Iran’s most powerful official, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says the Holocaust is a myth. But Iranian Jews who lived in Europe during the Second World War knew better. They experienced first-hand the Nazis’ genocidal ambitions and had to evade the Gestapo, or Nazi secret police. Some European Jews who fled the Nazis, meanwhile, traveled to Iran as refugees.
In recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day, IranWire reports on little-known stories of Iran and the Holocaust.
Menashe Ezrapour was a Jewish Iranian from Hamadan. In 1938, he traveled to France to pursue studies in engineering, but by spring 1940, Germany had invaded France and imposed Nazi racial laws. When French police began arresting Jews and sending them to internment camps, Ezrapour was among them. He survived four years in the camps and narrowly avoided deportation to a death camp. Liberated by American forces in 1944, he completed his studies and returned to Iran in 1946. He moved to the United States in 1986. Although he rarely spoke of his wartime experiences till late in life, he kept a diary remembered events in great detail. In 1991, he filed a record of his wartime experiences with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. He died in 2011.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, IranWire spoke to Ezrapour’s daughter, Caroline Yona.
What can you tell me about the Jewish community in Iran where your father grew up?
My father was born in 1918 to an Iraqi family in Iran. Both my grandmother and my grandfather had been born in a Jewish community in Iraq and had lived in Baghdad. Before the Second World War, the Iraqi government was persecuting Jews, so many Jews moved from Baghdad to Iran. Some of them, including my family, settled in Hamadan in northwest Iran. From what my father told me, they had a comfortable life. The government of Reza Shah, the father of the late Shah of Iran, was very equitable with non-Muslim people. Jews were treated well, and most of them thrived.
My father spoke four languages: Arabic, Farsi, English, and French. He and his four brothers were educated at a prominent French school called Alliance Française. In Hamadan back then, French was a prominent language and French culture was celebrated.
What took your father to France in the late 1930s?
Upon his graduation from high school, his parents sent him to Beirut to receive higher education. In 1938, when he was about 19 or 20, he left Beirut for Paris. Then, in 1939, he decided to go to Grenoble, a small city in the south of France, to get his degree in hydro-electrical engineering at a university called L’École Des Ingénieurs Hydrauliciens.
He was already fluent in French, which was the language he preferred to speak. He kept a diary in French all through 1941, which I still have. He writes that he loved dancing, and, even during the early part of the war, he used to go to a dance class in the afternoons. It was in his class that he met one of the great loves his life, a French Catholic lady by the name of Betty Nantes. The beginning of his diary is filled with accounts of his dancing and his daily activities like going to American movies. He writes that although he was in love with Betty, he understood that he could not marry her because of their different religions. His parents would not have approved.
Why did he stay in France when the war started?
He couldn't go back to Iran because he didn't have the means to. He had lost contact with his parents after they had moved inside Iran. Not knowing what the future held really worried my father. He was hopeful that things would turn around and that he wouldn’t be deported to Germany, but he was worried about the future of the Jews.
I remember him complaining about how unfriendly some of the French people were. One story that I’ll never forget was about a French restaurant owner who wasn't nice to Jews. My father used to take Betty to this restaurant before the war, but once the war started, the owner refused him service. He used to complain that although France had been an ally, in reality, they were very pro-German.
What did he say about how he came to be imprisoned in the camps?
In 1941, the Vichy government forced Jews to report themselves. Jews were required to carry their documentation, which clearly stated that they were Jewish. He tried to avoid having the French word for Jew, “Juif,” in his documents, but ultimately, the French police arrested him. They held him in jail for 45 days for failure to report his Jewish identity. He was then sent to a detention camp near Grenoble called Uriage. This was in 1942, and he was about 23 at the time.
What did he recall most often about the ordeal of the camps?
There was a free lawyer provided to him at Uraige who got him released for a short time. He never went back. In January 1943, he was arrested again and spent time in jail, before being sent to a work camp called Chapoly, where he said he almost starved. In February 1943, he was transferred to a large work camp called Gurs. Gurs was an international camp that held more than 21,000 Jews from all over Europe. I remember him telling me how unbearable conditions were. People were crowded together into small barracks. Each day, inmates were allowed only a spoon of sugar, a small portion of watery turnip soup, and half a slice of bread. The workers were expected to survive on this small amount of nutrition. Each day many detainees died of hunger, disease and cold.
One story I vividly remember was of a young woman who was also imprisoned at Gurs. There was a fence that separated the men from the women, but he could see the women working on the other side. One day he was very sad and famished and was feeling particularly depressed about his situation. A young woman on the other side of the fence, a Jew from Poland, noticed him and asked him what was wrong. My father replied, “I am starving, I am so hungry.” She slipped him a piece of bread through the fence. My father never forgot her generosity, even when she had nearly nothing to offer. The following day my father found out that she had been deported to Auschwitz and most probably killed.
Because my father had a background in hydro-electrical engineering, the officers took advantage of his education. From Gurs, he was transferred to another work camp called Meyreuil in 1943. It was a coal-mining camp near Marseilles, where he worked 600 meters underground. It was at Meyreuil where he had his closest encounter with the German Gestapo. It was also from this camp that many less fortunate Jews were deported straight to Auschwitz.
Every so often, the Gestapo would come to Meyreuil to round up Jews. One day, they arrived on their usual trip, and demanded to see a list of prisoners’ names. The Gestapo officer that day noticed my father’s name as it was then, Menashe Hayim, and inquired about him. The camp commander, knowing that my father was a Jew, took pity on him and fabricated a story to avoid his deportation. He told the Gestapo officer that my father was from Iran, hoping that they would assume he was Muslim. Luckily, the Gestapo didn’t insist on seeing or interviewing him. The next day, the commander related the story to my father. I remember my father always explaining this to us and thanking God that this commander had saved his life.
What did he say about being liberated at the end of the war?
In August 1944, two months after D-Day, American forces liberated Meyreuil. I remember him explaining to me that, when the Americans came that summer, there was a lot of shooting and bombing and he was able to escape from wherever he was. He took refuge in an abandoned cottage. One American soldier found my father hiding there, frightened to death. My father always remembered the soldier’s name: Captain Smiley. When Captain Smiley came in, he asked, “What are you doing here?” My father answered in his broken English, “Jewish, Jewish, Jewish!” Together they found a sardine can in the cottage, and they opened it up and celebrated the end of the war. Then the soldier warned my dad, “Be careful when you come out of the shack. If any American stops you, just put your hands in the air and say ‘camerade.’” The Americans wouldn't know whether or not he was German, and the phrase came in useful when he was stopped later that day.
After the war, he finished his education and got his engineering degree in Grenoble. He then returned home to Hamadan in 1946, reunited with his family, and married my mother in 1955.
What long-term effects did his experience have on him?
Rather than being discouraged by the persecution he faced because of his religion, he kept his faith and held onto his belief in God. He said that he had seen miracles, like how when the Gestapo asked about him, they never insisted on seeing him. In his diary, he writes every night about his unwavering love for God. But he was not a fanatical person and did not force religion on his family. He never insisted on us following Jewish rules. He just said, “Be a good person, that is all I'm asking you.” He was a good person until his last breath.
When and why did your family leave Iran?
I left Iran in 1979, and my parents joined me 7 years later. More and more, Iran was not the most desirable place for Jews to live. I remember my father told me a story about how one day my mom, who was and is still a very pretty lady, was wearing some very thin eyeliner while shopping with my dad. One of these women they called Khomeini’s soldiers, who made sure that women's heads were covered with headscarves, noticed my mom’s light eye makeup. She stopped my mom and took her to a police station, took her picture and scared the hell out of her. She said, “You have a document with us now. If you ever violate this law again, you are going to see the consequences.” From that day forward, my father decided Iran was not a safe place for them to live anymore. My parents ended up leaving their country behind in 1986 and moving to America. My father was very excited about going to Los Angeles, knowing that finally he would live in a country where at least he did not have to hide his religion. America represented for him a place of freedom.
When he told other people his story, how was it received?
My father didn’t like to be reminded of his experiences. Telling his story brought back bad memories. He wanted to keep it kind of secret for a good part of his life, and he wasn't going around telling his story to just anyone. I was the one who found his diary one day and began inquiring about his experiences.
At one point, right after he moved to the US, my father started to write an autobiography about his experiences in World War II. He even had a title for his book: Is it So Hard to Be a Jew?
During this time, he wanted to reconnect with Betty, the woman he had fallen in love with as a student in Grenoble. So he contacted the Grenoble police station in hope of finding a Ms. Betty Nantes. They were able to track her down, and they took my father’s information and told him that if Betty wanted to, she could call him. She called him the very next morning. With my mother’s permission, he arranged a trip to Grenoble, where she was still living. This was in 1987, and Betty was probably in her 70s.
I remember taking my father to the airport. He was so excited. He visited his university and the restaurant where he had been denied entry because he was Jewish. But when he spoke to Betty about his plans to write a book, she discouraged him, saying, “Are you crazy? There are thousands of books about the Holocaust. No one will be interested in your story.” He came back depressed. He was a totally changed man and refused to continue writing his book.
Did he ever comment in his later years on the various statements Islamic Republic officials made about the Holocaust?
Yes, definitely. He was so disappointed when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust. He said, “You are denying me? You are denying all this suffering I went through for four years? And my story is nothing compared to all the pain and suffering other Jews went through.”
That was the only time I saw him eager to share his stories. He was in his late eighties by then. I took him to my children's school when they were learning about the Holocaust in 6th grade so that he could serve as a real life example of the horrors they were learning about. He gave speeches at universities, was honored at various synagogues here in Los Angeles, and was featured on an Italian TV special. He even has an exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance.
I was astonished by my father’s memory. He could recall dates and details from over half a century ago. But he was always hesitant to share his stories with other people because he didn’t feel he deserved pity.
I am so proud of how my father was able to always maintain a positive outlook on life. His faith kept him alive and kept him strong, and this was something he passed on to my siblings and me, and eventually to his eight grandchildren.
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