertok (later Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett) – and sent Zionist youth leaders from Eretz Yisrael to help care for them. Nonetheless, the orphanage was run under poor conditions and the emissaries from Eretz Yisrael fought valiant battles to rescue Jewish children from Christian missionaries. Additional material support was provided by American institutions, including the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the AJDC later covered all the transport costs of bringing the children to Eretz Yisrael.
Soon after the arrival of the children in Iran, Ben Gurion and Eliahu Dobkin, a leader of the Labor Zionist movement (and later a signatory to Israel’s Declaration of Independence), commenced successful negotiations with Polish authorities and British officials, the result of which was that Lord Halifax, the British Ambassador to the United States, issued travel certificates in December 1942 granting the children entry to Eretz Yisrael. On January 3, 1943, 716 children, most of them orphans, left Tehran on a long and circuitous route through Pakistan, Egypt, and the Sinai desert because the Iraqis refused passage to Jews.
Upon their arrival in Eretz Yisrael on February 18, 1943, they were greeted by Henrietta Szold (the founder of Hadassah) and Youth Aliyah representatives and were housed at the Atlit refugee camp, and a subsequent transport of 120 children arrived six months later on August 28, 1943. The Tehran Children were joyously welcomed by the entire Yishuv, and a newsreel of the children arriving at Atlit shows local preschool children lined up with bouquets of wildflowers and adults holding Hebrew banners.
One of the great tragedies of the Tehran Children Affair was the acrimony between the Agudat Israel and Mizrachi factions and their inability to coordinate their efforts on behalf of European Jews during the Holocaust, which only delighted the secularists. The charedi attacks against Israel for “perverting” the Tehran children were unbelievably bitter, including allegations that the Zionists were fostering “atheism” and “spiritual annihilation” and that they were purposely brainwashing the children to reject Torah observance.
The Jewish Agency initially commissioned Agudah and Mizrachi leaders to establish the distribution of the children between their respective educational institutions but, again, mutual hostility precluded cooperation. In April 1943 the Jewish Agency took matters into its own hands and unilaterally determined the distribution of the 716 children who had arrived in February. The result was that 278 children (about 40 percent) were sent to Mizrachi institutions, 32 (or about 5 percent) were assigned to Agudah yeshivot, and the remainder were assigned to mostly secular kibbutzim.
Mizrachi and Agudah were finally able to agree on something: both groups were outraged by the distribution, but the Agudah’s reaction was particularly shameful. Among other things, it commenced a campaign to kidnap children who had been assigned to religious Zionist schools and it encouraged Agudah leaders in Great Britain and America to threaten a boycott against Zionist organizations in Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Herzog, a strong Mizrachi supporter who also maintained a close relationship with charedi leaders, tried to walk the line between the two factions and, in the process, disappointed both. Mizrachi leaders accused him of encouraging British rabbis to boycott Zionist institutions and demanded that he publicly announce his opposition to the boycott, which he ultimately did. Expressing strong opposition to “the war games of the Agudists, who stand outside Knesset Israel,” he called upon Jews across the world to support Zionist funding.
In the historic 28 Iyar (June 2) 1943 correspondence exhibited here, Chaim Weizmann responds to a letter from Rav Yehuda Leib Seltzer regarding the Tehran Children and their education:
I received your letter dated 2 Iyar 1943 and of course I am also irritated and agitated and anxious regarding the stormy arguments on the issue of the children from Tehran. Yet from afar it is difficult to learn all of the details, and therefore I must not throw myself into the center of this argument.
I quickly made inquiry with my friends in Jerusalem to advise me regarding all the details, and I am certain that before I depart for America I will be able to advise you regarding my thoughts on the essence of the matter and the steps that I am willing to take.
In the meantime, I would ask His Honor to restore calm. As for myself, I have great confidence in the integrity of Rabbi Y. L. Fishman, who has been put in charge of the children’s education, and I also feel that Ms. Szold, herself a pious and honest woman in the full sense of the word, shall reverently uphold the responsibility placed upon her with regard to the children.
Permit me to say that to come out publicly against using Zionist funds for this troubling episode whose details are not known is not only a serious step, but an action that the entire Yishuv, including Chief Rabbi Herzog, have already come out against forcefully.
R. Seltzer was president of Agudat Harabanim (the Union of Orthodox Rabbis) in the United States and Canada, and Rav Yehuda Leib Fishman (who later changed his name to Maimon) was a strong opponent of handing Jewish children over to Agudah. Although he was a founder of Mizrachi and a leader of the Religious Zionist movement, he nevertheless opposed R. Herzog with respect to the Tehran Children Affair on the grounds that he objected to rabbinic intervention into political issues.
Five hundred spiritual leaders of Orthodox congregations in America sent telegrams and a petition demanding that the Tehran Children be placed under the auspices of Rav Herzog or his designee. Exhibited here from my collection is a sample of several of these original telegrams voicing their protest against the Jewish Agency and its arrangements for the absorption of the children in secular educational institutions.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn and, along with R. Moshe Feinstein, the leading posek of post-WWII America, writes:
Protesting against Jewish Agency for unjustified treatment of homeless children from Tehran [.] Think their education should be under committee set by Chies [sic] Rabbi Herzog
R. Kamenetsky (1891-1986) studied in Minsk and then in the Slabodka yeshiva for 21 years under Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel before moving to the U.S. in 1937 and taking various rabbinical positions there. He was renowned for both his incredible Torah scholarship, which included broad knowledge of Hebrew grammar, and for his personal warmth. He played a key role in post-Holocaust Jewish education in the U.S., and his most notable works include Emes leYaakov al HaShas, a five-volume work with insightful commentary on the Talmud, and Emes leYaakov al Shulchan Aruch – a volume with commentary and rulings on the Jewish Code of Law.
Rav Israel Solomon Rosenberg, who served as chairman of the Agudah’s executive committee and as a lifetime member of the presidium, but was also a strong supporter of religious Zionism, writes:
Vehemently protest failure Jewish Agency turn over supervisory chinuch Jewish orphans in Palestine to Chief Rabbinate. All steps must be taken immediately to rectify the situation to grant these children an opportunity to be educated in accordance with the Jewish way of life.
Rav Rosenberg (1875-1956), recognized as a Talmudic prodigy and ordained in Russia by R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (1899), immigrated to the U.S. (1902), where he served as rav of a series of congregations and became a leading authority on kashrut. He was instrumental in founding the Central Relief Committee to help the poor and (1914) and in forming the Ezras Torah Fund to support needy Torah scholars and their families. Also concerned about the need to produce Orthodox rabbis in America, he was a great supporter of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminary and he served as its first vice president and later as dean.
Rav Pinchas Teitz, president of the Agudat Harabanim of the United States and Canada (1956 – 1968) and founder of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, New Jersey, writes:
The Orthodoxy of Elizabeth NJ joined in the demand that the refugee children in Palestine be placed under the supervision of Chief Rabbi Herzog or under a board anointed by him.
Born in Latvia and educated in yeshivot in Lithuania, Rav Teitz (1908-1995) came to the U.S. in 1933. He founded “Daf Hashavua on the Air” (1953), a weekly radio program that ran for 36 years in which he discussed a page of Talmud with some 200,000 listeners. He made multiple trips to the Soviet Union through the late 1960s, where he quietly obtained permission to meet religious needs of Jewish population centers previously denied by Communist officials. The remarkable success of his JEC was recognized by the government of Israel in 1968, when it singled out Elizabeth as a model Jewish community and presented it with a medal (1968).
Rabbi Reuven Epstein, best known for The Torah Testifies, a defense of Torah-true Judaism and an affirmation of the hand of the Divine in Jewish history, writes:
Mattathias Maccabees saved Israels soul by opposing openly idolatrous Antilchus (sic) runagate Jews act rescue children’s souls.
The strife between the Agudists and the Mizrachists with respect to Jewish children arriving from Europe continued until June 1944, when the two groups executed a Letter of Agreement pursuant to which all arriving children would be divided according to their religious backgrounds and, where that background could not be ascertained, there would be a 70/30 percent split between Mizrachi and Agudah educational institutions, respectively. Each side agreed not to propagandize the children, and Agudah agreed not to kidnap any children.
In general, the Tehran Children were effectively absorbed into Jewish life in the Yishuv and they became contributing citizens of Israeli society. With the loving support of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, they eventually overcame their grief and hardship, made up for their years of lost education, and married and raised families. Thirty-five of them made the ultimate sacrifice for Israel as they were killed in battle during Israel’s War of Independence.
Poet Nathan Alterman composed a famous poem in which he wrote that “after they grow old, they will always remain ‘the Tehran Children.’” In 2004, a lawyer for the then-elderly Tehran Children filed a class-action lawsuit for their rightful share of reparations paid by West Germany to Israel pursuant to the 1953 Reparations Agreement. He successfully argued that they qualified for German reparations and that they had failed to file a claim only because Israel had not officially recognized them as Holocaust survivors until 1997. In a landmark August 2012 decision, the Tel Aviv District Court awarded NIS 17 million to a group of 217 Teheran “children” and ruled that all of the Tehran Children – and not just the 217 who sued – were each entitled to a compensation payment of NIS 50,000 each which, with interest added, amounted to NIS 78,000 each.
Finally, the remarkable rescue of the Tehran Children was the result of a complex interaction between multiple governments, organizations, and communities but, as one descendent of a Tehran Child so beautifully put it, the saga is one of Jewish mutual aid, resourcefulness and memory which constitutes a microcosm of Jewish history. But the ultimate lesson of the Tehran Children is the importance of the State of Israel as a home for all Jews and that, at the end of the day, Jews can rely upon no one but themselves.