Q&A with Atina Grossmann on Jewish Refugees in India and Iran

Categories: Blog, Holocaust Voices, Now at the HMC

By: HMC Editorial Staff – 

On June 27, 2021, we listened to Atina Grossmann, Professor of History at the Cooper Union in New York City, discuss the Jews who escaped Europe for India and Iran after 1933. On the margins of the Holocaust and anxious about their families’ fates, they were homeless and stateless, but also oddly privileged as adventurous Europeans in non-western societies. Both of the speaker’s parents were European Jewish refugees in India and Iran, and we heard the captivating tale of their lives. If you missed the Trauma and Adventure in Transit: Jewish Refugees of India and Iran program, you can view a recording by clicking here.

There were so many great questions asked by the audience, and unfortunately we did not get to all of them during the program. Professor Grossmann was very gracious and sent answers to the questions we didn’t feature during the program. Just like her discussion, these additional explanations are fascinating to learn about!


Atina Grossmann’s parents in the Iranian desert, 1939

Q. Why is so little known today about this particular route to freedom?
That is always the (what we used to call the $64,000 – adjusted for inflation!) question when it comes to “marginal “stories about the Holocaust, especially those that unfolded outside the borders of Nazi occupied Europe – the epicenter of the Holocaust – or in North America and Palestine/Israel (although the history of pre-war Central European Jews who fled to Palestine is also rather under-researched). Only in the last decade have historians really started to pay attention to the escape trajectories of even the majority of East European survivors in the Soviet Union (some 80% of all Jewish Displaced Persons in Allied-occupied postwar Europe). I and others have now written more extensively about that experience and why it was relatively silenced for so long: the sense among survivors that their harrowing experiences paled in comparison to the tiny remnant that managed to survive under the Nazis, the impact of the Cold War, the lack of access to East European and Soviet archives until after 1990, and the understandable drive to first focus on the center of the catastrophe. To this day, Holocaust public history (including most museums) have not yet given that critical story sufficient attention and I find over and over again that when I lecture about this, even knowledgeable audiences are surprised by these numbers – except of course for the many people for whom this is their – for too long unrecognized – family history. See on this: Eliyana Adler, Survival on the Margins: Polish Jewish Refugees in the Wartime Soviet Union (2020), Edele, Fitzpatrick, Grossmann, eds., Shelter from the Holocaust: Rethinking Jewish Survival in the Soviet Union (2017) and on DPs in general, David Nasaw, The Last Million (2020).

The story of refugee Jews who landed in non-Western destinations has taken even longer to uncover for many reasons, notably the fact that historians of the Holocaust are generally historians of modern Europe rather than of the colonial world and, vice versa, historians of the global south have not been trained in European or Holocaust history. Thankfully, this is now changing quickly, with the general trend toward a more global transnational approach to historical research and education, and increased interest both in non European Mizrahi Jewish communities as well as a “remapping” (or one might say “decolonizing”) of Holocaust research that recognizes how important non-Western flight destinations were for European Jews, even if the numbers (even Shanghai, the most studied, with about 17-20,000 refugees) were relatively small. The definition of “survivor” is also changing and becoming more inclusive, certainly of those who endured in the Soviet Union and increasingly extending to those who experienced National Socialism but escaped before the war began. Although, people like my parents would have never ever thought of themselves as survivors. Nor were they “exiles,” they were, in their own terms, refugees.

Things are changing fast; many projects are in the works, the USHMM as well as the JDC and other research institutions have been sponsoring workshops on refugees in Africa, Latin America, South and East Asia; younger historians from or with family backgrounds in the region (and the requisite language skills and local cultural fluency– that was another big barrier) have begun work on the topic; there is more collaboration with historians of Mizrahi Jewish communities (I’ve been involved with scholars working on the history of Jews in Iran) as well as with historians of empire and colonialism in general. This is all, I think, good news for the history and memory of the Holocaust; the more we can connect these events to the rest of the world from which many of our students and lay audiences come, the better it will be for Holocaust remembrance and education – the mission of your Farmington Hills Center!

Plus, I wonder whether we will now start to hear more about German refugees in India. The father of President Biden’s nominee as Ambassador to Germany, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Guttmann (note the second “n”!), Kurt Guttmann, fled from Germany to Bombay in 1934 and remained there until 1948, running a metalware business. I’ve only just learned this myself and am wondering how I can contact Amy Guttmann – since she’s presumably rather busy at the moment. So that is just an example of how much remains to be discovered!

Q. How did the young people travel on their escape to Iran and India?  Was it on foot, train, truck, boat?  Did they have help?
The route from Berlin to Tehran went by train via Poland through the Soviet Union (until June 1941), and then down to Central Asia and across the Caspian. So indeed train, bus, and boat and then bus again (a treacherous serpentine route from Pahlavi up to Tehran). To be perfectly honest, both my parents wrote rather long reports on their travels only some of which I have been able to uncover so there are details that I do not know but hope to still untangle. The question, “did they have help?” They had passports and visas. My mother had an invitation from a German Jewish refugee pharmacist in Tehran to come and work for him (she had trained in the family owned pharmacy); in the event and much to her chagrin he turned out to be more interested in a wife than an assistant but the hard to come by visa (as I said, especially hard for single women) had done its job. She was also assisted by distant relatives in Warsaw whom I actually never knew about and who presumably were later murdered (more research to be done!). My father, as I briefly noted, had the good fortune of an Armenian girlfriend in Berlin with family in Tehran; they were able to assist in his hasty (due to his political activity) escape. So yes, help, luck, and a sense of adventure were crucial.

Atina Grossmann, Professor of History at the Cooper Union in New York City.
Atina Grossmann, Professor of History at the Cooper Union in New York City.

Q. Why was your father imprisoned in India’s jail and how did he convince them to release him?
During WWII the British and Americans interned and/or placed restrictions in regard to movement and activity on all “Axis” nationals. This meant that anyone regarded as a citizen of Austria, Germany, and Italy (and in the US, infamously, even Japanese US citizens) was classified as an “Enemy Alien,” including Jewish refugees who had actually become stateless. The British interned German Jewish refugees on the Isle of Man but their policies were more draconian throughout the Commonwealth and Empire. Refugees landed in internment camps in Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Singapore, and India. The fear of “fifth columnists” (actually both the US and the UK thought that Jews might be especially susceptible to pressure because they feared for the fates of family left behind if they resisted becoming informers or spies – which as far as I know never happened) was more intense in the colonies due to the combination of German successes on the battlefield (especially the fall of the Low Countries in Europe and later the invasion of the Soviet Union) as well as fear of anti-colonial sentiment turning to the Nazis as a result of “the enemy of my enemy” propaganda. This fear, too, proved mostly unfounded but it helped fuel the drive for internment of enemy aliens.

In my father’s case, as I noted, he had the misfortune of trying to cross into British India (at Quetta, which is now at the Pakistani border) while in transit to Bombay and a steamer to San Francisco in May 1941 just as the British (with US cooperation) and the Soviets were planning the invasion and occupation of “neutral” Iran  to short-circuit the old Shah’s flirtation with the Germans and to protect their precious oil supplies as well as the restive “crown jewel” India. Moreover, my father seemed to be a particularly suspicious character because he had traveled rather extensively after his escape from Germany including twice back to Berlin in order to try (unsuccessfully) and rescue his mother, once in 1936 under cover of going to the Olympics (!) as a tourist and then again, improbably, in 1938 when his mother pleaded with him to come and help her as she was being evicted from her “aryanized” home. His passport is a rather remarkable document – as a disbarred jurist representing the interests of other Jewish refugees in multiple countries he did in fact travel to and through many regions, including Palestine. It seems that the British couldn’t quite decide whether he was a suspect enemy agent for the Germans or for the Haganah! And in his “import/export” business in the Tehran bazaar he also had contacts with German customers – there was a long active trade relationship between Iran/Persia and Germany – which the British colonial officials deemed “trading with the enemy.” Note that this travel was possible because the German mission in Tehran, exceptionally, did not stamp Jewish refugees’ German passports with a J and continued to renew their passports on an annual basis until rumors flew of an impending Allied invasion which would lead to the internment of all male Germans and the repatriation of all German women and children except “anti-fascists.” This ironically led refugee Jews to actually request that their passports be stamped with the J – as a security against being deemed part of the enemy! This strategy actually worked in semi-sovereign Iran but not in colonial India.

Whew – this is a very long and complicated story! In the end, when my father was finally released on “conditional parole” to Bombay after VE Day – thanks to the efforts of the British Labour MP Sydney Silverman who traveled to India on a mission to collect funds from wealthy local Baghdadi Jews for European survivors, to connect with Gandhi and Nehru and to win release for the remaining interned Jews (Silverman is a truly unsung hero who deserves a biography; he was also among the first to ring the alarm about mass extermination of European Jewry and among the first on the ground after the British takeover of Bergen Belsen) – he was able to read his entire file and concluded that the entire extra-long internment was the result of the bad timing and the ill-will of the antisemitic Hungarian wife of the British officer in charge in Quetta whom he had assigned to interrogate European arrivals. Very bad luck. But as he never forgot, still an infinitely better fate than that of those left behind in Germany and Nazi controlled Europe.

Q. Can you talk a little more about your mother’s life in Iran during those years when they were separated? Was it hard to come from Iran to the U.S. after the war?
She was a much more elusive and allusive correspondent than my legally-minded, highly-observant father, absorbed in the romance of the “Orient” that she had already dreamed about studying and touring as a very young woman in Berlin. She had refused to accompany my father on his initial foray to the US, both because, unlike him, she did not trust that the British in India would honor the transit visa which their mission in Tehran had granted and because she quite simply did not want to leave. She had no interest in returning to the “West.” I believe the assumption was that she “would think about it” and then follow. Needless to say, once – after much anxious delay – she received word of her fiancé’s imprisonment she felt guilty and even tried to convince the British to let her join him in the family camp in Purandhar (those files are in the Indian National Archives) which was refused, probably to her conflicted relief. One of the very few (three!) single German/Austrian Jewish women in Tehran, she had no trouble finding either entertainment or employment. She worked as a multilingual secretary for various refugee enterprises, including a Jewish merchant from Palestine, who then became active in the local Jewish community relief effort for the Polish Jewish refugees in Tehran (as then did my mother). She also worked as a secretary for the Iranian Ministry of Justice where my father had also served as a consultant – hence the letterhead you saw on the Power Point – actually that was the letter in which she requested permission to join my father in India. Once the war was over and my father released, waiting for his visa to the US, he launched a vigorous campaign for her to re-unite with him after five years of separation (and almost daily letters all of which – oy – I have!), first in India and then when the British totally cleared him of all unwarranted suspicion, upon receipt of the expired US visa, in New York. As you saw from the ship’s menu my father finally succeeded; she left Tehran (I think very reluctantly) in December 1946 and arrived in the US in February 1947 after an extended stopover in Palestine to visit friends and family who had emigrated in the 1930s. Once my father had his visa she apparently had little difficulty in getting hers, via the same affidavit from my father’s brother in Hartford.

I believe she was haunted for the rest of her long life by guilt at not having shared in my father’s internment and by the fate of her parents (especially her mother, who was murdered in Auschwitz) whom she had left behind for the adventure she loved. At the same time, she never stopped yearning for Tehran, a loss that was mitigated by her work at the Middle Eastern Languages and Culture Department at Columbia University, several trips back (until the revolution) and permanent ties both to friends still in Iran and with other refugees who had also shared the Iranian transit experience.  The three European Jewish “girls” remained life-long close friends – in NY, LA, and Vienna. There’s much more to say about all this…

Q. How did the European and Iranian Jews interact with one another? Did they see each other as coequals or distant stranger who shared a religion?
There is so much to say about all of these questions. I’m tempted to revert to, “wait for the book.” In brief, for the most part relations were distant; as I mentioned in the talk, in Iran, European Jews connected with the local (Iranian and Iraqi) community as business colleagues, local pharmacists, language tutors, and often landlords. Moreover, the local Tehran community became very involved with the relief efforts for the Poish Jewish refugees from Central Asia who arrived in 1942 as well as with the operations sending packages of supplies to the much larger number of Jews who remained in the Soviet Union. See Lior Sternfeld, on the history of Jews in Iran. Danielle Farah who will be a Post-Doc in Jewish Studies at Rice University this coming academic year is doing fascinating research on the Iranian Jewish community in which she grew up. Religious practices were quite different and not all of the Jewish refugees were observant, some of them were themselves in “mixed” (that is Jewish/Christian) marriages. But Tehran was a very multicultural space so we still have a lot to learn about the interactions among various groups – Armenians, Jews, Russians, the British and Americans, just to name some.

The situation in India was rather different because of the closer ties between the British and the Baghdadi Jewish community. Baghdadi and refugee Jews worked together in the Bombay Jewish Relief Committee as well as in Calcutta. Relations with the Bene Israel community were more distant. Again, there is more work to be done so that we can understand these histories in a fuller and more integrated manner.

Thank you for all your excellent questions and your interest!

Click here to watch the recording of Professor Atina Grossmann’s program with the Holocaust Memorial Center – Trauma and Adventure in Transit: Jewish Refugees in India and Iran.