In ‘Tehran Children,’ Mikhal Dekel opens new doorways into a little-known ‘Holocaust Refugee Odyssey’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Forty-five years ago, I decided to become a journalist to explore the world’s mysteries, following in the footsteps of my heroes. My first guides were the travel narratives of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, quickly followed by the globe-circling adventures of journalists Martha Gellhorn, V.S. Naipaul, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin.

So, the moment I saw a train on the cover of Mikhal Dekel’s Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee OdysseyI was eager to read about her decade of global travels to retrace her father’s incredible flight from the Holocaust.

I opened the book as soon as it arrived. Then, I really got hooked when I discovered this sprawling odyssey took him—and thousands of other Jewish refugees—deep into Soviet slave labor camps in the arctic. That hit home, linking with my own memories of an early mentor. I was just beginning my studies at the University of Michigan when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago first revealed the enormity of these Soviet crimes against humanity. My first UofM literary seminar was led by a survivor of the Gulag, the poet Joseph Brodsky, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Finally, my interest turned from fascination to an even deeper, haunting connection. Deker’s Polish father arrived in Tehran, Iran, in the spring of 1942—the same time my own American grandfather arrived in Tehran. Her father was a refugee who was overwhelmed, in part, by the sight of enormous U.S. vehicles and tons of equipment arriving in the city. My grandfather was a U.S. Army officer driving part of that mechanized tidal wave, which was bound for Lend Lease to Russia. My grandfather led a specialized railway construction-and-repair crew to keep Lend Lease rolling.

Yes, this is a book about an exotic chapter of world history—set in far-flung regions of the world that are rarely explored in contemporary nonfiction—yet I was meeting my own mentors and ultimately my own family, again. There certainly are thousands of other families that will be touched in similar ways.

Beyond those personal connections in these pages, I also was drawn into these compelling stories about places and issues that are global hotspots today: the rise of anti-Semitism in Poland, human rights abuses in Russia, the life-and-death impact of faith and culture in Iran and Israel itself.

The next time I list my journalistic and literary mentors, as I did at the start of this story, I am certainly going to include Mikhal Dekel.

The brief autobiography on her website, makes it clear why she was so perfectly equipped for this deep dive into global travel, research and writing. Born in Israel, she has professional experience both as an attorney and a scholar, earning her legal credentials in Israel and her doctorate in English from Columbia in the U.S. Her literary career already spans a vast range of topics—from themes of tragedy and revenge in Israeli literature to the depiction of autism in English novels. In short, she is exactly the kind of multi-talented, multi-lingual world travelers who is perfectly equipped to be our guide.

(Note: Already intrigued? Follow Mikhal on Twitter for ongoing updates about her work and related news items.)

THE CINEMATIC SCOPE OF THIS STORY

Mikhal Dekel. (Photo by Nina Subin; used with permission.)

Mikhal Dekel. (Photo by Nina Subin; used with permission.)

The cinematic scope of Dekel’s new book is intentional.

At the core of her book is a family saga with life-and-death turns of biblical proportions. Shortly after the Nazis attacked Poland, her extended family made a dramatic plan to load up their essentials into a couple of big vehicles, hoping to flee the encroaching danger.

Soon, they discovered their their best-laid plans would encounter unthinkable obstacles—over and over again. At one point in their desperate flight to find a safe haven, leaders of two branches of the family decided to part company. Based on all that was known about the war at that time, one turned West and one turned East—one of several suspenseful parts of the book that will keep you turning pages late into the night.

Along the way, she selects and weaves into her story one compelling detail after another—unforgettable, crystalline facets of this story that you won’t forget when you finally lay the book down. Just one of many examples: A group of terrified refugee children don’t know what else to do, at one point, so they begin to sing a Yiddish tune, which she translates for us: “Mama, I want to remember who I am and where I came from and who my parents were. Mama, there is no country for me.”

On top of that true story of Holocaust survival, Dekel painstakingly researched and layered a series of other narratives into her book—like a Rashomon of Holocaust narratives, providing multiple perspectives on this agonizing flight across thousands of miles.

‘There Isn’t Another Book Like This’

I began our telephone interview by saying, “Your book is unique—and that’s a substantial claim. I’ve been reading Holocaust histories since I first read Elie Wiesel’s Night as a boy in the 1960s—and hundreds of books since then. I was aware that thousands of refugees fled East. For example, I’ve read a couple of best Shanghai memoirs, like Shanghai Remembered. But, I honestly can’t recall reading a book that takes us this deep into the gulag imprisonment of thousands of those refugees—and certainly nothing that takes readers into Tehran’s role in Holocaust survival.”

“I’m glad you understand the scope of what’s been written—and can see that there really isn’t another book like this,” Mikhal said. “That’s why I spent so many years and so many thousands of miles exploring and writing about my father’s story.

She said, “I realized that this was becoming not just a single new narrative of the Holocaust—but a global dialogue across the years involving many different narratives of what happened in those years. Yes, my book includes the Polish-Jewish narrative of fleeing the Nazis, but my story also includes the Polish-Catholic narrative, and the narrative of thousands of Soviet refugees and slave laborers in the gulags, and an Uzbek narrative and a Muslim-Iranian narrative.

“That’s why I am so proud of this book,” she continued. “Jewish history on its own is a very heavy burden for any writer to undertake. So, I struggled not only to carry that weight, but also the weight of so many other narratives that all interacted with each other in that era—and continue to interact today.

“It depends on the reader, but I do think each reader will have a chance to make deeper connections as they read my story about my father and family,” she said.

Opening a Doorway into the Soviet Gulag

Packing prisoners into a “Red Cow”—a Soviet prison train like the one Mikhal Dekel’s father was packed into as a slave laborer. These originally were cattle cars, painted red and used for prisoner transport.

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“You’re right about the connections so many readers can make in these pages,” I told Mikhal as we talked. “Let me tell you a little about two doorways your book has opened into my own life and family.

“The first involves the Soviet gulag,” I said. “My own social conscience when I started at the University of Michigan involved both the Holocaust and the emerging news about the millions who died in the Soviet system of forced deportations, slave labor and imprisonment.  I remember reading every page of that 500-page first volume in Solzhenitsyn’s work on the gulags. Then, I began my first literary seminar at the University of Michigan with Joseph Brodsky as my mentor—fresh from the gulag himself.”

A Stolypin prisoner-transport car, used in Brodsky’s era of Soviet control in the 1960s—and still in use today in Putin’s Russia. The main development over a Red Cow car is the addition of steel partitions that separated groups of jam-packed prisoners.

Mikhal’s father—and thousands of other Jewish refugees—were packed into infamously horrendous “red cows,” cattle cars painted red, for the long trip to Siberia. By the time Brodsky made the same harrowing trip to Siberia, the train cars were a slightly different model called the “Stolypin,” which mainly added steel dividers into what was essentially a cattle car.

I told Mikhal, “I have re-read Brodsky’s poetry on this journey many times through the years—because it tells us so much about the plight of millions of refugees and prisoners, even today. I keep seeing current headlines about these abuses, including an investigation of the use of the Stolypin in the UK’s Independent newspaper. So, I was absolutely fascinated by your careful retracing of your father’s experience with the Red Cows and then in the deadly conditions of a slave labor camp.”

“Thank you for pointing out the importance of that part of the book,” Mikhal said. “It took me years to complete all the travel and research for just that section alone. That’s on top of all the travel to all the other places involved in retracing my father’s journey—and all the research in archives all around the world.”

“Not only were you telling his story,” I said, “but, you also were letting us see how people have tried to revise, reshape and obscure that history—often for pointed political purposes—across the decades.”

“Memory has either been absent on many of the things I write about in this book—or it has been politicized over the years,” Mikhal said. “My book not only tells my father’s story itself, but also how we come to know this history—and how history is remembered and has been changed in different places. This book really is a dialogue about the history and who remembers it and who gets to tell it.”

Most Americans remember few details of World War II, studies show. While the Auschwitz death camp is a world-famous symbol of the Holocaust in Poland, Polish history in that era is so complex that few Americans know how the Holocaust began in Poland. Polish Jewish families were torn about how to respond to the Nazi invasion of their western borders, because their own internal borders went through an agonizing, temporary division between Germany and the Soviet Union. Their options were not obvious.

“It’s a very complicated era, and it also was very confusing for the families living through it,” Mikhal said. “When Poland was first divided between German and Soviet control, about 1.5 million Polish Jews ended up on the Soviet side. That included both Jews who been living in what became the Soviet side—and many Jews who fled the Germans over into that side. Of course, many in the Soviet side were killed after Germany attacked the Soviets and took all of Poland—but about a third of those 1.5 million got deported into the Soviet interior. Of those who were deported, thousands of those died, especially under the harsh conditions of slave labor. But, about 250,000 of them, including my father, survived at the end of the whole ordeal.”

Mikhal said that, as she has begun traveling and talking about her book, she has discovered, “Even Jewish audiences who come to hear me don’t know much about this. After one appearance, a Jewish person came up to me, thanked me for writing the book, and said, ‘I didn’t know there were survivors like this among Polish Jews.’ ”

A Doorway into World War II Iran

Among the many snapshots my grandfather left us from his service in 1942 in Iran, this one shows him sitting on the edge of a fountain in Tehran. Now, I wonder who else he was passing in that square—perhaps one of the refugees Mikhal Dekel describes in her book.

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“Let me tell you about the other doorway your book opened for me,” I said. “That’s Iran in 1942, when your father arrived. I have my own interest in that place and time because it has taken me many years to research the details of my own grandfather landing in Tehran that same spring. He was one of the best crane operators from the Ford Motor Company and had been recruited to serve in a special U.S. Army unit that operated an enormous, specialized train with a fully functioning crane on board. His team was dispatched to the region on a secret mission to keep the vast quantities of Lend Lease military equipment flowing across Iran and into Russia.

“I have a collection of my grandfather’s snapshots he took in the streets of Tehran as he was getting ready to move into the countryside. Reading your book, I had the haunting feeling that your father and my grandfather actually could have passed each other in the city streets that spring. Amazing!

“What’s so important about your book,” I told Mikhal, “is that I’ve collected pretty much all the books in English about Iran during World War II—and there are precious few of them. Your book gives us a major, eye-opening section about all the global forces that converged there in the early 1940s.”

“You should contribute your grandfather’s photos to an archive,” Mikhal said, “because you’re right—there’s very little written about this period. It was especially difficult for me to research this part of the story because I’m an Israeli citizen and could not do the on-the-ground research there in Iran. So, I had colleagues help me complete that part of the research.”

Surprising Cross-Cultural Connections

Mikhal Dekel, held by her father in Israel.

Mikhal said, “One of the big surprises for readers will be the vibrancy of the ancient Jewish community in Tehran, which still was very important at that time.”

I said, “One scene in your book that startled me was when the hosts of these poor Jewish refugees tried to help these young people recover both physically and psychologically. So, at one point, the hosts organized a group outing to take these kids to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in a Tehran theater. What a remarkable cross-cultural scene! You’re absolutely right: Readers will find this particular era in Iran a completely new world, one they’ve never heard about before your book.”

Mikhal said, “Just like people know little about the complex Polish history in that era—they know even less about Iranian history during the 1930s and 1940s. We tend to see Iran, today, through the lens of all of the confrontations in recent decades.

“But in 1939, when the war started in Europe,” she continued, “Iran was a neutral country with strong economic ties to Germany. German engineers had helped build the infrastructure, including the railroads in Iran. Then, as the war continues, Iran still has some of these historic German connections—but it also decides to let in Jewish refugees. And, at the same time, Iran becomes the focus of these huge numbers of soldiers and workers who arrive—including people like your grandfather. Tehran becomes this cosmopolitan, international center for a while. There is an ancient Persian-Jewish community in the region and these families suddenly are encountering Eastern European Jewish refugees for the first time. Cross-cultural contacts are being made in so many ways. New geo-political connections are happening every day.

“That’s why I say this book is not just the story of what happened to a group of refugees,” Mikhal said. “This also is a book about how such cross-cultural experiences along such an odyssey wind up changing the refugees themselves—and how the refugees change the places through which they travel.”

“And that’s why I say there is a lot of content in this book that we could described as ‘ripped from the headlines,’ ” I said. “Because, of course, millions of refugees are on the move, once again.”

‘A Glimpse into Other Possibilities’

Finally, I asked Mikhal, “What do you hope readers will take away from this book?”

“First of all, I hope readers will discover this history, which most people have never encountered,” she said. “There are terrible things that happened along this whole journey, but there also are moments of goodness—and hope as well.

“One message of this book is that there is possibility for dialogue between a lot of different groups. Discovering this complicated history can give us a glimpse into other possibilities in our world.

“In this book, I’m trying to open the heart of this story to the world so that readers may discover another doorway into interfaith dialogue.”