By Jada Gordon
The following article appeared in the November 2019 edition of The Campus.
“I wanted to know more about him so I could also know more about myself.”
Throughout history, individual experiences have become the touchstone for collective experiences among people. In Professor Mikhal Dekel’s new book Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Tragedy, readers get an in-depth look not only at The City College of New York’s own Professor Dekel’s story about her father and aunt, Polish-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi terror to find refuge in Muslim lands, but also the tales that echo the voices of over a million Polish Jews who embarked on similar journeys.
Professor Dekel’s book has helped her gain more of an understanding of her family, specifically her late father, Hannan Teitel. “In a deeper way, the motivation for this book came from a wish to understand a man whom I saw every morning and evening for the first eighteen years of my life, but about whose past I knew nearly nothing: my father,” commented Professor Dekel.
Professor Dekel is an English and Comparative Literature professor at both City College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is also the director of the Rifkind Center within the Department of Humanities and the Arts, with a Bachelor’s of Law degree from Tel Aviv University, a Master’s from City College, and both a Master’s and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University. Professor Dekel has been an educator for nineteen years.
The idea for Tehran Children came about in 2007 at a faculty gathering, and Professor Dekel has been working on the book for over a decade since then.
“I was chatting casually with my Iranian-American colleague, Salar Abdoh, who asked me if I knew anything about Jewish refugees who were in Tehran during the war. These were the days of the Holocaust denying Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which spurred discussions of Iran’s Nazi affiliation during the war. In response to these allegations, an article in an Iranian paper claimed that Iran was not only not pro-Nazi, but it sheltered Jewish children during the war. My colleague asked me about it and was of course stunned when I told him that my own father was in Iran during the war, and his questions were the catalyst for what is now this book.” remarked Professor Dekel.
Tehran Children explores and gives a larger context to children refugee stories within Holocaust discourse, which includes works such as Night by Elie Wiesel, “An Experiment in Group Upbringing” by Anna Freud and Sophie Dann, and The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank. However, Professor Dekel wanted to examine the differences between children and adults as portrayed in Holocaust discourse, she states, “There are many memoirs of survivors who were children during the Holocaust but I do think that looking at the differences between children’s and adult’s experiences, or between women and men, is essential. We now know, for example, that there was a great deal of sexual violence that was not reported on in testimonies because of shame. That needs to be unearthed.”
In discussing childhood trauma in Holocaust discourse, there is concern of becoming borderline exploitative. This is something that Professor Dekel found to be difficult; “It’s very hard, and as a writer you always feel a little exploitative. From my experience interviewing these former child refugees, including my aunt — my dad died in 1993 — they appreciate it and will feel more honored if you know a lot about their ordeal, if you are not asking them dumb, insensitive questions out of your ignorance, and are not patronizing them.”
Professor Dekel hopes that readers will gain more knowledge and perspective about an often-unexplored portion of Holocaust history. She adds, “The story of most Polish Jewish survivors, those who survived in Central Asia and the Middle East, their story is nearly unknown. Secondly, to understand the experience of refugees, and especially child refugees, more broadly. And I think the book offers a Holocaust story that is not all horrible. It is horrible, but there are glimmers of light in the help these refugees received along the way, and the help I received in my research in Poland, Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Israel.”
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