Fleeing East from Nazi terror, over a million Polish Jews traversed the Soviet Union, many finding refuge in Muslim lands. Beginning with the death of the inscrutable Tehran Child who was her father, Dekel fuses memoir with extensive archival research to recover the experiences her father and aunt endured, along with so many others, that ultimately redefined their own lives and identities and those of generations to come.
Rejecting the binary of victim and perpetrator, Dekel finds complexity in relationships shaped by changing material conditions as well as prejudice. Encountering a succession of guides, hosts and witnesses, reliable and less so, she explores the lingering traces—and denial—of the past in the present ... The book begins slowly as Dekel explains its origins and rationale, then pauses to thumbnail Iran’s evolving attitudes toward Jews. But the narrative momentum increases as her family—and, decades later, Dekel herself—begins hurtling from country to country ... Tehran Children is a yeoman accomplishment, a skillfully wrought bridge between past and present that raises critical questions about both.
As much as Tehran Children depicts the twists and turns of the author’s discovery of her father’s life story and the reasons for his lifelong silence about his past, it also narrates in great detail her own pathway of self-discovery ... Yet this intriguing story would have benefited from a stronger editorial hand that might have restrained the author’s many distracting digressions. To be sure, some of these are well worth more sustained critical consideration, like her meetings with 'philosemitic' Poles who equate Jewish and Polish suffering in a vision of a 'shared' history (a view curiously aligned with the current Polish government’s position). Though ostensibly positive, this is yet another of the 'erasures' Dekel calls to our attention and so poignantly laments.
The backstory about how Dekel, now a professor of comparative literature in the U.S., began researching this project with an Iranian colleague, adds an interesting personal aspect to this work of excellent scholarship and a harrowing history illuminating both the specifics of the past and the universal aspects of the refugee experience.