An Iranian official risking his life to save Jews? This scenario, while implausible nowadays, actually happened during the Holocaust. Meet Abdol Hossein Sardari, a diplomat at the Iranian mission in Paris during the 1940s. Known as the “Iranian Schindler,” he helped thousands of Jews escape certain death – by turning the Nazi race ideology on its head.

Born into a privileged Iranian family, Sardari was a junior diplomat at the Paris embassy who enjoyed fine dining and the company of pretty women. After the Germans invaded France and the Iranian ambassador left the capital and went to Vichy to reconstitute the embassy there, Sardari was put in charge of consular affairs in Paris. When the Nazis started implementing anti-Jewish decrees in occupied France, Sardari made it his mission to protect his fellow Iranians in the region, regardless of their religion. Trying to beat the Germans at their own game, he argued that Iranian Jews weren’t genetically related to their European co-religionists and therefore shouldn’t be subject to the Reich’s racial laws.

Writing on the letterhead of the Imperial Consulate of Iran, Sardari tried to convince the authorities that according to “an ethnographic and historical study,” the members of the Jewish communities of Persia and central Asia were not Semitic but rather Aryan, like the Germans themselves.

Abdol Hossein Sardari

Abdol Hossein Sardari (photo credit: Fariborz Mokhtari)

According to the study, the so-called Jugutis belonged to the Jewish community “only by virtue of their observance of the principal rites of Judaism,” Sardari wrote in 1940. “By virtue of their blood, their language, and their customs, they are assimilated into the indigenous race and are of the same biological stock as their neighbors, the Persians and the Sartes (Uzbeks).”

The Nazis classified non-Muslim Iranians as either “nicht juedische Abstammung” (not of Jewish descent) or “Blutmassig nicht Juden” (not Jewish by blood). Iranian Armenians, Christians, and Zoroastrians were included in the first category, while other Iranians whose religion was based on or influenced by the teachings of Moses but who were not “racially Jewish” belonged to the second category, explained Fariborz Mokhtari, the author of “In the Lion’s Shadow: The Iranian Schindler and his homeland in the Second World War,” a new biography about Sardari. “Added to that was the early Nazi propaganda that was saying that Iranians are of the Aryan race. He had to find a way to beat them at their own game,” he said.

“Sardari, with his legal education, diplomatic experience and considerable wit, exploited the classification courageously as far as it was possible, to the point of angering people such as Adolf Eichmann,” Mokhtari, an Iranian-born political scientist based in Washington, D.C., told The Times of Israel during a recent phone interview.

Did Sardari believe in his own racial theory? “I doubt that he was actually concerned about that,” Mokhtari said. “His mission was to save fellow Iranians. Based on his legal education, he found a way of making an argument that the German could not easily dismiss.”

Indeed, Sardari’s arguments were persuasive enough to get the Racial Policy Department in Berlin to ask for the opinion of the Research Institute for the History of the New Germany in Berlin, the Institute for Research of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, and other official bodies.

This runaround served Sardari well. His theories “would just circulate and as time would go on, he would benefit from the process and the time that it took,” Mokhtari said. “In the meantime, he would pursue his policy of saving as many people as he could.”

Sardari’s plan actually worked. When Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, a directive was issued that Iranian Jews should be exempt. In addition, Sardari gave out between 500 and 1,000 Iranian passports, without the consent of his superiors. This saved 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish lives, as passports were issued for entire families.

“He started issuing these passports to Jewish Iranians because that was his main concern,” said Mokhtari, who, while researching his book, spoke to about a dozen people who survived thanks to Sardari. “But the Jewish Iranians had French or non-Iranian partners; some of them were married to non-Iranians. After he helped the Iranians, they went to him and asked him to help their friends. Sardari trusted the Iranians and therefore he trusted the people they introduced to him [and gave them] Iranian documents.”

Incidentally, a new Turkish documentary similarly claims that Turkish diplomats in Iran saved thousands of Jews by giving them passports allowing them to escape to Turkey. But the film has not been without controversy, with Israel’s attaché in Turkey, Batya Keinan, reportedly accusing it of being a work of “propaganda.”

At the beginning of World War II, Iran was officially neutral, though the regime was friendly with the Nazis. But after the Soviets and the British invaded Iran in 1941 and forced the king into exile, the new Iranian government declared war on Germany. As a representative of an enemy nation, Sardari’s diplomatic status was now severely compromised. His government ordered him to leave France immediately, and, when he refused, suspended his salary. But he continued save Jews, often “without heat, without money and sometimes without food,” according to eyewitness accounts.

Sardari never took any credit for what he did. When Yad Vashem asked him in 1978, three years before he died a poor exile in London, about his wartime activities, he responded: “As you may know, 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 Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and other Jewish institutions have posthumously honored Sardari for his actions. Yad Vashem, though, never included him in its list of over 23,000 Righteous Among the Nations, presumably because officials believe Sardari did not risk his own life.

Dr. Fariborz Mokhtari (courtesy photo)

Mokhtari, who handed a copy of “In the Lion’s Shadow” to the museum when he visited Israel earlier this year, hopes Yad Vashem will reconsider after reading more about Sardari, especially about his defying government orders and staying in enemy territory while trying to save Jews. “To say that he didn’t take risks to me personally is just a little unkind and less than generous,” he said.