The three Tehrani brothers tell their combined 11 children lots of stories about Iranian Jewry, both the hardships and the distinctive culture their ancestors faced over the centuries.
There’s no story that Reuben, Yehudah and Benjamin Tehrani — who are also business partners, all in their 50s and known for their Persian rug operation on the Main Line — are prouder to tell than the one about Tehran’s Jewish community helping to care for 700 Polish Jewish orphans in the midst of the darkest chapter of Jewish history. Their father, Moshe Solomon Tehrani, and two of his younger brothers played a small part in that story.
The family, which also includes three sisters, wants American Jews to understand that the shadow of the Holocaust spread across world Jewry, well beyond the communities of Eastern and Central Europe.
As Israel and world Jewry prepare to mark Yom Hashoah on April 8, the brothers hope people remember that even at a time of near total darkness, there were some rays of light.
“This ‘Tehran children’ story is a good story,” said Reuben Tehrani, 59, who came to the United States in 1972.
He did the bulk of the talking, while serving Persian charoset, as he sat with his brothers for a recent interview at their shop in Bryn Mawr, at a desk covered with books he referred to often.
Like many of the stories involving Jews who were saved during the Holocaust, this one has a geopolitical context. Reza Shah, who ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941, liberalized policies toward Iran’s Jewish community and opened the ghettos. Yet his government also developed a close relationship with Nazi Germany.
In August 1941, with World War II under way, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, hoping to put an end to German influence, invaded the country and deposed Shah and installed his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlav, better known as the Shah of Iran.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles were fleeing East, hoping to escape the Nazi onslaught. Many Jewish children wound up in Christian orphanages throughout Russia and Central Asia.
According to numerous sources, including Yad Vashem’s website, a deal was struck among Britain, the Soviet Union and the Polish government-in-exile to allow as many as 30,000 Polish refugees, including about 1,800 Jews, 700 of whom were children, to have safe passage to Iran.
The Jewish Agency for Palestine, as it was known before statehood, also got involved and essentially took custody of the children in Iran.
The children lived in Tehran in a former military base for up to two years. They were cared for by the Jewish Agency and members of Tehran’s Jewish community. This is where the Tehrani brothers’ father and two uncles enter the tale.
It all began in 1932, when the Tehranis’ grandfather, Amram Solomon Tehrani, a fervent Zionist, hired a car and left Tehran with his wife and six children; a seventh was later born in Israel. They spent two weeks driving day and night through the desert until they finally reached Jerusalem.
Eventually, Amram purchased a building on Ben Yehuda Street in the heart of the new city, opening a rug shop on the ground floor and living with his family upstairs. Reuben’s father, Moshe, was a teenager and attended school in Jerusalem, becoming fluent in Hebrew.
It’s hard to believe now with Iran regularly threatening to wipe Israel off the map, but when World War II broke out in 1939, Amram thought his family would be safer in his native land than in Israel. Until the Allies halted the advance of the Germans in North Africa in 1943, many feared the Nazis planned to annihilate all the Jews in the land of Israel.
So Amram took his family back to Iran. “Hashem had plans for them and it was to come back to Iran,” said Reuben Tehrani, who attends Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox synagogue in Wynnewood.
Back in Iran, Moshe, Reuben’s father, by then in his early 20s, began teaching Hebrew to the Polish Jewish children who were awaiting passage to Palestine. He also brought some of the orphans to the family home to celebrate Shabbat and other holidays.
Reuben Tehrani stressed that, while his relatives didn’t face physical annihilation, the Jews of Iran were still a persecuted minority. By openly helping fellow Jews, he said, his father took a risk.
At the same time, Iran was experiencing its worst famine in a generation.
“The people had nothing to eat themselves,” Reuben said. “They used to make bread with the pit of the date. But those kids were fed and clothed.”
By January 1943, the Jewish Agency had secured sea passage for the 700 children and they were taken to Israel.
Moshe Tehrani ended up living most of the rest of his life in Iran and watched in the 1970s as his children immigrated one by one to the United States. Then he saw his country engulfed by Islamic revolution. It wasn’t until 1988 that he’d settled all his affairs and managed to leave Iran. But while visiting Israel in 1990, he died of sudden heart failure at the relatively young age of 64. His wife, Helen, lives in the Philadelphia area with her son, Yehudah.
The sons say their father’s legacy is one to be proud of. The message of the story, they say, is that Jews have to help other Jews in need, regardless of the risks.
“When our forefathers went to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem called to us as a single people. We are all the same,” Reuben Tehrani said. “Putting aside our minhags, our customs, our way of living life, we are all brothers. We have always been behind each other.”