Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Nissan 5765 - April 13, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Escaping from Iran

by C. Ofek

Part II

As the preparations for Pesach begin, we recall that the Haggodoh says that we should see ourselves as having come out of Mitzrayim. Boruch Hashem in these times of global freedom, most Jews of the world find this difficult since the experience is so remote from our modern lives. However with the rise of Shiite Moslems to power in Iran in 1979, the relatively large Jewish community of Iran found itself in a situation that had many similar points. The authorities oppressed them, and at the same time tried to keep them from leaving.

Here we present the stories of two members of a family that escaped from Iran around 18 years ago. They lived through years of hardship and struggle, until they reached Eretz Hakodesh where they could live a full Jewish life.

The first part told the story of Mrs. Zahava Michaeli who arrived in Israel almost 18 years ago, on her second escape attempt. She survived the ordeals of the journeys as well as time in an Iranian prison after the first unsuccessful attempt. This part tells the story of Mrs. Michaeli's brother, Shmuel Yerushalmi, who later said that his guide throughout the journey out of Iran was the Yosheiv Meromim.


R' Shmuel Yerushalmi's Harrowing Journey

About six months after Zahava Michaeli's aliyah her older brother, Shmuel Yerushalmi, also prepared to move to Eretz Yisroel. R' Shmuel, then 33, faced a dilemma. His son Moshe (Navid) and daughter Devorah were two years old and his wife was expecting a third child. After hearing about his sister's ordeals he was concerned. Yet remaining in Iran with the family until the birth was unrealistic in light of the danger he was in.

The date scheduled for his departure with a group of Jews was rapidly approaching. Arrangements had been underway for over a year and now the time had nearly arrived. As early as 5746 (1986) during Khomeini's rule, R' Shmuel had tried to obtain a passport, but the extreme Muslim rule sealed the country tight and guarded the borders fiendishly. R' Shmuel, like other Jews in Teheran, decided to flee the country illegally. At great personal risk he discreetly forged ties with smugglers. Even his close family members were not privy to the secret. The group of escapees paid the Muslim smuggler an immense sum.

R' Shmuel went to a well-known Jewish doctor to ask whether his family could come on the dangerous journey. "Your wife can only leave the country by plane," the doctor determined. Perfectly sensible, but not feasible. No Jews were permitted to leave Iran under any circumstances.

It seemed that Mrs. Yerushalmi had no chance of escaping the claws of the fundamentalist rule. If she stayed behind, her husband's flight from the country would be sufficient cause in the eyes of the authorities to exact revenge upon her. With no other choice, R' Shmuel decided to try subterfuge. He told the police that his wife wanted to travel to France with the children to take part in a special family occasion. They believed him.

Mrs. Yerushalmi and her two small children received passports. R' Shmuel was summoned by the authorities. "They warned me that if my family members did not return to Iran I would never be permitted to leave the country. They also had me sign a very high guarantee obligating me to have my family return."

If anybody were to discover their true destination, theirs would be a harsh and bitter fate. "Even a long prison sentence would not be a severe enough punishment," says R' Shmuel, "for the cursed [authorities] accused those who tried to cross the borders illegally en route to Israel of spying and sentenced them to be hanged."

When Mrs. Yerushalmi boarded the airport bus with her children she saw it was full of Muslims wearing tarboosh hats, which was considered a sign of extremism. She and her children stood out. The other passengers cast suspicious glances at them, frightening her. When she got off the bus two policemen approached her to ascertain why she was traveling. With pounding heart she stammered and showed them her passports. They left her alone.

At the layover in Turkey she had trouble understanding the language and then recalled the secret Jewish Agency phone number she had been given in Iran. Only thanks to their intervention was she eventually able to complete the journey to Eretz Yisroel.

In the meantime R' Shmuel began to worry about his elderly parents. "I realized that if I were to leave Iran before them, the authorities would know about my planned escape and my family's escape and would plague them. Once again I found a convincing pretext and we submitted a request. The government was generally lenient in granting temporary exit visas to elderly people, women and children, but was strict about keeping young men in Iran. I paid a high fee for my parents' passports. Apparently the Iranian police suspected that my family's journey to France followed by my parents' departure were not entirely innocent.

"In Teheran I had a notions shop in Jews' Market, where there were another 20 Jewish stores. One morning, when I opened the shop, horrible shouts were heard from the other stores," he recounts, his voice trembling. "I went outside to see, assuming the police had come to catch one of the store owners. I didn't imagine they were looking for me . . . I went closer to the scene of the action and saw two big, black motorcycles and alongside them policemen with guns drawn. One of my friends ran up to me and whispered with dread, `Shmuel, run! They're looking for you!' Indeed they wanted to arrest me because of my parents' plans to leave Iran. But there was another store owner in the market named Shmuel and by the time they realized their mistake I had fled the scene."

From that day onward R' Shmuel became the victim of persecution, telephone harassment, anxiety and nightmares. At night he had supplemented his earnings by playing in a band at Jewish weddings. But now, afraid the police would find him, he stopped going to weddings. He also stopped going to his shop and just waited anxiously to leave Iran.

"Another task that required a great deal of energy was trying to calm my parents," relates R' Shmuel. "They were agitated and did not want to leave while I was being threatened and persecuted. I promised them I would leave right after they did."

Following their departure he went through a tense period of hiding out until he received a sign from the smugglers. His family prayed for him. His wife's uncle, who was also his neighbor, provided R' Shmuel with several pages of Tehillim to tuck away among his personal documents and to recite in times of trouble.

R' Shmuel carried nothing. All of his property was eventually taken by the Islamic regime. Since the danger of getting caught was very great, the Jews preferred to leave empty- handed to avoid raising suspicions by selling their property, which could precipitate being summoned for interrogation.

"Our group numbered twelve Jews," recalls R' Shmuel. "From Teheran the smugglers brought us to Kubaita, Pakistan, which is situated near the border. We traveled the frightening and desolate route in the dark. Highwaymen were crawling at every bend, lying in wait for wayfarers trying to flee the country. Since we had heard about disasters that had befallen our fellow Jews, we objected to riding on horses or mules or traveling on foot and demanded vehicles. The smugglers brought us by jeep and every 200 meters stopped to check whether policemen were deployed and searching for `wanted men.'

"In most cases the smugglers would first bribe the border guards and then take us by, under their noses. The problem was that the Pakistanis were also great sonei Yisroel and if they caught us they would have been cruel and thwarted our escape. Therefore, based on the smugglers' instructions, we disguised ourselves as Kurds. We wore Kurdish head- coverings and the women wore veils. We wore pants and long, loose shirts made of heavy fabric."

Because the Kurds dwell in various countries, they are often allowed to cross the border freely to travel between Kurdish settlements located in two neighboring countries.

"For our lodgings, all twelve of us squeezed into one closed room in a miserable village. We slept uneasily, knowing that at any moment the smugglers could summon us to prepare for another journey of several hours. For food we were given a bit of bread, bananas and oranges. What kept us going were the chapters of Tehillim I kept hidden in my clothes. Before every departure the other members of the group would sit around me and we would murmur the Tehillim with kavonoh and with tears sliding down our faces. We were very afraid of getting caught. All of us had families.

"One day the smugglers informed us that 50-100 meters ahead border guards were posted and were conducting rigorous vehicle searches. At a distance we could see their flashlights flitting across the bumpy road. Our hearts skipped. Cars were being stopped at the roadside for inspections, but we drove on by as if they hadn't even notice us. It was a miracle."

Shmuel Yerushalmi wore three pairs of pants. In the pocket of the bottom layer he hid his pages of tefillos and Tehillim with his Iranian identity card and his driving license. His fellow travelers gathered strength from him and asked him to be their spiritual guide. Thus R' Shmuel arranged minyanim for tefillos and set times for reciting Tehillim.


Following all of the tension they arrived in Kubaita and were taken by minibus to Karachi, where they stayed in the same hotel, the Imperial. "When we drew up to the hotel at 3:00 am, we wanted to recite a few chapters of Tehillim together. I felt around in my inner pocket to take them out, but they were not there. I thought I had given them to one of my friends, but after inquiring everybody said no. A search was conducted and the driver parked the minibus near the hotel. My tired friends went into the hotel, but I refused to leave. I looked on the floor of the minibus. The driver offered me a flashlight and together we scoured every possible place, but the Tehillim had simply vanished. To this day I cannot figure out how they disappeared since I had guarded them so carefully."

The Imperial Hotel was owned by Muslims but the Jewish Agency bribed its managers to accommodate the Jews who had fled from Iran until they could arrange for Swiss visas en route to Israel. R' Shmuel spent 22 days at the hotel.

Back in Iran, his sister was plagued by the government authorities. Before his escape he had told her to say that her older brother had quarreled with the family, causing everybody sorrow and grief, and nobody knew where he had disappeared to or what he was doing. They accepted her story and left her alone.

"We arrived at the hotel and sat down in comfortable relief," continues R' Shmuel. "We still could not make contact with our families. I felt a sense of responsibility toward my new baby whom I had not yet seen. If I could only send greetings to my wife across the distance.

"After a week at the hotel, while I was talking to Mr. Pur Rostanian, a childhood friend of mine who helped the Jewish escapees go to America, sharp cries were heard from one of the hotel's conference rooms. When I heard the shouting a warning light went on in my head. I knew my companions well and knew the deep, solid bond connecting us. That couldn't be a quarrel between friends. I ran toward the sound in a state of alarm. It sounded like an attack. How could misfortune strike us in such a protected place?

"What did I see? In the center of the room, on a high chair, stood a Muslim, one of the leading border crossers. His eyes shot out enmity and his voice raged with seething hatred. My friends were gathered around him, frightened and trembling. It turned out that in Iran the government had captured a famous Muslim, one of the leading smugglers of Jews, and sentenced him to death. The Muslim going wild in the hotel threatened my friends that if the Iranians killed his friend he would kill all the Jewish refugees as a way of avenging his blood. In his opinion the Jews had informed against his friend to the government.

"Although the Muslim issuing the threats was not armed, we knew his Pakistani friends would do the job for him if he just gave them a sign. My friends from the group remained standing around the agitated man as if nailed to the floorboards. Just a short time ago we'd thought him to be a Jewish sympathizer. There seemed to be no way of fleeing the room and my friends feared that the slightest move would enrage him more. I was the last to approach the scene of the threats and I intentionally remained behind the slightly open door. I rushed to look for a way to thwart his plot."

R' Shmuel quickly went to find Pur Rostanian, who had tight ties with the American consulate, and told him about the mortal jeopardy the Jews in the hotel were in. He quickly reported to the American consulate and within a few hours some 2,000 Pakistani policemen were positioned around the hotel and in the nearby streets! The consulate staff had quickly gone to bribe the police to guard the group of Jews in the hotel. The Muslim man ran away and did not return.

"That same night the consulate took measures to remove us from the site. They planned to take us to the airport and fly us to Switzerland. Again, the bribed policemen accompanied us, placing us under tight guard to prevent Muslim extremists from suddenly attacking us.

"When my friends started to board the plane a man from the Jewish Agency turned to me and said sorrowfully, `We have a serious problem with you because of your long beard. The airport security officials suspect you of being a Hizbullah member!' My heart fell. This was a test of faith in Hashem, to believe that kol man de'ovid Rachmono letav ovid. `Cut off your beard,' the Jewish Agency representative suggested, `and their suspicions will fall away immediately.' I objected firmly. Just as Hashem has helped me until now through all the hardships, He will help me now as well, I thought.

"The time for the flight was drawing near and I cried that I would have to remain behind. I asked my friends to send my regards to my family. The only other thing I could do was to pray to Hashem to deliver me. Right before the flight, the Jewish Agency representative had an idea. He arranged a transit visa for me just to leave Pakistan for the airport in Switzerland. I signed the forms and the plane departed... with me onboard!

"It was now a matter of hours until our arrival in Israel. Our joy soared to the heavens. We stopped in Switzerland for a few hours and my friends participated in a reception the local Jews held in their honor. I could not [take part] because I only had a transit visa. It didn't matter much. The important thing was that I was on my way to Eretz Hakodesh."

Eretz Yisroel

Five hours later the group was at Ben Gurion Airport. Shmuel Yerushalmi laid down on the ground and kissed it and shed tears of thanks. Later he called the absorption center in Ashdod to let his wife know he was in Israel. His wife, who had prayed so much for his well-being and for the well-being of the other escaping Jews, had been wrought with worry over delays along the way and was very surprised.

After seven months filled with tension, suffering and uncertainty, the family was finally reunited. After R' Shmuel stayed at the ulpan in Ashdod to learn Hebrew he moved to Holon to live with his family. Today he works at Mipi Olalim, a talmud Torah in the city.

Not long ago R' Shmuel met one of the 13 arrested Jews captured in the city of Shiraz by the Iranian authorities and eventually released. The man had the privilege of moving to Eretz Yisroel and had arrived to enroll his son at the talmud Torah. R' Shmuel, who was aware of the suffering the prisoners had undergone since their arrest in the city of their birth, was thrilled to meet the man and thanked Hashem that he and his family were safe in Israel.

"I came to the land I had so yearned for," says R' Shmuel. "which many in the Diaspora have not merited. And one thing is sure, this was not only a physical aliyah but primarily an aliyah in ruchniyus."

Persian Jewry at a Glance

"There are still Jews left in Iran," says Mr. Chansav of the Association of Persian Jewish Immigrants. "According to the reports we receive from immigrants coming to Eretz Yisroel, their situation is not bad. They keep quiet, engage in trade for a living and the ruling government does not harm them. All this of course is on condition that they do not become involved in political problems and matters of government.

"Today there is some aliyah from Iran trickling in. Every month a certain number of olim leave. Today there are 25,000-30,000 Jews in Iran, mostly in Teheran. The second largest city that has Jews is Shiraz, where a few thousand live.

"The Jews living in Iran are restricted and are constantly under surveillance. They have no readily visible social or communal functions and their daily routine revolves around the home, the family, the store and the marketplace. Among the Jews who immigrate to Israel some stay here for a trial period and then move on to America, where there is also a large community of Persian Jews. Most of the Jews who remain in Israel proclaim that they are satisfied with life here, despite the difficulties."


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