Since Cheryl Pearl Sucher married a New Zealander in 1999, she has been living between two worlds: the Greater New York City area and the Hawkes Bay of New Zealand, two places that are about as far apart on the planet as one can travel. Though she has often felt torn between her very different lives, she has also felt that her life experience and artistic vision has been enhanced by living as both an insider and an outsider in such different but extraordinary places. This interview series is born out her experience between these worlds, and as a published fiction writer, bookseller, journalist, memoirist and avocational musical traveler.
In this edition, Cheryl talks to Mikhal Dekel about Tehran Children. Fleeing East from Nazi terror, over a million Polish Jews traversed the Soviet Union, many finding refuge in Muslim lands. Their story―the extraordinary saga of two-thirds of Polish Jewish survivors―has never been fully told.
Author Mikhal Dekel's father, Hannan Teitel, and her aunt Regina were two of these refugees. After they fled the town in eastern Poland where their family had been successful brewers for centuries, they endured extreme suffering in the Soviet forced labor camps known as "special settlements." Then came a journey during which tens of thousands died of starvation and disease en route to the Soviet Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. While American organizations negotiated to deliver aid to the hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews who remained there, Dekel's father and aunt were two of nearly one thousand refugee children who were evacuated to Iran, where they were embraced by an ancient Persian-Jewish community. Months later, their Zionist caregivers escorted them via India to Mandatory Palestine, where, at the endpoint of their thirteen-thousand-mile journey, they joined hundreds of thousands of refugees (including over one hundred thousand Polish Catholics). The arrival of the "Tehran Children" was far from straightforward, as religious and secular parties vied over their futures in what would soon be Israel.
Beginning with the death of the inscrutable Tehran Child who was her father, Dekel fuses memoir with extensive archival research to recover this astonishing story, with the help of travel companions and interlocutors including an Iranian colleague, a Polish PiS politician, a Russian oligarch, and an Uzbek descendent of Korean deportees. The history she uncovers is one of the worst and the best of humanity. The experiences her father and aunt endured, along with so many others, ultimately reshaped and redefined their lives and identities and those of other refugees and rescuers, profoundly and permanently, during and after the war.
With literary grace, Tehran Children presents a unique narrative of the Holocaust, whose focus is not the concentration camp, but the refugee, and whose center is not Europe, but Central Asia and the Middle East.
Mikhal Dekel is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. A graduate of the Buchmann Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University, she completed an internship in Law at the State Attorney’s Office before changing tracks to earn a Masters in English from the City College of New York and an M. Phil and Doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her scholarly work has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Mellon Foundation, and the Lady Davis Foundation, among others. She is currently Director of CCNY’s Rifkind Center for the Humanities and the Arts and lives in Manhattan with her family.
Cheryl Pearl Sucher is an award-winning journalist, essayist, reviewer and fiction writer who lives between Cranbury, New Jersey and the Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. She has been a frequent contributing book reviewer and feature writer for The NZ Sunday Star-Times and The NZ Listener. Her first novel, The Rescue of Memory, was published by Scribner so long ago she has forgotten the exact date and an excerpt from her second novel in progress, Alive Among the Ruins, was published in 2013 in Printer's Row, the Chicago Tribune's literary supplement. From July 2013 to April 2016 she was one of four presenter/interviewers for New Zealand Hawkes Bay Television's half hour interview program CHATROOM.