x

Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

The Muslim Oskar Schindler gets belated recognition

As a junior Iranian diplomat in Paris, Abdol-Hossein Sardari saved thousands of Iranian and other Jews from becoming Holocaust victims.
Abdol-Hossein Sardari, second from right, was left in charge of the Iranian legation in Paris when the embassy was moved to Vichy.
Abdol-Hossein Sardari, second from right, was left in charge of the Iranian legation in Paris when the embassy was moved to Vichy.

He was an aristocratic and charismatic young bon viveur who loved parties, good food, fine clothes and beautiful women. But Abdol-Hossein Sardari was also a hero.

As a junior Iranian diplomat in wartime Paris, he saved thousands of Iranian and other Jews from becoming Holocaust victims.

He did this, at great personal risk, by convincing the Nazis that Iranian Jews did not have blood ties to European Jewry, and by issuing blank Iranian passports to endangered Jews, a new book recounts.

Mr Sardari has been dubbed the Muslim Oskar Schindler after the German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews in the Second World War by employing them in his factories.

Mr Schindler was memorialised in an award-winning Hollywood film. Mr Sardari has only recently received posthumous recognition.

His courage and cunning are celebrated by Fariborz Mokhtari in In the Lion's Shadow, a lively book that draws on archival material and personal accounts of those he helped.

One was Eliane Senahi Cohanim. She was 7 when, clutching a treasured doll, she fled France for Iran with her family using passports supplied by Mr Sardari.

"He saved my life and that of my family," Mrs Cohanim, 78, said in an interview from California. "He was definitely like Oskar Schindler."

Mr Mokhtari sees his book as a timely reminder of the true, millennia-old tolerance of Iranian culture, which has been overshadowed in recent years by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust.

"Even today the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel is in Iran," Mr Mokhtari, an Iranian-born, Washington-based academic, said in an interview.

Many Jews left Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, but some 25,000 remain. Judaism is an officially recognised religion and Jews have a seat in Iran's parliament.

Almost by accident, Mr Sardari, then in his 30s, found himself in charge of Iran's Legation in Paris after Germany invaded France in 1940. The ambassador, a relative, entrusted him to look after the mission when Iran's embassy moved to Vichy, capital of the new French government.

Iran was officially neutral but maintained strong trading ties with Germany, which declared Iranians an Aryan nation, racially akin to Germans. Iranian Jews in Paris, though, were still persecuted and harassed.

To protect them, Mr Sardari cultivated German and Vichy officials. Using his skills as a lawyer, he exploited the absurd rationale of Nazi racial purity laws to secure exemptions for Iranian Jews from anti-Jewish measures.

In letters to Nazi officials, he explained that when Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire, conquered Babylon in 538BC he freed Jews held captive there, and they had returned to their homes.

Mr Sardari maintained that some Iranians were later attracted to the teachings of the Prophet Moses. These "Mousaique", Iranian followers of Moses, whom Mr Sardari also called "Djuguten", had always been of Iranian Aryan racial stock and so were not part of the Jewish race, he insisted.

He had contrived an argument credible enough to give the Germans pause.

"Experts" on racial purity called on to study his claims were non-committal, saying more funding was needed to research his story.

Even so, the Nazis relented and gave Iranian Jews the same status as other Iranians. Among other things, this meant they were no longer forced to wear infamous yellow patches on their clothes.

Mr Sardari's humanitarian mission became far more dangerous when Britain and Russia invaded Iran in August 1941. Iran ordered him to return home.

Despite losing his diplomatic immunity, Mr Sardari stayed in France to keep helping Iranian and other Jews. He used money from his inheritance to fund his office, working under the protection of the Swiss embassy which now represented Iran's interests in the absence of ties with Germany.

By December 1942, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of Jewish affairs, deemed Mr Sardari's arguments about the "Djuguten" to be "the usual Jewish tricks and attempts at camouflage".

Mr Sardari nevertheless persevered, helping families flee Paris just as tens of thousands of Jews were being deported from France to death camps. He had another trump card: some 500 to 1,000 blank Iranian passports in the Legation's safe. These made no mention of religion or race.

Because the passports could be issued for families, Mr Mokhtari estimates that Mr Sardari helped save some 2,000 to 3,000 Jews. Not all were of Iranian descent.

"Many [Iranian Jews] had business partners and friends and some were married to non-Iranians. Through them, Sardari came to know and trust these others and helped them out," Mr Mokhtari said.

The passports and identity papers he issued made many other Iranian and other Jews feel secure enough to remain in France. They also enabled holders to receive food rations, which was particularly helpful for families with young children.

Farhad Sepabody, a teenager during the war, remembers Mr Sardari, his maternal uncle, as a "good Samaritan" who helped Iranians of all backgrounds. Among them was an Armenian Christian importer of caviar, whom the Gestapo was after because he had contacts with the French resistance.

Mr Sardari was a "very outgoing person with many interests," Mr Sepabody, 81, a retired diplomat living in Sedona, Arizona, said in an interview. He was a "fantastic photographer" and, as a single man, "had a lot of girlfriends". Mr Sardari never sought recognition or reward for his deeds, always insisting that he had only done his duty. His only known public remark was a humble comment in 1978 in response to the queries of Yad Vashem, the Israeli National Holocaust Memorial, about his actions.

"As you may know," he wrote, "I had the pleasure of being the Iranian Consul in Paris during the German occupation of France, and as such it was my duty to save all Iranians, including Iranian Jews."

The end of the Second World War did not end Mr Sardari's troubles. Back in Iran he was reprimanded for doling out passports without permission and briefly detained. But he was only out of a job for a few months. He served for a while as charge d'affaires in Brussels, and in the mid-1950s left the diplomatic corps to join the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC).

Mr Sardari's humanitarian work was celebrated posthumously in 2004 at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. He was never officially honoured in Iran, although he is hailed as a saviour in synagogues there.

The Islamic revolution cost Mr Sardari his properties in Tehran and his NIOC pension. A bachelor, he died in 1981, "alone, broken and destitute" in a rented room in the unfashionable London suburb of Croydon.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae