Around the World in Three Years: How the “Tehran Children” Were Rescued

In February 1943, the “Tehran Children” arrived in Israel. These child refugees from Poland were gathered in Iran from where they were sent via a circuitous route to Mandatory Palestine in one of WWII's most comprehensive and successful rescue operations. Documents and photos in the Ein Harod Archive offer an intimate glimpse into the complex absorption process and heart-wrenching personal stories

The “Tehran Children" on a train bound for Mandatory Palestine, 1943, photo courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives

The train pulls into the station. Children stare out from the carriage windows and doorways. Hundreds of small, sad faces pressing up against the windows and doors, looking with astonishment at the strangers waiting for them on the platform.

The year is 1943. No, this is not another awful scene of children being sent to their deaths in the East. It is the opposite. This particular train carries children who have been rescued from the European inferno, and it is passing through stations of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel—Rehovot, Lod, Hadera, Binyamina and Atlit—providing the residents with an opportunity to welcome the refugees with open arms.

The strangers on the platform cry, smile, wave and extend a hand, cakes and flowers to the embarrassed and surprised children. They sing songs that some of the children have already learned the words to from the counselors at the transit camp in Tehran: Hatikva, Shir Hama’a lot, and others.

Among the children are two brothers: Aryeh and Moshe Drucker. Aryeh is much older than his fifteen years, a result of what he has witnessed and endured. Moshe is ten years old, still a child, perhaps thanks to his protective older brother who makes sure he remains so.

Some of the Tehran Children standing outside the train at Atlit. Aryeh Druker is the first on the left.

The names of the Drucker brothers are the first on the orderly list of children preserved in the Ein Harod Archive. Name. Date of birth. Country of birth: Poland.

While going through the yellowing and almost crumbling documents in the archive, just before they begin to undergo the process of conservation and digitization at the National Library of Israel, we discover that Moshe is still alive, and that he is happy to talk with us.

The list of the children preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

From Poland to the Children’s Transit Camp in Tehran

20,000 kilometers, 719 children and three continents—these are the dry figures behind the rescue mission. The children, collected from orphanages and gulags across the Soviet Union, were transferred to a temporary tent camp in Tehran. From there, they set out, together with counselors and other adult refugees, on the long and circuitous journey to the Land of Israel. They came to be known collectively as the “Tehran Children”.

Almost all the children were born in pre-war Poland, in the eastern part that was transferred to Russian control as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Polish Jews who suddenly found themselves on the Soviet side of the border were quickly labelled as enemies of Mother Russia. Many were sent to Siberia or the endless Asian steppes of the USSR. Many others had fled there on their own accord after the German invasion in 1941.

“We actually came from Katowice,” says Moshe, “but when the war broke out, mother, Aryeh and I were visiting Aunt Rosa, in Polish Ukraine. And we were ‘stuck’ there.” On the day Poland was partitioned, their little family was also torn apart: all of a sudden, there was a border separating Clara, Aryeh and Moshe from Leon (the father) and Herman (the older brother). A border that could no longer be crossed.

When Clara was put on the train to Siberia with her two sons, her world shattered. She never imagined that it was there that she would find the chance to save her children.

The fact that things were worse in Germany did not make life in Siberia any easier. After almost two years of battling hunger, cold and disease, and without any way of being able to properly feed or clothe her sons, at the first opportunity, Clara placed them in an orphanage.

“At night we would sometimes sneak back to her house to sleep,” Moshe recalled, “and we would bring food with us, what we managed to steal from the kitchen. If it weren’t for our leftovers, there would have been days when she wouldn’t have had anything to eat.”

When the Polish government-in-exile established an army under the command of General Władysław Anders, inside Russian territory, the Soviet authorities allowed Polish citizens to join it by crossing the border into Iran, which was then under British control. This exceptional sharing of interests was a rare chance for the refugees inside the Soviet Union to escape.

In order not to miss out on this opportunity, Zionist activists worked to collect Jewish children from the orphanages, in the hope that the British authorities would eventually approve their entry into the Land of Israel.

With a heavy heart, and knowing that she would probably never see them again, Clara chose the option that was more likely to save her sons’ lives: she sent them with the HeHalutz and Histadrut activists to Iran and from there to the Land of Israel.

When the Anders Army arrived in Tehran together with the Jewish refugees attached to it, the Jewish Agency set up a temporary camp for the 719 children, most of them orphaned from at least one parent. A majority still didn’t even know what had happened to their parents or siblings.

There, for the first time in close to three years, they no longer had to worry about their most basic needs. There were now adults who cared for them. The counselors came from Mandatory Palestine, or were refugees themselves, graduates of the various Zionist training courses in Eastern Europe. The director of the operation, who was also beginning to plan the complex absorption process, was Henrietta Szold, who until then managed the Jewish Agency’s bureau for youth immigration.

She reported to the annual council meeting of the “Institute for Children and Youth”:

“The members of the HeHalutz organization in Tehran removed the Jewish children from the Polish group and placed them in a special camp, a camp that consists of one small house, one large barracks and tents. Most of the children we are waiting for are currently living in these tents. They have no beds; they sleep on the floor. Their upkeep is reasonable. They have blankets but no clothes; there is not enough instruction.”

With Szold at the helm, aided by her assistant Hans Beyth, the absorption program was managed down to the minute details that only someone who cared deeply and truly for the children’s safety and future could think of.

“Not all the children are orphans, but at the moment none have parents; perhaps in the future these children will find their parents, or the parents will find their children in The Land [“of Israel”]. This is the reason I asked that the children in Tehran be photographed with their names so that the parents will recognize them when they arrive in The Land despite the changes in their facial features.”

With every council meeting and discussion, it became clearer that the children required food, clothing and housing, and that their education, psychological counseling, and practical training for their eventual independence also required attention.

“I have already insisted that a different concept should be given to the word refugee, these children are not refugees, they are olim [Jewish immigrants to the Land of Israel], and the approach to them and our duty towards them should be as olim, we are olim and the country needs olim.”

(Henrietta Szold)


Here Come the Children: Initial Absorption in Israel

When the trains filled with children finally arrived from Egypt, they were greeted with great excitement.

From contemporary descriptions in the press, it appears that the Jewish settlement did all it could for these children, wishing that it could do the same for rest of the Jews who remained in Europe.

At the stations, waiting to welcome and embrace the new arrivals were the leaders of the Yishuv, rabbis and their wives, entire classes of children, entire schools and regular people from near and far.

“The crowds stood on the platform and between the tracks, holding gifts, sweets, baskets with white flour rolls brought from Givat Brenner, canned fruits, crates with bottles of fruit juices.”

“The thousands of people, everyone calling out in Hebrew, everyone overflowing with endless love for them, reaching out to them with the gift of their love—a bouquet of flowers, a chocolate bar, a refreshing drink, a word of endearment, ‘Welcome, welcome to you, Polish orphans of orphaned Poland!’”

            (Hatsofeh, February 19, 1943)

Among those waiting were the refugees’ relatives, themselves recent-arrived immigrants, and officers from the Anders Army who were also waiting to greet their families. Many could not hold back the tears when one of the children loudly asked those waiting at the station “Do you know where father is?” – his father was not there.

Also at the Atlit station waiting to welcome the children after their long journey was Henrietta Szold, ready for the huge task of caring for the hundreds of youngsters, each of whom was hurt in ways that a person from the local Jewish settlement could not even begin to comprehend.

Henrietta Szold welcoming the Tehran Children. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, from Hadassah Hospital. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In Atlit, the children underwent their first medical examinations, and from there they were taken by bus to transit camps, which were actually “children’s homes” prepared for them in advance throughout the country.

A recruitment letter addressed to possible candidates for the positions of counselors and caretakers for those children’s homes, emphasized:

“We do not wish for there to be a refugee camp atmosphere in these places, but that the children and youth will be kept occupied during the day, according to the different ages, in learning, gymnastics, playing, field trips, etc.”

A letter from Henrietta Szold asking if the recipient is willing to serve as a counselor for the Tehran Children. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

Aryeh and Moshe arrived at Beit Hahalutzot (“Women Pioneers House”) in Jerusalem, where, as Moshe tells us, “We went back to being children.”

The counselors and caretakers encouraged them to play the many games they received as gifts from the public, taught them Hebrew and took them on field trips around the country.

A group of the Tehran Children on a visit to an agricultural school in the Talpiot neighborhood, Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of the Ben Zvi Institute (“Israel Revealed”), Talpiot  Agricultural School Collection, Jerusalem

The Adoptive Kibbutz

The transition period ended once the children reached their permanent residences. Thirty-three children went to Kibbutz Ein Harod, which had considerable experience in youth immigration in the 1930s.

The children’s admission documents were filed along with the few other documents found in their possession—entry visas and various medical certificates. Birth certificates or other civil documents are almost non-existent. These seemingly formal documents provide a heartbreaking glimpse into the loss of the children’s former lives.

“Father: Leon Drucker. Profession: Factory owner. Current location: Remained with the Germans.”

Moshe Drucker’s admission file. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive
Aryeh Drucker’s admission file. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

In a majority of the forms, the descriptions—”Remained with the Germans”; “Died in Poland”; “Killed in Russia”—repeat over and over.

In what voice does a child read these answers to a young counselor standing in front of him, who likely does not even speak his mother-tongue? Can one still call this person a “child”?

Fifteen years later, the poet Nathan Alterman thought – no, these could not be children:


Time moves away and sinks below,

But suddenly burst out of it in a cloud

The wars of despair and the burden and the strength

Of the children of the day, of the elders of Tehran.

Yes, the war of the elders of Tehran, aged ten,

 And the war of the six-year-old elders of Kazakhstan,

all the elders of the battles between Siberia and Polesia

The little old men, persecuted by fire…


Kibbutz Ein Harod not only provided these adult-like children with room and board, but also prepared a comprehensive rehabilitation program for them beginning with the psychological evaluation of each child by Dr. Moshe Bril (who himself died of an illness less than a year later), and culminating in a detailed education program approved by Henrietta Szold herself.

To this day, Moshe remembers the days in Ein Harod as a healing and happy time. His brother Aryeh was his rock, his protective shield that allowed him the freedom to behave just like any other mischievous child.

Even after the children were sent to their permanent residences, Henrietta Szold kept a careful eye on their care. She continued to visit them, received letters for them or about them from parents who were able to contact her and wrote to parents who were able to receive mail.

Clara, who did not know where her children had eventually ended up, sent letters to the Bureau of Children and Youth Immigration at the Jewish Agency, and to Hans Beyth, Szold’s close assistant, who answered her and forwarded her letters to Aryeh and Moshe.

She requests to come to the Land of Israel to be with her children“, Hans Beyth’s letter to the secretariat of Ein Harod reporting on his correspondence with Clara. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive
A page from Clara’s letter to her children. From the moment of contact with Hans Beyth, she wrote many letters to the children and their caretakers. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

After the War

World War II ended, and the Tehran Children became an integral part of the fabric of life in the country. Some of them remained in the kibbutzim and moshavim where they had been initially assigned, while slowly and determinedly taking their place among “Sabra” society (which at first had a hard time accepting them). Some were adopted by relatives or kind-hearted strangers and some, like Aryeh and Moshe, waited for their mother or father or older siblings, who somehow had managed to keep in touch and knew they were still alive.

Clara ended the war in the Asian steppes of the Soviet Union. She knew that Aryeh and Moshe were safe and being cared for. On the other hand, she knew nothing about the fate of her husband Leon or of her eldest son Herman. So she traveled to Europe. Back to blood-soaked Poland and its ghosts.

When she arrived in Katowice, she met one of her former neighbors, who was thrilled to see her alive.

Hoping to find a grave, or at least some information about how her family had died, she asked, “Do you perhaps know what happened to any of the Drucker family?”  The neighbor looked at her in astonishment and replied, “But Mrs. Drucker, your husband is waiting for you at home.” And Leon was indeed there.

When the Germans tricked the Jews into registering with the occupation authorities “for the purpose of food rations,” Leon saw what was happening and told his son that he would rather die of starvation than be on a German list. With whatever was left of their possessions, they purchased fake “Aryan” documents and continued to live as Poles in their home. Herman was finally caught by the Gestapo after they received a tip from one of his classmates, but he did not give up any information about his father.

Herman was murdered by the Germans. At first, the family thought that he had been killed in Katowice, but several years ago, Moshe’s granddaughter, during a class trip to Poland, found her great uncle’s name in the lists of those killed in Auschwitz.

While they attempted to obtain visas to immigrate to Palestine, Clara and Leon continued to live in their house in Poland. But when Clara did finally arrive in Israel to reunite with her sons, she came alone. Leon died of a heart attack just three months after his incredible reunion with Clara but without seeing his sons who were waiting for them in the Land of Israel.

“We now have here fresh and cheerful children,” wrote Shoshana Geller, who was one of the caregivers assigned to the Tehran Children. She and Atara Shturman devoted themselves to the children, trying to fill the huge hole left by their mothers.

Two years later, they were proud of the results of their work:

“Girls full of humility and grace, tall upright and broad-shouldered young men… there is great satisfaction and joy in seeing them so, and there is sadness for the mothers and fathers who were unable to accompany their children during this period of growth and see with their own eyes how their sons and daughters have grown and developed.”

The documents in this article are preserved in the Ein Harod Archive and will be available digitally as part of a collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

What’s It Like Being a Nazi Hunter? The Files of Tuviah Friedman

Tuviah Friedman never forgot nor did he forgive. He dedicated his life to finding and capturing fugitive Nazis, as part of the effort to bring them to trial for their crimes. He was the first to obtain credible information that placed Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Looking through his archive files preserved at the National Library of Israel offers a glimpse into the day-to-day work of a Nazi hunter…


An image of Adolf Eichmann, from the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Imagine a typical workday that went something like this: you wake up, drink your morning coffee, and leaf through the local newspaper. Then you shower, dress and head to the office where you find stacks of mail on your desk from all over the world. You read the European newspapers, open the letters, and arrange all the information you have gathered in an index-card file arranged alphabetically, which looks something like this:


Of course, back then the cards were either stored in a rotating desktop card index, called a rolodex, or perhaps filed in drawers in a fancy mahogany wood filing cabinet. But all that is less important – You lean back in your chair, smoke your pipe if you like, and go over the text on the cards once more. You open up the personal files, look over the photos and biographical details, and try to verify the information you’ve received. All this as part of the effort to discover the current whereabouts of these people—the individuals responsible for what is likely the greatest crime in human history.

Photos and “Wanted” posters. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

This was the life of Tuviah Friedman (sometimes spelled Toviyya), whose business card could have featured the simple job description: “Nazi Hunter”. In the 1950s, gathering information was a much harder task than it is today – no Google, no Facebook. But Friedman set himself one mission with a single objective: find and prosecute as many Nazi war criminals as possible.

His quest to catch Nazis began even before the war was officially over. When the Russian army entered Friedman’s hometown, Radom, in Poland, the new occupiers sought to reorganize the local police and Friedman took advantage of the opportunity, enlisting under a false identity. As part of his job, he exposed, arrested, and brought Nazi criminals to justice.

Nazi SS officer Bruno Streckenbach. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

At some point, Friedman concluded that his future was not in Poland. He quit the police and decided to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine. Leaving what was then communist Poland through illegal means, he arrived in Vienna on his way to Palestine, but then, his plans changed. In Vienna, he met members of the Haganah involved in the clandestine immigration of Jewish refugees to the Land of Israel (they belonged to the Haganah’s Mossad LeAliyah Bet organization). These operatives suggested that Friedman form a team to track down Nazi war criminals, which is exactly what he did. Friedman settled in the Austrian capital and began gathering information, and with the help of the Vienna police, he was not only able to locate SS officers in hiding, but also to bring forth evidence that helped in their arrest, and sometimes even their prosecution.

File card of Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Back then, how would one go about bringing Nazi criminals to justice? First, one would have to create a separate file for each Nazi, including their name, date and place of birth, rank and position in the German army, SS, Gestapo or Nazi Party. Next, one would have to find evidence and proof of that individual’s part in crimes against humanity. Then of course there was the need to physically locate the fugitives—find out where they were living, whether they had changed their identity and if so, all the details of their new identity, including any new names or aliases and whether they had changed their appearance.  Finally, one had to convince the authorities to act on the evidence and materials that had been collected. Friedman did all of this. For his files on suspected Nazis, he would track down photos and news articles or other information that would indicate their responsibility for the crimes committed personally by them or under their direction. In this way, he was able to capture SS officers who had ordered the extermination of the Jews of Radom. During his time in Austria, he managed to bring about the arrest of some 250 Nazis.

One of these was Kurt Becher, who served as head of the SS Economic Department in occupied Hungary as well as commissar of all German concentration camps. Becher is particularly known for his negotiations with Rudolf Israel Kastner which facilitated the escape of some Budapest Jews to Switzerland in exchange for goods and money. Kastner testified as a character witness on Becher’s behalf after the war and the former Nazi officer was eventually released. He would go on to become a successful businessman despite his criminal past documented by Friedman and others.

“Himmler’s Devil” – Odilo Globocnikת a senior SS officer involved in the mass-murder of Polish Jews. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Friedman’s Nazi files contain details about many more Nazis: Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp; Hans Bothmann, commandant of the Chelmno extermination camp; Bruno Streckenbach, a senior officer in the Reich Security Ministry who was placed in charge of operations of the Einsatzgruppen. These are just a few examples from the hundreds of index cards on Friedman’s rolodex of Nazis.

In 1952, Friedman finally immigrated to Israel, and after working for a period at Yad Vashem, he moved to Haifa, where he re-established the organization he had founded in Vienna, now called the Institute for the Documentation of Nazi War Crimes. Friedman was critical of Yad Vashem’s focus on documenting the victims and survivors of the Holocaust instead of actively searching for the Nazi criminals responsible. Indeed, the documents at the Institute for Documentation are a kind of mirror image of the Yad Vashem archives. Instead of lists of those who perished, there are rosters of Nazis with information on their various roles and documentation of their actions during the Holocaust.

Photographs of Hermann Baranowski (above), a senior SS officer and concentration camp commandant, and Hermann Göring (below), one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and the commander of the Luftwaffe. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

In Haifa, he continued his work to locate the same Nazi criminals, but with fewer resources and less assistance than he had in Austria. He built up his files on Nazi officers of different ranks, from camp commandants like Rudolf Höss, who was in charge of Auschwitz, to the most senior Nazis like Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe. Friedman mainly devoted his time to raising media awareness of the need to bring members of the Nazi regime to justice and maintaining public interest in their capture even when the country’s attention had turned elsewhere.

Photo of Adolf Eichmann. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel
Various photos of Adolf Eichmann. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

The highlight of Friedman’s life’s work was undoubtedly his contribution to the capture and prosecution in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. Friedman had begun gathering information about Eichmann, the Nazi officer responsible for implementing the Final Solution, during his Vienna days, and had even obtained an up-to-date photo of him. A number of rare photos of Eichmann are preserved in Friedman’s archive, which can be seen here. He continued to collect information from around the world about Eichmann’s current hiding place and used the media to lobby for his capture. He even offered a cash reward for information about Eichmann, after which he began to receive letters from people claiming to know his whereabouts. Friedman was the first to receive a tip that Eichmann was living in Argentina, which he passed on to the Mossad. It was Friedman who convinced the Mossad to actively pursue Eichmann’s capture.

Photographs of a youthful Eichmann and his wife Vera. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

After Eichmann’s capture, Friedman sent the file he had amassed for over 15 years on the Nazi officer to the Israel Police, and directly assisted in building the legal case against him. The Eichmann case is certainly the most famous of Tuviah Friedman’s Nazi hunting stories. Tuviah Friedman’s archive is preserved in the National Library of Israel. It contents, which show his methodical and painstaking work, are available for viewing here.

Persecuted for Their Judaism in Germany and for Their German Origins in America

The story of the Jewish refugees from Germany who fled the Nazis to Latin America and found themselves in internment camps in the United States during World War II

Jewish prisoner Leo Hamermann

After his factory was set on fire, his property confiscated, and two months spent behind bars, Max Brill finally managed to leave Nazi Germany with his family in 1937, beginning a new life in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

He worked in electronics for a while, but then opened a pub and seemed to be on the road to social and economic rehabilitation. However, Brill found himself once more in a state of economic uncertainty when the United States of America entered World War II and his name made it onto the U.S. embassy’s blacklist of German-owned businesses.

Brill had difficulty advertising his business in the local press or even purchasing merchandise. Local suppliers were afraid of doing business with a person on the blacklist for fear that they might end up on the list themselves. His repeated appeals to the embassy claiming he couldn’t be a Nazi supporter because he himself was Jewish and had been forced to emigrate from Germany due to the regime’s persecution fell on deaf ears.

In a separate case from May 1944, the new Bolivian government, which had seized power in a coup in December 1943 and had yet to be recognized by the United States, was forced to hand over a number of German and Japanese citizens living in its territories, some of them without any semblance of proper justification.

These examples illustrate one of the most bizarre anomalies of World War II—the blacklisting of eighty-one Jews, the confiscation of their assets and their subsequent imprisonment in internment camps in the United States, along with 4,707 citizens of the Axis countries who had been living in Latin America, most of them Germans. The very same Jews who had left Germany because of their Judaism, were persecuted in their country of refuge because of their German origins. During part of their imprisonment, they were even detained in the same camps as those who held Nazi views.

Germans began migrating to South and Central America as early as the 19th century. Some owned large coffee plantations or engaged in large-scale trade. Those with means were connected through economic and family ties to the local elites. After Hitler came to power, a number of them joined the Nazi party—some due to a belief in racial purity and Nazi ideology, and others in order to maintain good relations with the German authorities, or to ensure the safety of their families back in Germany, or to secure the German state’s continued partial funding of local German institutions.

Most of the Germans in South and Central America did not join the Nazi party, but neither did they display any ideological opposition to the regime. While there was friction between the “old guard” and members of the Nazi party over control of the community’s cultural and educational institutions, it seems that these conflicts had more to do with personal and intergenerational tensions than with ideological differences.

A voting form for German diaspora communities on the Anschluss. The voting took place on board German ships stationed near South American port cities

In any case, the establishment of the new regime in Germany led to the spread of the Nazi party in South America and a rupture in relations within the German diaspora communities, between Jews and non-Jews. Some of the Nazi leaders wanted to replicate the persecution of Jews that was being carried out in Germany and target the local German Jewish population as well. Eric Heinemann, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Guatemala and later Israel’s ambassador to the country, noted that only four families out of all the Germans in Guatemala continued to maintain friendly relations with his family after Hitler came to power. Moreover, Hentschke, the leader of the Nazi party in Guatemala, even organized surveillance of Jewish homes to make sure that the local Germans were indeed boycotting them.

The growing concern in the United States over Germany’s military successes and the U.S. decision to join the war in late 1941 led the government to take action against German citizens. The U.S. administration saw them as a potential fifth column and decided to issue blacklists of German-owned businesses. American companies were prohibited from trading with the businesses on the list. Later, Central American countries and a number of South American states were forced to hand over Germans suspected of Nazi activity to the American administration. The U.S. however, which relied on corrupt and self-interested local intelligence sources, did not conduct a thorough examination of the candidates for deportation and thus Germans who had nothing to do with the Nazi party, and even anti-Nazis and Jews persecuted by the Nazis were sent to prison in the United States along with Nazi party activists.

A list of foreign citizens living in Bolivia, prepared by the FBI (of the 12,000 Germans, 8,500 were Jews)

The conditions in the internment camps weren’t exceptionally harsh and the detainees’ basic needs were reasonably met. At the family camp near Crystal City, Texas, there was a school, cultural institutions and even a makeshift swimming pool. Each child received a daily milk ration. However, life for the Jewish detainees was not easy, as the most vocal and powerful group in the camp were the Nazi supporters, who sometimes harassed the Jewish detainees. For example, in the Stringtown internment camp, pro-Nazi detainees managed for a while to prevent the Jewish detainees from attending English classes and from taking part in the camp’s sports and cultural activities. Eighteen Jews who were housed in a steamy bunk next to the camp’s showers faced daily antisemitic ridicule from passers-by.

German prisoners from South America arriving at Camp Kenedy, an internment camp in Texas

Luckily for the Jewish inmates, in March 1942 the Department of Justice assumed control of the camps from the State Department. The Justice Department officials were more sensitive to questions concerning the legality of incarcerating people without trial solely because of their background, and without any evidence of subversive, pro-Nazi activity. Jewish and refugee organizations pleaded the case of most of the Jewish detainees and in the spring and summer of 1943 the Jews were transferred to a separate camp near Algiers, Louisiana. Within a year, all but six detainees received a conditional release. They were allowed to make a living, and some were even able to volunteer to serve in the United States military. After the end of World War II, seventy-five of the Jewish prisoners decided to move permanently to the United States. Only two returned to South America.

It turned out that the American imprisonment of German citizens offered an opportunity to save Jews from the Holocaust. Hoping to “repatriate” some of its citizens in the diaspora, Nazi Germany had built a special compound inside the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for this purpose. This facility was intended to house Jews who had real or forged documents testifying to some connection to countries in North or South America. So long as the Nazis had hope of exchanging their own citizens for these detainees, the detainees were kept alive. However, the U.S. government’s reluctance to send its German detainees back to Germany, mainly due to the fear of strengthening the German war machine, meant that very few Germans were actually returned to Germany in exchange for Jews with ties to the United States or to countries in Latin America. The failure of these efforts meant that these Jews had lost their importance as bargaining chips. Only a handful of them managed to survive the war.


Further Reading:

Friedman, Max Paul, Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign Against the Germans of Latin America in World War II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003

Strum, Harvey, “Jewish Internees in the American South, 1942-1945”, American Jewish Archives 42,1 (1990), pp. 27-4

Escaping Certain Death: How the Jews of Treblinka Rose Up and Fought Back

During its year of operation, Treblinka extermination camp was one of the most deadly places on earth. Dr. Julian Chorążycki led a band of unsung heroes who helped put an end to these horrors, and gave his life for the uprising that brought Treblinka to its knees. In this article we commemorate the brave young doctor and the courage he showed in the face of the greatest possible adversity

Dr. Julian Chorążycki (right) and the Treblinka Memorial (photo: Adrian Grycuk)

In 1943, the fearsome Nazi Gestapo secret police published a series of adverts offering a “tempting reward” for anyone who could provide information on the escaped Jews of Treblinka extermination camp. Who were these fugitives and how were they able to leave Treblinka alive at a time when the only Jews who managed to exit the camp ended up in a mass grave?

This news item appeared in the December 31, 1943 issue of The Sydney Jewish News

The facility at Treblinka was opened by the Nazi regime in July 1942, becoming the third camp to be dedicated to the expressed purpose of annihilating the Jewish population and committing mass genocide. The vast majority of the Jews whose unfortunate fate led them to Treblinka would be robbed of their possessions and then taken straight into the gas chambers to live out their final moments. However, a few young and relatively healthy Jews were kept alive for a short while to do the guards’ dirty work. It was there that many of them would meet the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” – a bloodthirsty camp guard who would routinely torture Jews for fun before killing them (Ivan’s true identity has never been fully resolved. John Demjanjuk was suspected as a possibility and even convicted by an Israeli court before the verdict was later overturned).

Those Jews who were spared the gas chambers had to endure days filled by removing the lifeless bodies, hauling them off to be burned or buried, and searching the dead for any valuable items which would be dutifully looted by the camp guards. In the midst of all this, a small but mighty group of workers found a few stolen moments to hatch a plan of escape.

Dr. Julian Chorążycki – a photo portrait, part of a questionnaire submitted by Chorążycki to Nazi occupation authorities. The original survives in the Central Medical Library of Warsaw (via Wikipedia, enhanced with MyHeritage software)

Amongst this group was a Russian Jew, Dr. Julian Chorążycki. Born on August 19, 1885, he had been a revolutionary from a young age. He spent his pre-war life fighting for Jewish rights and the recognition and representation of people with disabilities. He also served in both the Russian and Polish armies during World War I, before finally settling down in Poland. Dr. Chorążycki lived by a strict policy of helping all those who came to him for medical aid, including those who could not afford to pay him for his services. When the Warsaw Ghetto was formed, Dr. Chorążycki decided that he would become the ghetto doctor and help keep the new ghetto residents as healthy as he could. In 1942, as Jews were being driven to their deaths by the thousands, he was packed into a cohort of Jews headed to Treblinka extermination camp. It was there that he spearheaded a plan to escape, and bring down Treblinka with him.

Shimon Peres, then Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption, addressing an audience during a ceremony in memory of the victims of Treblinka, 1970,  the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Dr. Chorążycki formed a group of brave comrades and laid out the plans. The first step in the battle to escape involved stealing a key to the weapons storage used by the Treblinka guards. It took many attempts to break in undetected but when they did, the stores waiting for them were invaluable: rifles, grenades, knives and axes. As the rebels spent time collecting the goods, Dr. Chorążycki was caught with a wealth of resources and immediately taken into interrogation. Faced with the prospect of turning in his fellow Jews, Julian Chorążycki made the decision to end his own life and avoid releasing the details of the uprising and those involved in it.

Rachel Auerbach, in her book “In the Fields of Treblinka” says Dr. Julian Chorążycki was one of “the faces and personalities that distinguished themselves in a large anonymous crowd and gained eternal glory in the last hours of their lives as great Jews.”

Oyf di felder fun Treblinke (“In the Fields of Treblinka”), an audiobook by Rachel Auerbach, originally recorded by the Jewish Public Library, Montreal

Despite not making it out alive, Dr. Julian Chorążycki’s legacy lived on and the other Jewish prisoners continued to prepare for the uprising. In the middle of the afternoon on a stiflingly hot summer’s day, the guards went down to a nearby river to enjoy a swim and cool down. The Jews saw their opportunity and seized the moment. Around a thousand prisoners rose up, igniting explosives, burning buildings to the ground, and fighting their way into the surrounding fields and freedom beyond. “The fight lasted three hours and in the end, all of us who survived tried to escape” said Holocaust survivor Chaim Sztajer.

This news item appeared in the August 1, 1980 issue of the Australian Jewish News (Melbourne)


Chaim Sztajer, a survivor of Treblinka, pictured with a scale model he created of the camp. This image appeared in the March 6, 1987 issue of The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), colorization by MyHeritage

Of the roughly 300 prisoners who managed to escape during the uprising, between 20-90 Jews are estimated to have survived the Holocaust. Their rebellion was not in vain. Shortly after the uprising, the camp was liquidated and by August 19, 1943, those who operated the well-oiled, efficient killing machine known as Treblinka had murdered their final Jew. Over 800,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka during its period of operation, a mere fifteen months. This is the story of the rebellion that put an end to its atrocities.