A Tehran child in Passaic
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A Tehran child in Passaic

In February, this newspaper ran photographs of some 800 Jewish orphans, called "the Children of Tehran," as they arrived in Palestine 65 years ago after a long, nightmarish journey. One photograph showed some of the youngest among them, in clothes either too large or too small, wearing uncertain smiles and holding hands.


Chanoch Eyal of Passaic recognizes himself as the boy in the lower right of the photograph above, taken in 1943.

Chanoch Eyal, who now lives in Passaic, was the small boy in the right-hand corner with a bandaged right arm, carrying a piece of fruit. (He had had an infection on his arm, and still bears a scar.)

When the train carrying the children had pulled into Atlit, where the British kept "illegal" refugees, the children were showered with candy tossed through the open windows by the joyful crowd that turned out to greet them.

Eyal, who was then 6 or 7, remembers cringing in fear in the back of the train as it arrived. "What’s wrong?" asked his older sister, Ruta. He explained: He thought they were Polish children throwing stones at the Jews — the way they had in Poland.

 

Eyal doesn’t remember much about that hellish journey. Mostly he knows what his sister, who died a few years ago, told him. (She was born in 1930, he in 1937.) He does remember that he was a cutup as a kid, mocking, for example, how the Russian and Polish officers marched.

Today, at age 7′, Eyal has dim memories of his early life — of sliding down a snow-laden roof in Poland, for example — along with recurrent nightmares. In one of them, an angry red-faced man kills someone with a knife. Eyal wakes up terrified.

He will talk about his experiences on May 4 at the Passaic Public Library at ‘ p.m., and the public is invited.

His name is not on the official list of Tehran children, although his sister’s is — Ruta Oksengoren. He changed his name, as many of the children did later on; his original name was Henyush Oxengoren. His name is on a list published in Canada.

Eyal had been born in Poland, near what became the Warsaw Ghetto, and in the late 1930s his family — along with many other Jews and Poles — began fleeing when they learned that the Nazis were approaching. He and his mother had stayed behind briefly while she sold their apartment and possessions, to raise gold. He joined his father, sister, and other relatives in Eastern Poland, but when the Soviets came the family was sent in trucks to work camps in Siberia.

It was intensely cold there, he recalls, and they had little to eat. They scrounged the forest for berries and mushrooms, and "potatoes were like gold." Being so young, he was separated from his parents, who were put to work, and learned only later that his father died of a heart attack in Siberia. (He doesn’t remember what his father looked like.) His mother died some years ago. His sister had a photograph of her, but lost it.

Eyal has some memories of the arrival in Palestine — the joy the children felt, for example, on receiving so many oranges.

He helped organize the 50th reunion of the Tehran children in 1993, in Jerusalem, and did a study of the survivors. Some 70 to 80 percent of them became professionals — doctors, lawyers, teachers — despite their wretched childhoods.

But he doesn’t keep up with them now, and was surprised to learn that one of them, Henry Eckstein, lives in Teaneck.

After arriving in Palestine, Eyal spent time in a hospital — he has had lung problems all his life — and he was adopted by a family there. Eventually he immigrated to the United States, where he obtained undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Montclair State University. He has spent his adult life as a psychologist at a mental health clinic in Fair Lawn, but retired because of poor health.

Why has there been so much hatred of Jews? Eyal mentions the famous study that led to the book, "The Authoritarian Personality," by Theodor W. Adorno and others, which found that fascists had closed minds and identified with the power figures in society.

He looks like the late actor Lionel Barrymore. And although occasionally he must grope for certain English words, he is remarkably articulate, capable of talking entertainingly for hours at a time about his life. He’s also unfailingly courteous, offering (for example) to pay for the coffee a visiting journalist had ordered at a diner in Clifton. And full of strong opinions. The worst anti-Semites, he believes, were the Poles, followed by the Ukrainians and then the Germans.

Still, his heart is certainly not entirely filled with darkness. He admiringly mentions how the Danes saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, and his eyes glow when he recalls that that the Danish king himself dared to wear a Jewish badge in public. He also loves talking about his own children and grandchildren — one of whom, he says proudly, is as much a jokester as he was when he was a child.

He has three daughters. Elisheva Stein, born in 1971, has two children and lives in Passaic. Mori Sokal, born in 1973, has three children and lives near Jerusalem; and another daughter, Yarona, born in 1975 and lives in Clifton.

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