Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Adar II 5765 - April 6, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Escaping from Iran

by C. Ofek

Part I

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 it 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 contact points. The authorities oppressed them, while 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. In our days, they lived through years of hardship and struggle, until they reached Eretz Hakodesh where they could live a full Jewish life.


Zahava Michaeli will never forget the night she landed in Eretz Hakodesh 18 years ago, leaving Iran behind forever. On June 24, 1987 (5747) in the middle of the night she arrived with her husband, six-year-old Aviva (then called Bahara) and two-year-old Moshe (then called Bahador). They came as refugees, haggard, gaunt, weak and sickly, carrying no luggage or possessions, not even a handbag.

Mrs. Michaeli's older brother, R' Shmuel Yerushalmi, also made a harrowing escape. The two siblings, like most of the Jews who fled from Iran, placed themselves in grave danger. They might have been accosted by highwaymen who would rob them of the money tucked away between the folds of their garments and then kill them. Or the border police could have conspired against their caravan and threatened them with shots and killings. Worst of all was the prospect of getting caught and sent to an Iranian prison.

Despite the hardships, the two siblings' and their respective families' escape was a dream come true—the dream of leaving fundamentalist Iran and coming to Israel. Zahava Michaeli realized this dream and her husband managed to escape one year later, after years of suffering. Zahava also spent time in prison with her young children, more than a month of fear and suffering. Later her husband faced a very real threat of being hanged.

R' Shmuel was also just a hair's breadth away from death and was forced to remain in Pakistan before reuniting with his family. While there his third child was born in Eretz Yisroel and had a bris performed in his father's absence. We plan to bring his story in greater detail next week.

The pain resurfaces today as Zahava Michaeli recalls her grim past, which invariably left many scars. "Only faith in Hashem kept me going," she sobs during an interview with me. It is amazing to hear accounts from living and breathing people just like you and me who had to travel such a hard road to merit living in Eretz Hakodesh. After all is said and done the brother and sister do not regret the long, harrowing journey to Israel. "It was all worth it," they say with a note of happiness.


"I was born and raised in Teheran," says Zahava Michaeli, beginning to tell her story. "In 1986 my husband reached a decision to move to Eretz Yisroel, and I agreed enthusiastically. Until then the authorities had not bothered us much, but living in Iran was difficult. Even the Muslims felt restricted. [Khomeini's revolution took place in 1979.] Money was not scarce there, just freedom. The Jews were particularly constrained and were not permitted to leave the country.

"During this period I was blessed with two children and under no circumstances did I want them to grow up persecuted in that land. The older of the two, my daughter, was six-and-a- half at the time and the younger one, my son, was just two. Nevertheless we decided to include them on the dangerous journey."

Mrs. Michaeli worked as a technician in a well-known medical lab. "During those years Iranian Jews held high-level government jobs. I had a good profession, a high salary and good conditions. My husband worked as a taxi driver. We made a good living and from a material standpoint we lacked nothing. We had friends who accused us of being irresponsible when we decided to flee with the children. They reminded us that in Israel not everything would be easy as pie since we would have no source of income. But we maintained that if we did not pack up and flee we would never be able to leave the big jail called Iran."

To make their break from Iran, the Michaelis established contact with an Iranian-Jewish smuggler, unaware that they were stepping into a trap. "We suffered a lot at the hands of that smuggler," says Mrs. Michaeli glumly. "He knew the way was crawling with police and that the time set for our escape was not right, but nevertheless he tried to bring us across the border. He received an enormous sum of money from us, $2,000 per person.

"We were a large group—my husband, I, my two children, my sister-in-law, my husband's brother, his two young children and my husband's father. A trapped family. The smuggler had us set out during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvoh, choosing a route via Turkey where it would be easier for the children, not hot and without mountains.

"Shortly before reaching the Turkish border in the city of Hawai, Hizbullah members in Khomeini's police force yimach shmam caught us," she recalls in a choked voice. "We were very scared. We cried and prayed for 24 hours straight. Heavy rains were pouring down along with the tears streaming from our eyes. The police were cruel. They pointed the barrels of their AK-47 rifles at us and threatened us mercilessly. The large amount of money we had hidden in our sacks was seized roughly and even my wedding band was taken away...We were all put in jail."

Even seventeen years later Mrs. Michaeli still feels the pain of her first escape attempt. Just hearing a question about her time in jail makes her cry. She was separated from her husband and jailed with her two young children.

Three Months in Jail

"The jailers accused the Jewish prisoners of espionage. They beat them, humiliated them, struck them on the head and in the teeth. They were blindfolded so they could not see who was interrogating them and who was hitting them. The police worked in shifts. Within the tight cell loud shouts and cries from other people could be heard. The torture they underwent is hard to describe. We had a feeling we were all in the same boat and the same dreadful fate was awaiting all of us. We spent over a month in the hellish pit without seeing the light of day. We could hardly eat a thing because of the kashrus. We were brought little pieces of cheese with a foul smell and one loaf of bread to last a whole week.

"Upon our release our neighbors could barely recognize us. We looked like bags of bones. The food was brought into the cell through a small opening in the door, near the ground. There was no consideration for the children and their urgent needs, not even minimal necessities such as diapers, bottles or blankets.

"We slept on the floor without a mattress in the freezing cold. I put my children to sleep in my arms and on my legs. I sat on the floor with my back against the wall, and them on top of me. I was barely able to fall asleep. The rats crept over us, pestered us and terrified the children, but there was nowhere to banish them to.

"When I was overcome with exhaustion my head would fall on my shoulder and despite the children's crying I would catch a few moments of sleep. The jailers only allowed us to go to the bathroom twice a day. As a result my daughter got sick and after our arrival in Eretz Yisroel she had to undergo a complicated operation.

"The hearts of the smugglers, who were kept in jail cells near the isolation cells, went out to me because of my wretched state. They heard my children's constant howling cries and my helplessness. Sometimes they would throw us a bit of food, biscuits and fruit, so the children would not starve.

"One day they asked me, `Zolicha (my name in Farsi), why do you suffer in silence? Open your mouth and object to being imprisoned with the children. If something happens to you, choliloh, we'll kill all the jailers here!'"

Mrs. Michaeli then realized that imprisoning women with children was uncommon even in Iran and the torment they suffered was very rare and unacceptable. The smugglers' harsh criticism of the jail keepers helped her draw strength from the depths of her exhausted body.

Suddenly her fears vanished and a feeling of protection enveloped her. When the jailers opened the door to her cell she burst out with a loud tirade. "Beasts! Villains! I am innocent, I am not a killer or a thief, I have not done any wrong. Even if you suspect me, what are my little children guilty of? Call my family immediately and ask them to take the children out of here. Then you can do whatever you want to me."

The jailers pointed their guns at the hapless woman, but the smugglers went wild in their cells, banged on the walls and shouted out calls for revenge. The jailers desisted, afraid of the prisoners and perhaps apprehensive about possible reaction by foreign figures over the infringement of human rights. Eventually they set her free.

"That night was Yom Kippur," recalls Mrs. Michaeli with a tremble in her voice. "I cried and cried incessantly and cried out and pleaded with Hashem to take us out of the dark pit. My children cried with me and our cries soared to Heaven... In the morning they told me I was being released with my children! Yet our joy was accompanied by deep sorrow, for my husband was left in jail and I was informed he might be hanged. The ruling was about to be given and the execution of the sentence was just a matter of time.

"The police attributed a grave crime to my husband, for during the time of the Shah he had been one of the king's bodyguards. They had no doubt he was a spy and he was subjected to physical and mental torture."

The interrogators would arrive at night and question the accused until morning. For several long hours the prisoner would stand erect without moving, his eyes blindfolded and his head tilted down toward the floor. Sometimes, when they wanted to torment their victim more, they would leave him all alone in the room. He would come to the point where he preferred to be beaten and then someone would come into the room and deliver painful blows.

"During the questioning the interrogators asked the prisoners why they wanted to go to Israel and why they wanted to leave Iran, who they contacted to arrange their escape, who they spoke with, how much they paid the smugglers and who the contact person was. The interrogators tried to extract information about other people who wanted to flee and were sure the broken prisoners would inform against others who wanted to leave."

Yet in general the prisoners did not say a word and therefore received more and more lashes with the whip. Although they couldn't see the whip it felt like it was make of thick electrical cords.

The interrogators told the Jews to start counting, "One, two, three..." and when they got to seven or eight they passed out and felt no more. As a result of these beatings Michaeli suffers from pains in his back to this day. He also had trouble finding work in Israel because of the bodily damage inflicted by the beatings.

After Mrs. Michaeli's release her main battle began—securing her husband's release and absolving him of the charges against him. She contacted an army general and bribed him with an enormous sum of money. He worked for Michaeli's release, but only for a period of six months. Afterwards a show trial was set for him and then it was decided to carry out the sentence handed down.

Trying Again

Feeling they had little choice, the Michaelis decided they would again try to flee the country. Since their pictures had been published in all of the newspapers it would have been impossible for them to leave the country using passports. "Our determination to move to Israel just grew stronger in jail," says Mrs. Michaeli. "We underwent severe abuse there, our money was taken away and our honor was trampled over. This made us more resolute in our desire to flee. The risks along the way shrank in light of what awaited us in Iran. Had we not fled a second time we would never have made it to Eretz Yisroel." And for just this reason the authorities required the Michaelis to report to the police once a week to sign in.

Meanwhile, in total secrecy, they forged contact with the CIA, which helped Jews escape from Iran. Mrs. Michaeli had two cousins who worked to help Jews leave the country. She called them and told them she had no money left and her situation was hopeless. They reassured her saying she wouldn't have to pay a cent for the planned escape, but need only be ready with a bag of clothes. CIA agents would come to take them.

One week before the fateful trial the smugglers arrived at their home. "This time our smugglers were Muslims, people sent by the CIA," she recounts. "They had been paid an enormous sum of money and brought us to the Pakistani border. Our suffering in jail was nothing compared to the arduous journey and the great danger. Only through chasdei Shomayim were we not captured.

"On the night we left Iran my son's pneumonia worsened. He burned with fever and had trouble breathing. The doctor sent him to be hospitalized. The eleventh hour was drawing near. I was well aware that getting my husband off of Iranian soil was a matter of pikuach nefesh, but taking a sick child on a harrowing journey was also terribly dangerous...I went to a Jewish physician, Dr. K. (who lives in Iran to this day), and told him about the danger we were in. Had he told me the child was in danger I would have stayed. To my surprise he said, `Go in peace.' He prescribed several antibiotic medications and told me to give him plenty to drink."

Mrs. Michaeli left the despised land carrying only a bag of medications. No clothes, no food, nothing. Having already undergone the trauma of getting caught at the border she left empty-handed to avoid raising suspicions that she was trying to flee. Before her departure her mother said, "Zolicha, the child is sick and feverish. Take a small blanket with you." To this day she still has that blanket as a memento.

A Hard Journey Out

Along the way the son's condition deteriorated. He coughed, but it was forbidden to talk, make any noise, or even to breathe loudly. They marched on foot, climbed over high mountains, descended into valleys and trudged through sand and over boulders for 14 hours at a time. They spent four days in a desert creeping with snakes and scorpions, without nourishing food and with extremely limited water rations.

It was the spring of 5747 (1987) and they got caught in Pakistan's rainy season. "Hail fell on our foreheads," recalls Mrs. Michaeli. "We had nowhere to seek shelter. During the day the smugglers hid us in cemeteries to avoid being discovered and at night we set out on a way riddled with pits. This time we were part of a very large group of Jewish escapees. The smugglers helped with the children, tying the small ones on their backs with ropes. But because my son was sick and feverish and did not know any of the guides, he insisted on staying with me. The whole way I had to carry him in my arms and keep him quiet so he would not cry and endanger all of us. If we were heard they would have caught us and sent us back to jail, and then our punishment would have been swift and severe.

"He was hard to carry and I nearly collapsed. The area of the border between Iran and Pakistan was not `clean.' The smugglers went ahead carefully, bribed policemen with large sums of money, and only then returned to bring us across the border. This time they were very responsible.

"When we finally arrived in Pakistan a new period of suffering began."


"Pakistan is a large land, but is very poor and neglected," explains Mrs. Michaeli. "The summer heat is oppressive with temperatures of 50 degrees (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and more. The population lives in primitive conditions and the water is polluted.

"The smugglers brought us to the Imperial Hotel in the capital city of Karachi. People from the Jewish Agency paid the hotel owner and all the Jews who had fled Iran found shelter there until their departure for Eretz Yisroel. Conditions there were substandard. We had to buy and prepare our own food. There are no Jews in Pakistan and we had no way to obtain kosher chicken. We got by on rice, eggs and potatoes. It was so hot the food would spoil immediately, sometimes even before the children had finished eating! We always boiled the turbid water. Every month we had to go to the United Nations offices to renew our visas, as we were refugees.

"Without nourishing food our health weakened. My son suffered from a dry cough that didn't go away. His lungs were still infected. I couldn't find a good doctor in the area. The inferior sanitary conditions caused his health to decline further. He hardly ate. I was shrinking away from day to day, too.

"Upon my later arrival in Eretz Yisroel my little brother, who had fled Iran four years earlier, was waiting for me. When I got off the plane he didn't recognize me at all. `Shakor, how are you?' I called out to him, but he was startled by the sight of me and took a step back. My eyes filled with tears. I hadn't expected such a reception. After a few minutes he said, `Your voice is familiar but I don't recognize you. You look terrible, just skin and bones.' Later, when we stayed at the home of my husband's family my little brother and I renewed our ties once he was sure it was really me . . . "

The escapees remained at the hotel in Karachi for three months until arrangements were made for them to continue their journey. Even traveling from the hotel to the airport had to be done in secrecy, because the route was blocked by policemen whom the smugglers bribed. Even the airport officials had to be bribed. The money was provided by the Jewish Agency.

"On several occasions the smugglers stole the money intended for the airport officials," says Mrs. Michaeli. "At least three times we arrived at the airport and had to be brought back to the hotel."

Only after three months of anxiety and hardships did the escapees board a plane bound for Switzerland, an eight-and-a- half-hour flight. "The joy in the plane was boundless. People danced with gratitude to Hashem, sang and hugged one another, not believing such a miracle had taken place.

"At the airport in Switzerland we were received with great warmth by the Swiss rabbis. They handed out glatt kosher hot dogs. My children cried out with joy after not having tasted meat for so long. [The rabbonim] asked us to spend the night there, but we wanted to reach Eretz Yisroel without delay. The people from the Jewish Agency understood our eagerness and that same day they arranged the flight to Eretz Yisroel. The new immigrants were physically and emotionally exhausted, and their longing to encounter Eretz Hakodesh could not be restrained.

"Four-and-a-half hours later we literally lay ourselves out on the ground of Eretz Yisroel," recounts Mrs. Michaeli, pulling out a small picture taken after landing at Ben Gurion Airport. The children's hair is unkempt and at only 31 her face looks haggard and pale, like the face of an old woman.

They were sent to Be'er Sheva where her husband's family received them with open arms and saw to their every need. For a long time the family had been fearful over the fate of the Michaelis since they had not received word from them. Now they took care of them devotedly, providing them with the healthy food they so needed, particularly the children. From there the Michaelis moved to an immigrant absorption center.

"At the Absorption Center in Be'er Sheva we learned Hebrew," says Mrs. Michaeli. "After the prolonged suffering I felt like a helpless little girl who had to take care of two small children. At night I was hounded by nightmares and in the morning I would wake up covered in sweat. Lilly, the social worker, noticed my poor spirits. When I told her about all of the bitter trials I had undergone she said, `You have to talk a lot about the miracles that happened to you.' From then on we began to talk to our family members about what we had been through, which unloaded the heavy burden on my heart. My older daughter, who had been shutting herself up, also began to recover a childish smile."

Even today, 17 years later, Mrs. Michaeli is struggling to make ends meet. "With all the budget cuts and the shaky economic situation, things are not easy for anybody," she says. "The State only helped us in the beginning. We tried to say we were Prisoners of Zion since we had been jailed in an Iranian prison and suffered, and perhaps we were entitled to a special allowance, but we were rejected because a Prisoner of Zion is defined as someone who spent at least six months in prison. When we learned that we thanked Hashem for shortening our stay in jail."

Initially the Michaeli family lived in a small Amidar (government) apartment in Be'er Sheva. Two years later they bought an apartment using a government mortgage loan. To her great disappointment Mrs. Michaeli left her lab technician's certificate in Iran with all of her other property and therefore could only find work in child care and on an irregular basis. "After two-and-a-half years my husband was hired by a refrigerator assembly factory, but he was involved in a work accident and today is handicapped."

Mrs. Michaeli's children were successful and they bring her nachas. When her 14-year-old daughter, who was born in Israel, hears about all the hardships the family went through, she finds it hard to believe. Today Mrs. Michaeli tells her life story with a smile and great thanks to Hashem for her personal yetzias Mitzrayim. Sometimes she is invited to schools to tell the children the story of her escape.

"Many Jews remained in Iran" she says with grief. "Now it is unnecessary to cross the border illegally. Jews can come to Eretz Yisroel via other countries. Some of my family members— my husband's sister and her children—are still there."

End of Part I


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