The story of the Tehran Children began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and began World War II. Following the invasion, hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews fled across Poland's eastern border into the Soviet Union. There they were joined by over one million Christian Poles who were deported from early 1940 to mid-1941 following a Soviet campaign of mass arrests and expulsions of Polish citizens to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. In the chaos that followed the bombings, epidemics, starvation, and frequent dislocations of 1939 through 1941, many Polish children were orphaned or were separated from their parents and placed in shelters throughout the Soviet Union.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, thousands of Polish Jews were sent deeper into the interior of the Soviet Union, and still more children became separated from their families as a result. In August 1941, the Soviet government released tens of thousands of Polish prisoners-of-war (POWs) and allowed the creation of a Polish Army on Soviet soil (the so-called “Anders Army,” named for its commander, General Wladyslaw Anders).

After the German attack on the Soviet Union, British and Soviet troops had jointly occupied Iran, and, in August 1941, forced the abdication of the Iranian Emperor (Shah) Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had maintained Iranian neutrality, in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Given the circumstances of the Anglo-Soviet occupation, the new Shah was more cooperative, and facilitated the establishment of a major new conduit for British and US supplies to flow into the Soviet Union. This supply route became known as the “Persian Corridor.” In 1942, some units of the Polish Anders Army deployed to the Iranian port of Pahlavi (today Bandar-e Anzali). Other units arrived overland from Turkmenistan to the railhead at Mashhad, Iran.

In 1942, Soviet authorities authorized the resettlement of 24,000 Polish civilians and Anders army recruits from the Soviet Union to Iran. The transfer began in spring 1942 and continued until late summer of that year. In all, it is believed that some 116,000 Polish refugees and Anders Army personnel ultimately arrived in Iran, far exceeding the number originally agreed upon. Among the civilians were 1,000 Jewish children, the majority of them orphans. This was the group that became known as the “Tehran Children.” From orphanages and shelters in various parts of the Soviet Union, the children traveled on trains from Soviet Central Asia to Krasnovodsk and then by ship to the port of Pahlavi, on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Others went via Bukhara to Kazan and Ashkhabad (on the Iranian border), and from there to Pahlavi.

Two of the Tehran Children

The involvement of the Jewish Agency for Palestine (a quasi-governmental organization that served the administrative needs of the Jewish community during the British Mandate) was a crucial component in the story of the children in Tehran. While these Jewish children were still scattered in the southern part of the Soviet Union, representatives of the Jewish Agency negotiated with the Polish government-in-exile regarding the percentage of Jews to be included in the transports to Iran. As the transports came into Pahlavi, they were met by Jewish Agency representatives, who identified and separated the Jewish children from Christian Poles. Hungry and traumatized by their recent experience, many children refused to admit that they were Jewish. The children ranged in age from 1-18 years, although most were ages 7-12. Once the children were gathered in Tehran, Zionist leaders David Ben Gurion and Eliahu Dobkin negotiated with Polish cabinet minister Stanislaw Kott, as well as British officials, to facilitate the children's admission to Palestine.

The Jewish Agency established an orphanage for the Jewish children. The 730 Jewish children who arrived in Iran from April to August 1942 lived in tents on the grounds of Dustan Tappeh, a former military barracks of the Iranian Air Force outside Tehran. An effort to assist the evacuation of more children from orphanages following this successful transfer permitted a small additional number of Polish-Jewish children to arrive in Tehran after summer 1942. The camp, which rapidly became known as the “Tehran Home for Jewish Children,” received assistance from the local Jewish community, the Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization in the United States, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Youth Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency.

Experienced Zionist youth leaders from Palestine took charge of the children's shelter. After long periods of hardship, homelessness, and confinement in orphanages, many children suffered from serious illness (frequently tuberculosis) and malnutrition, but most recovered their health in the Tehran camp.

As a result of negotiations between the Jewish Agency and the British administration in Palestine, the children eventually received certificates permitting their immigration to Palestine. On January 3, 1943, 716 children with their adult escorts, many of them also refugees, traveled by truck to Bandar Shahpour on the Persian Gulf, and from there on the freighter Dunera to Karachi, Pakistan. From Karachi, the refugees traveled on the Noralea around the Arabian Peninsula and through the Red Sea to the Egyptian city of Suez. The children then crossed the Sinai Desert by train, and arrived at the Atlit refugee camp in northern Palestine on February 18, 1943, where the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) welcomed them. A second transport of 110 children arrived in Palestine overland (via Iraq) on August 28, 1943. In all, some 870 “Tehran Children” arrived in Palestine, and soon settled on kibbutzim (collective farms) and moshavim (cooperative farming villages). Thirty-five of the “Tehran Children” died either as civilians or as soldiers in Israel's War of Independence in 1948-1949.