This month IranWire, the news website I launched in 2013, will begin to publish a series of articles and videos about the Holocaust, antisemitism and heroes who’ve been fighting against hatred and prejudice. This is the first time an Iranian website has partnered with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The articles and accompanying videos will be simultaneously published in Persian and English on our pages as well as on Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook.
People often wonder why I care so much about the Holocaust. Why has a non-Jewish Iranian with no direct connection to the victims or perpetrators of the Holocaust been writing articles and producing films about it for the last two decades? My immediate answer is simple: “Why not?”
The Nazis and their collaborators murdered six million Jews during the Holocaust, as well as millions of others for racial and ideological reasons, including Roma, Slavs, people with disabilities, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses, in an unprecedented human tragedy. Before the Nazis came to power, Germany was a highly educated, advanced nation with a democratic constitution, rule of law and freedom of speech. We all have to learn what led to the Holocaust to try to prevent future genocides and other state-sponsored atrocities against communities. As an Iranian, learning about the Holocaust has also given me a better understanding of the tragedies in my own country, especially since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when an ideological regime came to power. I understand what hate can do to a society and to a country’s culture and politics. I also appreciate what the ultimate cost of propagating hate and marginalizing minorities in Iran will be if we don’t curtail the worst instincts of the government of the Islamic Republic.
But as with most simple answers, “Why not?” is just a not-so-clever way of not answering the question. The real reason for my passion for Holocaust education is much more complex, with deep roots in my family history and my upbringing in 1970s Iran. So, please bear with me as I take you through the origins of my interest in the Holocaust. It started around 1975 or 1976. I was born in 1967, so much of what follows must be seen through the eyes of an eight- or nine-year-old child.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 1961 World War II movie The Guns of Navarone, with Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn, over and over again on Iranian TV. The film is about a group of elite American, British and Greek spies and operatives trying to infiltrate and destroy a German fortress in the Aegean Sea. It was shown on Iranian television almost every month and I watched it every time it was on, from beginning to end. I loved the film so much that I wanted to know more about the war and the story behind the nasty Nazis in the film. So I watched the British TV series The World at War, which was shown late at night during that period. I don’t remember the exact time it aired, but it must have been sometime after the 9 o’clock news. I was not usually allowed to stay up after the news but since my mother thought it was important for me to know about history, I was allowed to stay up late for this. I was mesmerized by the faces, mostly of children, burning in fire while looking directly into the camera in the opening sequence of the series. Carl Davis’ searing symphonic music may be one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed for television. Inspired by Anthony Quinn’s character and the scenes of Nazis destroying Europe in The Guns of Navarone, I would dream of Nazis invading our neighborhood in Tehran and arresting my Jewish friends just so I could join the underground partisans and kill the Nazis with a machine gun.
Both my parents grew up during World War II, when the Allied forces – the Americans, the British and the Soviets – had occupied Iran. My father’s hometown of Hamedan was occupied by the British forces. My mother’s family lived in the city of Qazvin in northern Iran, which was overrun by the Soviets. She had vivid memories of Polish refugees coming to the city and of Iranians welcoming the newcomers. That personal experience of the war changed my mother’s attitude to Jews and refugees for the rest of her life. And because of that, she supported my reading and watching whatever I could about World War II.
In the early 1970s we lived on Kakh Street, in one of Tehran’s many Jewish neighborhoods at the time. Abrishami school and synagogue was just a few blocks from our house. I had many Jewish friends both at school and in the neighborhood. Antisemitism had no place in our house. My parents were both members of Iran’s Tudeh Party, the communist party, in the late 1940s and early 50s. After World War II, the Soviet Union was hailed by many people for the role it played in defeating the Nazis. At the same time, communists were advocating social justice and fighting against colonialism in countries such as Iran. So it was natural for many Iranians, including Jews and other religious minorities, to join the communist movement. Some of my parents’ oldest friends were Jewish, Zoroastrian and Christian. Everyone was welcome in our house. So, in my sheltered little world, only evil people, like the Nazis on TV, hated Jews. Furthermore, I assumed (and I was partially correct) that Jews lived a good life in Iran. I didn’t see any difference between my friend Hussein, who was a Muslim, Fred, an Armenian Christian, and Benny (Benjamin), who was Jewish. We all played football together in the street and adored the Dutch football star Johan Cruyff.
Relative Safety and Security
More than four decades later, I understand that the reality was different. It’s true that in the 1960s and 70s, during the last two decades of the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iranian Jews had lived a relatively safe and secure life. But “relatively” is the operative word. Jews still suffered discrimination and occasional attacks from Muslims. Anti-Jewish feeling is deep-rooted among certain Muslims who regard any non-Muslim as “Najis”, or unclean. They also resent Jews because of their interpretation of certain verses of the Quran that are about the Prophet Muhammad’s battles against Jewish tribes. I remember going to our neighborhood friend Reza’s birthday party with Fred and Benny. Reza’s father gave them separate plates to eat from and told them to make sure that they didn’t touch any other plates. When I told my father about this episode, he called Reza’s father “an imbecile who was born an idiot and will die a moron”. That blunt sentiment somehow summarized my father’s approach to politics and life...
Some Jewish Iranians did have the misfortune of being targeted by bigots. But most I’ve spoken to never had an unpleasant experience in the 1960s and 70s. These included our family doctor since the 1950s, Dr. Barati (whose first name I don’t remember). He had a very relaxed attitude to life and medicine. Do you feel tired? Take a vacation and get some rest. Are you in pain? Take some aspirin. Have difficulty sleeping? Take some Valium. I particularly liked Dr. Barati because every visit to him ended with a few lollipops in my pocket. “Don’t tell your dentist about this,” Dr. Barati used to say as he held my chin, looked me in the eye and patted me gently on the shoulder, sending me on my way.
The Cost of Discrimination
I used to see Dr. Barati two or three times a year. But then one day in June 1979, he vanished. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the February 1979 Islamic Revolution, was staunchly anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. Despite his claim that his regime distinguished between Jews and Zionists, many Iranian Jews did not feel secure in their country anymore. Many of them understandably felt that the execution of the Jewish community leader and billionaire entrepreneur Habib Elghanian in May 1979 had been a message to the whole community. Elghanian had been charged with spying for Israel because he made some investments in that country and had visited it a few times. He was sentenced to death in a sham trial without any right of appeal and was executed immediately after that. Around the same time, the new regime started to kill thousands of people who were close to the previous order, as well as anyone who actively opposed the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini.
In the 1980s millions of Iranians left their country, including thousands of Jews. The size of the Jewish community in Iran shrank from between 80,000 and 100,000 to around 30,000. Dr. Barati was one of those who chose to leave. One day in the summer of 1979, when my mother and I tried to visit his office, the neighbors told us that he had migrated to the US, where his daughter was living. I never heard what happened to Dr. Barati after that. But even today, as I write these words, I still remember his cheeky smile as he slipped a few lollipops into my hand.
Second Class Citizens
Forty-one years ago I was sad that Dr. Barati was not going to be my doctor anymore. Now, I’m angry that hundreds of people were deprived of the services of that wonderful doctor. And I’m infuriated that the government of the Islamic Republic has denied Iran and Iranians from benefiting from the talents of individuals like Dr. Barati: Iranian citizens who could have served the country as doctors, engineers, businessmen and artists, but who were jailed, tortured, killed and forced into exile by this regime instead. This anger at the cost of discrimination imposed on different countries by tyrannical regimes is the main reason for my passion for Holocaust education today. To me, the Nazis did not only hurt Jewish communities in Germany and across Europe. They robbed generations of Germans and people across the world of what those six million murdered Jews could have offered them.
The execution of Habib Elghanian resulted in the US Senate passing a resolution condemning human rights abuses, authored by New York Senator Jacob Javits, and denunciation by Jewish communities around the world. Other religious communities had similar reactions. After hundreds of Baha’is were killed between 1979 and 1983, Baha’is around the world campaigned to save their brethren in Iran. Eventually the killings stopped, but religious minorities – everyone who was not a Shia Muslim – became second-class citizens in Iran. Even though Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and some Sunni Muslims are recognized in the Iranian constitution and have representatives in parliament, they are regularly discriminated against in education and at their places of work. They live insecure lives, and can be easily accused of espionage and endangering the security of the nation.
Our Series of Articles and Short Videos
IranWire’s new series, in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, will shed light on different aspects of the Holocaust history and antisemitism. These articles and videos will not be simple translations of English and German texts into Persian. Rather, they will be written and made for Iranians. They will address issues that we think are relevant to Iranian audiences.
Derviš Korkut: The first article and video in the series is about Derviš Korkut, a Muslim scholar, educator and long-time curator of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who saved a Jewish woman’s life and rescued the Sarajevo Haggadah, an important part of Jewish Bosnian heritage, during the Holocaust.
Diaspora Iranians Fighting Hate: There are almost three million Iranians living in exile and many of them have dedicated their lives to fighting hate and supporting the rights of victims, both in Iran and other countries around the world. This article introduces three individuals who are working to combat antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. We learn about their motivations and introduce Iranians inside the country to their compatriots in the diaspora who are inspiring a new generation.
Mohamed Helmy: Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor in Berlin, saved a Jewish woman by hiding her in his house and helped her family members survive during World War II. This article, and the article on Derviš Korkut, reflect on such issues as how people realize their human potential during challenging times, and how individuals have the power to make positive decisions and help others, even under extreme pressure.
Propaganda: These articles examine the use of propaganda as a dangerous tool by totalitarian regimes throughout history, allowing them to influence the masses and demonize minority groups. We study the uses of propaganda by the Nazi government against the Jewish people in the 1930s and 40s, the Burmese regime’s vilification of Rohingya Muslims, and the government’s use of propaganda against minority groups, especially Baha’is, Evangelical Christians, Sufis and Jews, in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Rothschild Conspiracy Theory: This article delves into the history of antisemitic canards, in particular the Rothschild conspiracy theory. This age-old fiction was imported to Iran and given a local flavor. Antisemitic Iranians have accused the Rothschild family of being responsible for upheavals and coups since the early 1900s. The article will dissect the conspiracy theory for Iranian readers, demonstrating what happens when such myths go unchallenged and how falsehoods can become vehicles to promote different forms of hate.
Holocaust Awareness and Pluralism in Morocco: This article focuses on how the Holocaust touched Morocco, which was once home to the largest Jewish community in the Arab world, and efforts by civil society organizations like Morocco’s Mimouna Association to raise awareness of the Holocaust in the country today. While the Iranian government might be promoting hate against different groups in the country and the region, this article demonstrates that there are other societies in the Middle East that promote Holocaust education and pluralism.
Tehran Children: Across two detailed articles, we shed light on the experiences of Polish Jewish refugees who took refuge in Iran during the Holocaust based the remarkable findings of Mikhal Dekel’s book Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey. This topic was chosen to celebrate of Iran’s proud history and great potential, and to reflect on how the current racist, antisemitic and xenophobic government has turned the country into a pariah state.
The Islamic Republic has scarred Iran and Iranians for decades to come. It has mocked and denied the Holocaust. It will take years for the damage caused by this murderous and repressive regime to heal. Knowing this gives my colleagues and I further incentive to learn from the experiences of others: to help create a bridge between ordinary Iranians and the citizens of other nations. Each of us, as patriotic Iranians, must work to rectify our country’s legacy by healing divides and rebuilding bridges, one group at a time.