The 'Iranian Schindler' who saved Jews in France from the Nazis

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A Muslim diplomat in wartime Paris risked hsi life to help thousands of Iranian Jews escape from Nazi persecution, according to a book just published.
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Thousands of Iranian Jews and their descendants owe their lives to a Muslim diplomat in wartime Paris, according to a new book, reports BBC News.

In The Lion's Shadow tells how Abdol-Hossein Sardari risked everything to help fellow Iranians escape the Nazis.

Eliane Senahi Cohanim was seven years old when she fled France with her family. She remembers clutching her favourite doll and lying as still as she could, pretending to be asleep, whenever their train came to a halt at a Nazi checkpoint.

"I remember everywhere, when we were running away, they would ask for our passports, and I remember my father would hand them the passports and they would look at them. And then they would look at us. It was scary. It was very, very scary."

Mrs Cohanim and her family were part of a small, close-knit community of Iranian Jews living in and around Paris.

Her father, George Senahi, was a prosperous textile merchant and the family lived in a large, comfortable house in Montmorency, a suburb north of the French capital.

When the Nazis invaded, the Senahis attempted to escape to Tehran, hiding for a while in the French countryside, before being forced to return to Paris, now in the full grip of the Gestapo.

"I remember their attitude. The way they would walk with their black boots. Just looking at them at that time was scary for a child, I think," recalls Mrs Cohanim, speaking from her home in California.

Like others in the Iranian Jewish community, Mr Senahi turned for help to the young head of Iran's diplomatic mission in Paris.

Abdol-Hossein Sardari was able to provide the Senahi family with the passports and travel documents they needed for safe-passage through Nazi-occupied Europe, a month-long journey that was still fraught with danger.

"At the borders, my father was always really trembling," recalls Mrs Cohanim but, she adds, he was a "strong man" who had given the family "great confidence that everything would be OK."

The 78-year-old grandmother has lived for the past 30 years in California with her husband Nasser Cohanim, a successful banker. Mrs Cohanim has no doubt to whom she and her younger brother Claude owe their lives.

"I remember my father always telling that it was thanks to Mr Sardari that we could come out," she said. "My uncles and aunts and grandparents lived there in Paris. It was thanks to him they weren't hurt. The ones that didn't have him, they took them and you never heard about them again."

Of Mr Sardari, she says: "I think he was like Schindler, at that time, helping the Jews in Paris."

Like Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories, Sardari was an unlikely hero.

In his book In the Lion's Shadow, author Fariborz Mokhtari paints a picture of a bachelor and bon viveur who suddenly found himself head of Iran's legation house, or diplomatic mission, at the start of World War II.

Although officially neutral, Iran was keen to maintain its strong trading relationship with Germany. This arrangement suited Hitler. The Nazi propaganda machine declared Iranians an Aryan nation and racially akin to the Germans.

Iranian Jews in Paris still faced harassment and persecution and were often identified to the authorities by informers.

In some cases, the Gestapo was alerted when newborn Jewish boys were circumcised at the hospital. Their terrified mothers were ordered to report to the Office of Jewish Affairs to be issued with the yellow patches Jews were forced to wear on their clothes and to have their documents stamped with their racial identity.

But Sardari used his influence and German contacts to gain exemptions from Nazi race laws for more than 2,000 Iranian Jews, and possibly others, arguing that they did not have blood ties to European Jewry.

Read more of this report from BBC News.

 

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