Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year. It’s a time to remember six-million Jewish people and millions of other people who were killed by the Nazi regime and its allies. For this reason, we are re-publishing a number of articles on Iran and the Holocaust on IranWire. This article was originally published in 2016.
Often referred to as “the Iranian Schindler,” Abdolhossein Sardari saved a considerable number of Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis during World War Two.
In the thick of the war, Sardari served as an Iranian diplomat in Paris. At a time when the Nazis showed no mercy to Jews, Sardari, a Muslim, not only used a civil rights agreement hammered out between Iran and Germany to save Jewish Iranian nationals residing in France, but he also assisted non-Iranian Jews by issuing them with passports. At a time of great duress, Abdolhossein Sardari never spoke of what he was doing. Now Fariborz Mokhtari has detailed Sardari’s efforts at length in his new book, In the Lion’s Shadow.
During his research, Mokhtari unearthed a number of letters from the US Library of Congress, and recorded the personal accounts of Sardari’s relatives and those who, with the help of the Iranian diplomat stationed in France, escaped the dire situation in which they had been trapped.
Mokhtari says he has written the book for the sake of the younger generation — to help them understand that equality, brotherhood, and peace have historically prevailed in Iran regardless of race, ethnicity, and creed. In the Lion’s Shadow is a tool for this generation, a response to the words of those in Iran today who deny the Holocaust for political reasons, or who sow discord among Jews, Baha’is, and Muslims.
IranWire talked to Mokhtari about Sardari’s life and his new book.
Who was Abdolhossein Sardari?
The late Sardari was directly related to the old royal Qajar line [the Qajar dynasty ruled Persia from 1785 to 1925]. As a child — I think no older than four of five years — his family sent him off to England to study at a boarding school. Of course, they dispatched another person from Iran as well who accompanied him as a tutor in a protective and supervisory role. He thus learned Persian very well. His handwriting was excellent, he was acquainted with Persian poetry, and he knew the literary culture. In any event he remained at boarding school in England for study, and upon completing his secondary education, relocated to Switzerland.
The reason for his departure to Switzerland was his older sister’s marriage to Mr. Anourshirvan Sepehbadi. Sepehbadi was the scion of another great branch of the Qajar clan. He lived in Geneva and was Iran’s representative to Switzerland and a few other countries. While there, his wife requested that Sardari come reside with them: Mrs. Sepehbadi took Sardari under her wing, doting on him to a great extent. Sardari then went off to study at the University of Geneva, obtaining his doctorate in law. He wrote his thesis on the situation of the working class.
How did Sardari find his way to the embassy in France?
Permit me to explain something else here: at the time of the Reza Shah monarchy [1925-1941], Iran had true embassies only with neighboring countries (i.e. Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Russia). It did not maintain embassies in other countries. It posted plenipotentiary ministers in those other countries. These operations were thus “representations,” not embassies. After the occupation of Iran [by Soviet, British and Commonwealth countries in 1941], these representations became embassies and these ministers proper ambassadors. In any case, after Sepehbadi took charge of Iran’s diplomatic mission to France, he took Sardari along with him. After some time France became involved in the war — a war that was inconceivable to the French, because they had built a defensive line along the border with Germany that they really thought would mean Germany would never able to attack them, or that even if they did attack they would never be able to pass through. Instead of using this route of attack, the Germans went through Belgium (which had a truly defenseless border) and then entered France. The French were taken aback. As the Germans began their advance through and occupation of the country’s north, a group in France under the leadership of Marshal Petain (one of the country’s World War One heroes) decided they could save the country by making peace with Germany. With their surrender to Germany, the Germans came to possess the north of France as the rest of the government fell under the control of the Vichy regime. The relocation of the French administration to Vichy meant that Sepehbadi (as diplomatic representative to the country) was forced to move from Paris, where he left the Iranian representation’s building to Sardari’s care. Sardari had, little by little, entered the sphere of foreign affairs during his time in Switzerland, and at this point was himself a foreign service professional. Besides this, he knew the language, was educated, and above all else, had Sepehbadi’s trust.
Where there many Iranian Jews living in France at the time?
A great number of the Iranian merchants who had gone to France at the time were Iranian Jews. Of course there were Christians and so on as well — for example, there were Iranian Armenians, among other people. But the majority of Iranians in France in this period were of Jewish background and engaged in the commercial sector, mostly imports and exports, especially of carpets, antiquities, fabrics, cashmere, and things of this sort…
Some of them, especially in the second generation, had entered into construction work and real estate. In general their situation was a good one and they were all on friendly terms. In the book there are photos of them elaborately celebrating Nowruz, for example, going on Sizdeh Bedar picnics and so on … The photos show that these families were doing well for themselves. Many of them kept shops. Some in commercial work had no need of them, but those engaged in retail or the sale of antiques had shops; some of these were quite large and luxurious.
How did these people get help from Sardari?
After the Nazis came and occupied France, many of these people — especially those who sold precious antiques for a living — were forced to hide their inventory out of fear that the Germans would come and seize them and send them to Germany. This sort of thing was common at the time, especially in the case of paintings and so on … I contacted one of the families with an antiques shop in France at the time, originally Isfahani Jews by the name of Sasoon, and their son told me that when word arrived that Nazis were approaching, his father contacted Sardari, who with the utmost gentility suggested that Mr. Sasoon deposit all these items he believed to be in danger at the Iranian diplomatic facility — and that if there wasn’t enough room there, in Sardari’s own garage — until such a time as the Germans had left the country. When the Germans left France, Sardari went to Sasoon’s house, telling him that he should come collect his things at his leisure.
Another group of them, like Mr. Morady (one of the Iranian Jews who, along with his family, was saved by Sardari’s efforts and helped a great many of his co-religionists toward the same end), had carpet dealerships. With Sardari’s assistance, Morady secured papers from the Swiss embassy that attested that the shop was under the protection of the Swiss government. They hung this in their display window and continued on with their dealings until the Germans left. Mr. Morady told me himself that the German army officers had a liking for Persian rugs, and would come to look over them, and — this is very interesting — would speak to Mr. Morady with the utmost respect, always paying him in cash for their purchases before leaving. Of course the conduct of the German Nazi police — the Gestapo — differed, but according to Morady, the army officers were very respectful, disciplined, and buttoned-down.
How were the non-Iranian Jews saved?
After securing passports and receiving their own papers, the Iranians petitioned Sardari to issue passports for their colleagues, friends, and spouses — who were quite possibly not Iranian themselves. It’s here that Sardari acted outside the law. He simultaneously issued letters of safe conduct alongside these passports.
European Jews weren’t really informed as to the extent of the danger facing them. I think from the outset Sardari understood what sort of things the Nazis were capable of. In my opinion, people like Sardari — who were diplomats and statesmen, educated, and had friends and acquaintances in places all over Europe and perhaps even working in Germany — were up to speed on what was going on, even if such activities were confidential. I think that just as every human being is subject to influences, Sardari was affected by the world around him and redoubled his efforts to help out as much as he could those people whose lives and livelihoods were in danger, in collaboration with the friends and acquaintances he had in France and elsewhere.
What sort of information did these passports contain? Was the religion of the passport holder noted?
The passport issuance process is another story. A great number of Iranians who went to France and other European countries before 1925 kept their old documentation. Some of these papers took the form of letters, and because in those days people didn’t take family names, their professions and other distinguishing features were noted instead. Suppose someone wanted to go abroad from Isfahan and happened to be a merchant. On his papers, it would simply be written: “Mohammad — Carpet Seller, Isfahan,” who applied for travel to Europe from such-and-such a little town.
After people took up family names, these would of course be written down. Other than this, prior to 1925 and the Reza Shah government, it was customary for religion and sect to be recorded on these papers as well. Thus it was possible for them to write, for instance: “Asadollah — Carpenter, Isfahan —Jew.” After 1925 it was no longer necessary to record such information and they stopped.
For how many non-Iranians did Sardari issue passports?
The exact number isn’t really clear to me. German papers document names that couldn’t have possibly been Iranian. For example, there’s an individual by the name of Leibowitz — no such name really exists in Iranian Persian. Or the many Arab names that start with “Al,” with birthplaces in Arab countries. In any case I can’t say that Sardari did not issue passports for non-Iranians. He did. He did this 100 percent. It’s very much unclear how many of these people received Iranian citizenship. Of course, many rumors have been spun around this: that Sardari granted 3,000 passports, supposedly. But this is really just a rumor that doesn’t square with the facts. In those days it wasn’t usual for embassies to keep a great number of blank, unfilled passports on hand. It was likely a given embassy would have some 500 blank passports stocked. In all likelihood this number might occasionally scrape 1,000, but the probability of there being more was very, very low.
At that time, the foreign ministry would dispatch a number of passports to embassies once every few months, or perhaps annually. They’d usually send them to an embassy like the Iranian representation in Paris, and the passports were distributed onward from there to other countries. In all likelihood Sardari issued around 500 passports. If we reckon that 500 passports went out to 500 families, it’s probable that some 2,500 people benefitted from Sardari’s efforts. This number happens to accord with one of the Gestapo reports. I’ve read that Sardari saved 2,500 people without countries — “stateless” is the term the Germans used. It thus appears that 500 passports is the correct figure.
Was the Iranian government aware of what Sardari was doing?
Of course, the foreign ministry had to conform to the law. Sardari tried to keep things in legal order. There are documents — of which I have copies — that show that he was writing letters to the foreign ministry in Iran, listing names and recording which persons had come and petitioned for Iranian citizenship. This is how he went about applying for their passports.
Well, if the request was granted then the procedure was regular enough: he could accept that the passport had been issued from the Iranian government council. For those for whom there wasn’t enough time to go through this process, it was possible that Sardari issued the passports himself.
At any rate, passports were issued for friends and colleagues who were there. Who wound up receiving and not receiving them had to do with who held Sardari’s trust. I think that Sardari made his decisions in this matter with the suggestions of the Iranians around him. If the Iranians then in France told him an individual was trusted, Saradari accepted him or her; for unknown persons, however, I think there’s a great chance he couldn’t issue anything for them, since he could fall prey to all sorts of risks. At the same time be mindful that after August 1941, at the end of that summer, when Iran was occupied by the Allies (England, France, and Germany), it declared war on Germany to preserve its own interests. Legally speaking Iran entered a state of war with Germany; thus, Sardari found himself in a wholly unpleasant situation, having become a representative of an enemy power. To prove this, in my book I refer to a letter that the Nazi government addressed to Sardari. The effect of the text is that Sardari no longer had a political status granting him diplomatic protection (political immunity) and no longer represented a country in good standing with Germany. Accordingly, he became an ordinary person, not even permitted to leave the city. You can see the Nazi regime’s seal and signature right there on the page. Nevertheless, Sardari remained in Paris to fight for the interests of Iran and Iranians living in France. For this reason, he could no longer go on freely doing whatever he wanted.
After Iran’s declaration of war against Germany, how was it that Sardari could remain in the part of France that belonged to the Germans?
At this time the Iranian government ordered Sardari to return to Tehran like the rest of the diplomatic staff. But he decided to remain, and in so doing of course disobeyed the foreign ministry’s directive. The insubordination meant his salary was cut off and he lost his position as charge d’affaires of the representation. But the key to the office remained in his pocket, and the old man and woman, the couple who were the facility’s doorman and gardener, knew and respected him. Thus he was able to go back and forth from the office, though he mostly stayed in his personal apartment to do work.
Upon receiving the order from Iran, however, Sardari went to the Swiss embassy and lobbied to have his building put under Swiss protection. A Swiss flag therefore flew in front of the office, since Sardari was on good terms with the Swiss, having known them for some while since his own time serving in Switzerland. Sardari himself was under the protection of the Swiss embassy and government. Theoretically speaking at least, he was working under Swiss government auspices until the end of German rule in France. Though beset by great financial and official pressure, he refused to abandon his post.
Did Sardari earn any money for the work he was doing?
No. Mr. Haim Sasoon, the son of the man who owned the shop, told me that his father tried to make a gift to Sardari and Sardari would hear nothing of it. The elder Sasoon insisted for four weeks or a month, and finally convinced Sardari to accept a small pen box as a memento. Of course there are those who say that Sardari did what he did for money, or under government orders, or that he was always under German or Iranian government protection and as a diplomat enjoyed political immunity. None of these claims is correct. Both Mr. Morady and Haim Sasoon (son of the gentleman I’d mentioned owned an antiques shop in Paris) told me personally that no one managed to give Sardari even a dime. He took nothing from no one. Sardari himself was a person in a decent financial position — not wealthy, but not bad-off in terms of money. His family was relatively wealthy. Thus he used the money he had with him in France as far as he was able. After his salary was cut off, his resources in France expended, and he couldn’t bring in anything from outside the country, he found himself in a tough spot. There’s a possibility that some of his Jewish friends paid a few months of his rent; apart from this, no money changed hands between them.
When Sardari returned to Iran after the war, how did the Iranian government treat him?
They’d drawn up a case about him around two matters: in the first place, whether he’d committed illegal acts by issuing visas for non-Iranians. There was another charge, which was incorrect: that the Iranian government had sent Sardari a sum of money before the war to buy arms and armaments for the country. After the war began and the Germans occupied France, it wasn’t possible to procure weaponry and send it to Iran. Thus the money that had been sent remained in the account of the Iranian representation. Afterwards a portion of this money was used by Sardari for things like parties he gave and so on. The charge leveled at him was that he’d used this money for personal expenses. The case proceeded until, under the influence of Mr. Sepehbadi (former ambassador to Turkey who went on to become treasury minister and eventually Minister of Justice for a period,) it came to the attention of Prime Minister Ghavam os-Saltaneh. Sepebahdi suggested to the prime minister that the prosecution of Sardari wasn’t right from a legal, civic, or moral point of view. Sepehbadi said that even if the prime minister was to press the issue legally, it would not be morally sound. Mr. os-Saltaneh took the case before Reza Shah and petitioned for him to review the case and drop the charges should he approve. At the king’s command, this was indeed done.
With Mr. Fatehma’s arrival at the foreign ministry, the case was reopened. Sardari was even imprisoned for 10 days. He was again freed at the intercession of the king at the time, Mohammed Reza Shah. After being freed, he was transferred to Iran’s embassy in Iraq and worked there for a spell. After the coup d’état in Iraq he returned to Iran and left the foreign service. He left for England to start work with an oil company.
You did a great deal of research in order to write this book. Given the time that has passed, it must have been hard to find eyewitnesses to these events. How did you manage it?
When I went searching for these stories, I found letters in the U.S. Library of Congress. But I was on the lookout for eyewitnesses, and I stumbled into some of them by chance. Once, in the house of an old high school friend, I was talking about these matters and the friend’s spouse introduced me to a woman who was in France at the time of the events, though only eight years of age at the time. I spoke with this lady and afterwards went to Los Angeles to visit her. I saw her uncle as well, and got to know these folks one by one. Sardari himself never married and never had kids, though I was able to speak with much of his extended family.
You also spoke with Mr. Morady, himself one of the Iranian Jews saved with Sardari’s help. What does he think about Sardari?
Mr. Ibrahim Morady — who went by Ibi Morady — was one of Sardari’s closest friends. The two were both young bachelors living in Paris in those days, and were very similar in terms of what they’d get up to for fun. They were thus good friends. After the Germans came to France, their relationship rooted even more deeply: besides being friends they became collaborators in saving their countrymen. This work required that they trust one another, of course. Mr. Morady told me, “We were once friends, and then we became brothers.” From then on every time Sardari would come up in conversation, Morady referred to him as a brother — every time I saw him. In fact, I went to Los Angeles twice, and both times I went to Mr. Morady’s house every day, speaking with him for several hours on each occasion. He was 88 or 89 and, afterwards, 92 years of age at the time of these trips. I spoke many hours with him: his memories of Sardari were always very fond, and he spoke kindly and highly of him.
As a writer who has treated the topic of an Iranian Muslim who put himself at great risk for the sake of Jewish people (both Iranian and non-Iranian) in the midst of the Holocaust, how do you feel when you hear officials of the Islamic Republic denying the Holocaust?
From ages ago — the time of Cyrus the Great’s empire — Iranian culture and the Iranian monarchy emphasized that various peoples, faiths, beliefs, races, and languages ought to intermingle, cooperate, enjoy equality, and co-exist. Thus those who try for political reasons to divide Jews and non-Jews, Christians and non-Christians, Baha’is and non-Baha’is in Iran are in fact doing something at odds with the founding principles of our historical culture. This is painful not just from a cultural and historical perspective, but also in terms of Iran’s standing in international opinion — really a great detriment. Think of a corporation like Coca Cola, for instance: it spends billions to keep up a good public image. For 3,000 years Iran had an excellent image, and people who talk like this are managing to destroy it with a few inopportune words. This cultural aspect of ours is really something beautiful. It is being defaced, and long years will pass before it’s fixed. Folks won’t forget such things so easily. One of my objectives in writing this book was for young people to know that, in the past, Iran had a culture of equality and brotherhood between different religions, sects, and races.
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