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

Miryam Zakheim
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.


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