-Joseph, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

 

Mikhal Dekel, is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Rifkind Center for the Humanities and Arts at the City College of New York. Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey, her third book, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, the Chautauqua Institution Award and the 2020 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Mikhal Dekel  

7.5.20

The Unwritten Holocaust Story of My Father, and a Quarter Million Others

            It started as a casual conversation when an Iranian-born colleague asked me if I knew anything about Holocaust refugees in Iran and ended a decade later with a 417-page book. The book is about my journey in the footsteps of a quarter million Polish Jews who survived World War Two in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, India and Eretz Yisrael. It is the story of one, of the One – my father – but also of the multitude. For the most part, it has not been written, or not written in full. 

            Since the publication of the book, descendants of the multitudes write me.

They write: 

“Thank you so very much for educating me about my parents' ordeals. While I knew about some of their life… I learned so much more from your unbelievable research. Your family's story serves in some selected ways as my family's saga… You have added to my life.”

Or,

            "I want to thank you for this book… my grandfather was one of the Tehran Children… His parents both died in Turkmenistan, and on the way there one brother was tragically lost in a Soviet train station. I always wondered how it was that he could have gone missing...your descriptions… make me believe he likely left to try and find food and for reasons that will remain a mystery, never made it back… I feel that by reading your book I have a much clearer understanding of my grandfather's experience as a boy and young man, and that means so much to me!"

Or,

            “Thank you so much for your unbelievable book. Strangely, until I read it I thought my mother was the only Polish Jew in Uzbekistan.”

            A quarter million Polish-born Jews spent the war years in Central Asia, and yet the writer of this email thought his mother was the only one! She never spoke about her wartime experience, he said when we spoke on the phone, and he never read about it. Had she been silent about her experience in in Nazi occupied Poland, he would have known nonetheless what she endured. He would have read Wiesel, Levi, Spiegelman; he would have watched Schindler’s List and Shoah. He would have known what surviving in Nazi-occupied Poland meant. But here there was no seminal work to read or watch.

This email and the many others I now receive made me realize that without a publically shared story, each of us lives her history alone. My father and others who survived in Central Asia and the Middle East had not story. And now I wrote it. 

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