Living the Good Life in a Nazi Death Camp: The SS at Sobibor

These photos reveal the leisure activities of the SS members who lived on the grounds of the Sobibor extermination camp

In front of the “new casino,” in the SS living quarters of the Lager I compound at Sobibor. From left to right, camp commander Franz Reichleiner, Erich Bauer, responsible for operation of the gas chambers (embracing a Polish woman servant of the SS), Erich Shultze and deputy camp commander Johann Niemann, 1943

A review of the book:

From “Euthanasia” to Sobibor: An SS Officer’s Photo Collection / edited by Martin Cüppers, Anne Lepper, and Jürgen Matthäus, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press

On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee Conference convened under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich in order to discuss practical matters relating to the extermination of European Jewry. A few months later, three extermination camps became operational in occupied Poland—Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, where nearly two million Jews were murdered—as part of “Operation Reinhard”. The sole purpose of these camps was mass murder. In order to hide the extermination process, the Nazis strictly forbade photography in the camps. Nevertheless, a few photographs taken at Belzec and Sobibor when the camps were active have survived.

The Lager II compound at Sobibor, with the sign “Erbhof” (Estate). A German officer stands in the middle, with a Jewish female prisoner at left drawing water from a well and another Jewish male prisoner at the right holding a rake, both are dressed in civilian clothing. Jews were led into this courtyard and commanded to undress, before they were herded into the gas chambers. Afterwards, Jewish prisoners combed the area with rakes looking for any valuable items that may have fallen. Photographed in Summer 1943.]

After the uprising in Sobibor in October 1943, the Germans completely destroyed the camp and planted trees in order to cover up any evidence of mass murder. Archaeological excavations that began in the 2000s have revealed the exact location of the camp’s various compounds as well as some personal belongings of the Jews who were murdered there. The excavations also revealed the foundations of the gas chambers. Their dimensions make it possible to understand the magnitude of the extermination perpetrated at the site.

The camp’s Ukrainian guards (Trawniki) photographed on the parade ground of the Lager III compound.  The man lying down in middle of the front row has often been identified as Ivan Demjanjuk. The gas chamber building is visible in the background. Spring, 1943

The discovery of two private photo albums belonging to Johann Niemann, the camp’s deputy commander, affords a look at the camp’s buildings and the SS men who ran it. The two albums, which had been kept by Niemann’s grandson, include some 350 photos. About fifty of the photos were taken in Sobibor, most of them in the area housing the German officers (Vorlager). The photos show the SS men engaged in leisure activities just a few hundred meters from the pits where bodies were cremated. Among the photos, one can see the Ukrainian guards (including a man who is likely Ivan Demjanjuk), Niemann on his horse, standing by a well, and holding a piglet recently born on the camp’s farm.

One photograph is of an SS officer playing an accordion, another shows a group of jolly SS soldiers in the company of two Polish women during an afternoon lunch break.

Meals would be followed by drinks, coffee, cigarettes and a game of chess. Interestingly, the SS men do not carry weapons, evidence of their sense of personal security in the camp.

In the album, Neimann documented various places and camps he served in as an SS officer. He began as an officer in the “Aktion T4” euthanasia project (in which tens of thousands of disabled and mentally ill German citizens were exterminated on German soil), continued as an officer in Belzec and at the end of his service was appointed deputy commander of the Sobibor extermination camp. A handsome man who paid much attention to his appearance, he loved taking photographs and having his photograph taken.

According to the book, it was this tendency towards vanity that led to his demise, with the start of the uprising at Sobibor on October 14, 1943. That same day, Niemann arrived at the shack used by the camp tailor on horseback. He had come to have measurements taken for a leather jacket that had caught his eye from among the looted items stolen from Jews. The tailor, who was himself a Jewish prisoner, asked Neimann to turn around with his back towards him so that he could take one last measurement for the length of the coat. This enabled another prisoner to enter, hit him with an axe and kill him. He was the first of eleven SS men killed that day in the revolt, which put an end to the camp’s extermination activities.

Both photo albums were donated to an educational center in Germany (Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz), which published them as a book, in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart, along with scholarly essays. The albums are now in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

Chaim Topol’s Unbelievable Journey to “Fiddler on the Roof”

The lead role? In English? In London? Dan Almagor, the translator of "Fiddler on the Roof" into Hebrew, almost laughed in Chaim Topol’s face when the actor told him he was auditioning for the role of Tevye the Milkman in the prestigious British production. Although he had seen Topol’s failure only a year before live on American television, he could not have been happier to admit his mistake…

Chaim Topol on the set of the film "Fiddler on the Roof", the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1966, 31-year-old Chaim Topol, a well-known and beloved actor in Israel, had cast his sights on the great big world. A year before, he won the Golden Globe for “best new actor” for his role as Salah Shabbati, and played a supporting role alongside Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra in his first Hollywood film, Cast a Giant Shadow. Born and raised in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood, Topol struggled with English. He claimed his entire vocabulary at this point amounted to around fifty words.

Topol never imagined that a year later he would be performing on London’s West End stage speaking perfect English. Dan Almagor, who translated Fiddler on the Roof into Hebrew, also doubted Topol’s ability to take on a major role in the English language. He had good reason for thinking so, having seen with his own eyes Topol’s failed attempt at singing a song from Fiddler on the Roof in English.

In a column Almagor published in Maariv on April 30, 1967, he recounted Topol’s obstacle-laden “romance” with Tevye the Milkman that ended in a successful and long-lasting marriage, thanks not only to Topol’s personal talent and charm, but also to his grit and determination. With a mixture of wonder and satisfaction, Almagor told of how Topol, who just a year earlier couldn’t sing a single verse from the musical in English, won over London’s theater crowd. Almagor, who was in Los Angeles at the time pursuing his doctoral studies, had met Topol a few times on the latter’s visits to the US and witnessed first-hand the events that led to Topol playing Tevye. He even played a supporting role in Topol’s getting the part.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

Photo from the film Cast a Giant Shadow, starring Kirk Douglas and Chaim Topol (with beard and keffiyeh), Kibbutz Hulda, 1965. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.]

Almagor wrote in his article:

“The first time I spoke with Chaim Topol about his role as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof was about two years ago, on his first visit to Los Angeles to accept the Golden Globe award for his performance in Salah Shabbati. That same week, I had by chance just finished translating the musical into Hebrew, and Chaim and his wife Galia were the first Israelis to hear the Hebrew version of the play, when we were all sitting on the balcony of their room at the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel. And since Chaim’s name was mentioned as one of the possible leads for the role in the Israeli production, alongside “Bomba” Tzur, I immediately sent a telegram to the Israeli producer in Hebrew (in English transliteration), using these exact words: “Please notify me who will play Tevye in Israel Stop Topol or Bomba Stop If Topol is chosen we can work on the role here in Los Angeles.”

Minutes after Almagor sent the telegram to Israel, he received a polite phone call from a Western Union representative. After a several minutes-long conversation during which Almagor was trying to understand why Western Union was refusing to send the telegram, the representative asked him, “But what is ‘Bomba’?” Almagor, of course, had been referring to the Israeli actor Yosef “Bomba” Tzur, who was finally chosen to play Tevye the Milkman in the first Israeli production of the musical. The Western Union representative was concerned that this was some kind of hidden message being sent about a terrorist bomb plot. After Almagor explained the misunderstanding to the representative’s satisfaction, the telegram was finally sent out.

Chaim Topol with his family, 1970, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Topol didn’t get the part in Giora Godik’s Israeli production of Fiddler. After Bomba Tzur eventually retired from the role, Topol split it with Shmuel Rodensky, playing it on alternate nights for a total of 40 performances on the Israeli stage. Almagor even hinted in his article that Topol appeared in the Hebrew production for only about a month and a half because Godik wasn’t satisfied with his acting.

A year later, Almagor and Topol met again, this time behind the scenes of Danny Kaye’s successful TV show. Topol was a guest on the show to promote the movie Cast a Giant Shadow, and Kaye, who knew that Topol had played Tevye in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof, suggested that they sing a song together from the musical, in English. They chose the song “L’Chaim.”

But then they ran into a problem. Almagor recalled:

“After two attempts at singing the song in English, Danny Kaye turned to his young Israeli colleague, and said with a smile: ‘You know, Chaim, instead of you breaking your teeth to sing the song in English, I will sing it in the Hebrew translation!’ It was an amusing idea, and Chaim was quick to introduce me to Danny Kaye and the crew as the play’s translator. ‘Great,’ said Danny. ‘Write down the Hebrew words to the song using English letters.’”

Here Almagor and Topol encountered a new problem—neither of them could remember Almagor’s translation. Almagor had to recreate the translation he had written for the song on the spot while Danny Kaye and his team waited. You can see the result in this video, in which Danny Kaye reveals the reason why they are singing the Hebrew version of the song. You can see how Topol struggles with English, and how uncomfortable he is conversing in a language that is not his mother tongue:

After that experience, it’s no wonder that Almagor was taken by surprise by Topol’s request the next time they met.

Almagor was finishing up a 10-week visit to Israel, and on the last night of his stay he went to see Topol on the set of the movie Ervinka. Between takes, Topol called him over and asked him for a small favor. “But promise not to tell anyone. So they won’t make fun,” Topol said. Almagor promised, and Topol asked: “As soon as you get back to the States, send me the English version of Fiddler on the Roof right away.” “Why,” Almagor asked: “He looked around carefully, to make sure no one was listening. ‘There’s a chance that I will be invited to London soon, for an audition in connection with Fiddler,’ he told me.  ‘And I want to surprise them, and learn a bit of the English text before the trip.’ ‘For what part?’ I asked innocently. ‘I know you won’t believe it,’ he stammered, ‘it’s for the role of Tevye’.”

Although he had promised Topol, Almagor found it hard to stop himself from laughing.

“The leading role? In English? In London? I remembered how Danny Kaye preferred to sing ‘L’Chaim!’ in Hebrew instead of waiting for Topol to learn the English. I thought of the London theater. Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook. I remembered the promises to the other stars of the Israeli Fiddler on the Roof production – tempting promises of performances abroad that ended in bitter disappointment. It seemed that Topol read my thoughts. ‘What do you care?’’ he whispered. ‘Send the text. Promise?’… I confess that I didn’t believe for a minute that he would get the part. I didn’t even think he would go to London for the audition.”

“A Great Success for Topol in London” – Lamerhav, February 29, 1967

Despite his skepticism, Almagor kept his word and when he returned to the US he sent Topol the English text. He was angry with himself for spending more than two dollars on mailing it to Israel. For several months, Almagor heard nothing from Topol. He assumed he had failed the audition, and thought no more of it.

Then came the reviews from London. Everyone was praising the amazing Israeli actor playing the role of Tevye on the West End stage. Almagor hurried to send Topol a telegram, this time in English:

“I was happy to hear that London’s Rothschild will soon be singing ‘If I Were Topol’. Stop. Just remember, you still owe me two dollars and ten cents.” [The famous line “If I were a rich man…” was translated into Hebrew as “If I were a Rothschild…”]

Chaim Topol and the actors of Fiddler on the Roof. From the play at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. A selection of archival footage from the Chaim Topol Archive is available digitally. Courtesy of the family and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and University of Haifa

Our circuitous story is not over yet. Two months later, according to Almagor, he flew from New York to Tel Aviv. He decided to stop over for one night in London to watch Chaim Topol playing Tevye the Milkman in English with his own eyes, and see if there was any truth to the rage reviews gushing over his acting performance. He got his answer already during the taxi ride from the airport:

“The red-nosed taxi driver asked me in a typical cockney accent how long I was in town for.  And when he heard that I would only be in London for one night, he immediately said: ‘Well, there’s only one thing you mustn’t miss, especially if you’re in London for one night… there’s a new musical in town, not to be missed,’ he said to me, ‘… that is, if you manage to get a ticket. Fiddler on the Roof. Have you heard of the play? It features a young, outstanding actor. Topol, from Israel. You know, Israel…’ I swear to you this is word for word what he said. And this without me giving him the slightest hint that I’m Israeli.” The driver surprised Almagor with his knowledge of the musical and its star. He told Almagor the content of the reviews praising Topol and even gossiped about his salary, which was higher than that of any other actor on the London stage at the time.

“Then the driver commented sadly: ‘You know, I’m afraid you won’t see him there again, in Israel,’ and after a second thought he added with the same melancholy attitude, ‘Actually, we too will surely lose him soon.’ He suddenly spoke of Topol as if he had been a British national treasure for generations,” wrote Almagor in his article.

Maariv, August 6, 1971

When Almagor met Topol backstage before the show, he found the actor in a thoughtful mood: “‘Remember how we used to peek in the newspaper… to see what plays were currently being performed in London and who the new actors were that had been discovered on its stages?’ mused Topol while putting on his makeup. ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize the wealth of possibilities for an actor in this play until I saw Rodensky. Even Zero Mostel [the first actor to play Tevye the Milkman in the Broadway production – L.H.] didn’t make that much of an impression on me. It’s a pity that I didn’t have any director or assistant in Israel who could work with me on the part the way we should have.  But here—we spent four whole months working. There are no shortcuts here’.”

Almagor returned to his seat in the audience and excitedly awaited Topol’s entry on the stage.

“I had seen five different performances of Fiddler on the Roof and was a bit worried about Topol’s appearance on the English stage,” Almagor wrote. “But from the first moment he stepped on stage, I knew there was no more reason to fear. Our ‘Salah’ controls the audience and the stage like a ‘star’ and his English is nothing like what it was the year before on Danny Kaye’s show… here and there, one can still sense some stiffness, due to the foreign language, but this too will surely pass with time… and when the show ended, and the London audience rose to its feet, enthusiastically applauding to loud chants of ‘Bravo! Bravo!’, I had to pinch myself…”

A poster ad promoting the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

A few years after successfully playing Tevye in the West End, Chaim Topol got the role of Tevye the Milkman in the Hollywood production of the musical. He won the part over veteran actors, even Zero Mostel, who had originated the role on Broadway. Generations of actors had embraced Mostel’s iconic performance of Tevye on stages around the world, but when it came time to make the movie based on the musical, Norman Jewison, the film’s director, felt that Mostel would overshadow the film with his larger-than-life performance. “I didn’t feel he was a Russian Milkman,” he said in a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof. Then Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof, approached him and said: “‘You know, there is this Israeli guy, Topol, playing the role of Tevye in London.” “I flew to London. I saw Topol and I saw the play and suddenly it felt true, it felt credible. I felt like I wasn’t watching an American production with someone from Brooklyn. I felt he was proud to be Jewish,” Jewison recalled.

Fiddler on the Roof was also an international success as a film and won three Oscars and two Golden Globes in 1971, one of them for Topol for his performance in the film. Chaim Topol would return to the role of Tevye the Milkman over the years, including in a Broadway production in the late 1980s. In 1997 he again sang “If I were a Rothschild”, in Hebrew, in the Avraham “Deshe” Pashanel production here in Israel.

The Family Trading Company That Became a Relief Network for the Jews of Yemen

In late 19th-century Yemen, Suleiman Habshush built a prosperous trading empire and harnessed its success to help needy members of the local Jewish community. Later, when his grandson inherited the firm, the family helped to bring the community to Israel

Yechiel Habshush and Yemenite Jewish orphans in the Land of Israel

Suleiman Habshush was born to a Jewish family in Sana’a, Yemen, in 1856, the youngest of five sons. When he was eight years old, his father passed away. Suleiman worked as a coppersmith in his youth, like his brothers and father before him. Yet he struggled to make a living in this field and soon switched to commerce. Suleiman left Sana’a and began building the great mercantile network that would one day become a household name in Yemen.

Suleiman, who knew poverty and deprivation in his early years, decided it would not be right for his family alone to enjoy the fruits of his success. In his travels throughout the country, he was exposed to the difficulties suffered by Jews across Yemen – neglect, persecution by the Muslim authorities and unemployment. “Upon realizing that there was a need to represent the community, he secretly took it upon himself,” wrote Suleiman’s grandson, Yechiel Habshush.

Suleiman gradually expanded his trading network, which alongside its business activity, also served as a relief network for Yemen’s Jews. During the horrific siege of Sana’a in 1905, Suleiman came to the community’s assistance.  He described this terrible period in his book Eshkolot Merurot, noting that “about two-thirds of the residents perished in this siege.”

The bustling atmosphere and the generosity practiced in Suleiman’s home in Sana’a were well known and became instilled in his grandson Yechiel, who was born a few years after the siege. In the preface to the book that Yechiel wrote in his adulthood, he described the family home during his childhood as filled with visitors at all hours of the day and night.

There was hardly any private life in any sense of the word. The doors to our home were open almost all day until late into the night, with the houses functioning as residences where the family ate and slept, as well as a center for trade in Yemen and abroad, on-site warehouses for the goods, and business offices. From the early morning hours, the street of the Habshush family, which was closed on one side, was filled with visitors. The street was lined with horses, mules and donkeys belonging to the visitors, telegram messengers and mail carriers, government officials, brokers, traders, buyers and sellers from Sana’a and across Yemen, troublemakers, businessmen, people asking for aid, people waiting for the distribution of bread at noon, and guests from Yemen and abroad. A council house for sages and businessmen, weddings and Brit Milah ceremonies, and also, unfortunately, mourning rituals and the like. The whole house was busy constantly.”

Suleiman died in 1922 and the trading network he founded passed to his sons and grandsons, who re-named it “Suleiman Habshush & Sons” and expanded it to other countries. As history would have it, the trading company came to prominence during the period that some called “the Second Return to Zion”—the era of the great waves of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Yechiel Habshush in 1992. Photo: Courtesy of the family

Over the course of his own life, Yechiel Habshush maintained the family legacy of generosity and philanthropy. Yechiel was a businessman and public activist as well as a writer, poet and researcher of Yemenite Jewry. He eventually donated the family’s vast archive to the National Library of Israel which has enabled us to trace the Habshush family’s broad humanitarian activities. It was here that we learned that Yechiel immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from the port of Aden in 1930. He had arrived in Aden three years earlier from Sana’a, and worked to develop contacts with the Jewish Agency office in the city, helping many Jewish families immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Upon his arrival in Palestine, he immediately joined the local branch of the family’s trading company in Tel Aviv opened by his uncle David Tov. At the Tel Aviv branch, the Yemenite Jews living in the Land of Israel could send money back to their families in Aden or Sana’a. With no banks in Yemen at the time, the fastest, and perhaps only way to transfer money was through trading companies. How did it work? A person would deposit a sum of money at the Tel Aviv branch, and the branch manager in Sana’a or Aden would then transfer the deposit to their relatives in Yemen.

The Habshush family company kept detailed records of these donations, and in the archive, there are hundreds of hand-written receipts for the funds received in Yemen. On the margins of these receipts, Yechiel added notes to his brothers in Yemen to “give so-and-so the liras that his relative donated to him.”

Hand-written receipts of donations transferred to Yemen

And what of those who were not so fortunate? What of the refugees and the needy who did not have family abroad who could send such funds? In order to help, Yechiel and his cousin Meir Levi joined the Ezrat Ahim organization in Tel Aviv dedicated to the affairs of the Yemenite immigrant community in the Land of Israel. As for the work in Yemen itself, Yechiel mobilized a group of young men he knew from his days in Aden. These connections would play a crucial role in bringing Jews who still remained in Yemen to Israel.

An entire file in the Habshush family archive offers evidence of a critical part of Ezrat Ahim’s activity, which was dedicated to the care of Jewish orphans in Yemen. According to local Islamic law, children orphaned of both parents were obliged to be placed in the custody of a Muslim family that would raise them according to the religion of Muhammad. To preempt such an eventuality, a smuggling network was organized to rescue the orphans—first by transferring them to other Jewish communities, and then onwards to the Land of Israel, as quickly as possible.

Thanks to Ezrat Ahim’s activity and the help of the Youth Aliyah movement under the leadership of Henrietta Szold, hundreds of orphans were brought from Yemen to Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel.

List of names of orphans brought to the Land of Israel by the Ezrat Ahim organization in 1945


Yemenite orphans in the Land of Israel. From the book The Habshush Family


The Habshush Family’s Efforts to Promote Zionism in Yemen

Apart from providing real aid to refugees and the needy within the Yemenite communities, Yechiel and his family members urgently believed in their cause because they no longer saw Yemen as a place suitable for Jews. Before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, Yechiel worked to convince rabbis and Jewish leaders in Yemen to support the Zionist movement. In the archive we found a vivid example of this in a letter written by Yechiel to Rabbi Yosef Shemen, one of the last leaders of the Sana’a Jewish community, in which he explained to the rabbi about the Jewish national movement that was calling on Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel.

The letter Yechiel Habshush sent to Rabbi Yosef Shemen in Sana’a

The Habshush family attached great importance to education of the community’s children. In the 1940s, a Hebrew school for boys was established in Sana’a alongside a school for girls. This was an extraordinary development, as the education of girls in the Yemenite Jewish community had largely been overlooked beforehand. The students studied both religious and general studies, as well as Hebrew—perhaps in preparation for their immigration. The schools for boys and girls were managed by the leaders and rabbis of Sana’a, with donations by the Habshush family funding its establishment and operations.

Soon rumors spread throughout all the Yemeni Jewish communities about the possibility of travelling to Mandatory Palestine through the British-controlled port city of Aden. Crowds flocked to the city. The approval certificates were slow to arrive and the infrastructure could not support the influx of so many people. Many died of hunger and disease. Once again, Ezrat Ahim mobilized to help in these tragic circumstances.

Aside from the activity in Yemen itself, Yechiel saw importance in outreach to the rest of the Hebrew settlement, and with his sharp business sense he initiated a number of welcome initiatives. Among other things, he suggested to the mayor of Tel Aviv to organize a day devoted entirely to collecting donations for Aden’s refugees.

An urgent request presented to the mayor of Tel Aviv: “A Collection Drive to Help ‘Our Miserable Brethren'”

The materials in the Habshush family archive reflect the enormous scope of Ezrat Ahim’s activities. It seems that on every occasion one of the community’s members needed assistance, the organization rushed to help, to the best of its ability. The assistance included – requests from the Broadcasting Authority to resume performances by “the beloved announcer and singer Mr. Yechiel Adaki,” help with housing and rent for immigrant families, an appeal to the Mandate authorities on behalf of Jewish prisoners, and much more. Ezrat Ahim did not hesitate to involve itself in the life of the community in Yemen: it informed the members about the organization’s activities, and even called upon them to cease any bickering within the local community and unite behind the common cause to rescue the community.

In 1985–1986 Yechiel published a two-volume book about the Habshush family and included many documents from the archive to tell the story of his family. Yechiel remained active right up until the last remaining Jews in Yemen were brought to Israel in the 1990s. He passed away in 2002, at the age of ninety-one.

The book The Habshush Family by Yechiel Habshush [Hebrew], an independent publication

Thanks to Amitai Aricha and Dr. Menashe Anzi from the Department of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University.

The Yechiel Habshush Archive has been made accessible with the courtesy of his descendants. It is dedicated to the memory of David Tov, son of Hanina and Amy Habshush. The archive was initially cataloged as part of the research project of Dr. Menashe Anzi, supported by the Israel Science Foundation, and later thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.

Dr. Anzi is currently conducting extensive research on the Habshush family trading company.

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.