NEW YORK — As a young boy growing up in Tehran in the 1970s and ’80s, Maziar Bahari remembers asking his mother “What’s a Jew?” and “What’s Jewish?” So she explained that Judaism is a different religion and told him about many famous Jewish people such as Albert Einstein.
It wasn’t a question plucked from the sky. There was a kosher butcher down the street from his childhood home, and a few blocks away stood the country’s largest synagogue.
So maybe it was bashert (preordained) that in 1994 Bahari made a film “The Voyage of the St. Louis” about the famous ship and the fate of its 937 passengers, nearly all Jewish refugees trying to escape the Holocaust.
By that time he was living in Canada, having fled alone from Iran in 1986 at age 19. It wasn’t a short journey — first he crossed into Pakistan and spent 18 months there, before immigrating to Canada.
As an immigrant he was drawn to the stories of the Jews aboard the St. Louis, but his quest to understand the Holocaust didn’t end there. He also made a film about the Iranian diplomat Abdol Hossein Sardari — known as the Schindler of Iran — who saved thousands of Jewish lives in occupied France.
As far as Bahari knows he is the only Iranian to sympathize with and make films about the Holocaust. But while teaching about it on a grand scale is important, Bahari said it is through individual stories that the lessons of the Holocaust can be learned.
“As I look back on my youth growing up in Iran, first under the Shah and then the revolution, there was this idea that you are not an individual if you don’t belong to this group, an idea that you are not worthy of your life if you don’t belong to this group. It was the same with the Nazis,” Bahari, 50, said in a Skype interview.
On Monday the Iranian-Canadian journalist, filmmaker, human rights activist and former political prisoner will participate in The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “The Power of Remembering the Victims: From the Holocaust to Today.”
“When you are looking at genocide like the Holocaust or crimes against humanity like what is happening in Syria, it is very important to look at individuals. To know their names, where they were coming from, who their families were, and as much as possible know the stories of their lives,” said Bahari.
“I think the justice we are trying to achieve after all these atrocities is to understand the individual suffering,” he said.
This is why it’s important to not only speak with those who know something about the Holocaust or who have a direct connection with it, but also to those who close their eyes to rising anti-Semitism in the US and Europe, said Bahari.
As part of the USHMM’s 25th anniversary commemoration, Bahari became a digital ambassador for the Museum’s “Never Stop Asking Why” initiative, which encourages people to explore the ways Holocaust history applies to society today.
Back into the lion’s den
During the event at Chelsea Piers, Bahari will talk about the steps he has taken in pursuit of truth and justice concerning Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity in Syria and his personal advocacy against Holocaust denial — steps for which he paid dearly.
In 2007, the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival featured a retrospective of his work. During an interview at the time on “The Daily Show” Bahari confirmed he had wanted the festival to show his films.
By then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who repeatedly vowed to destroy Israel, had been in power for two years.
Two years later, in 2009, Bahari returned once again to Iran to cover the Green Revolution for Newsweek, where he was arrested and imprisoned. Bahari spent 118 days in prison — 107 of them in solitary confinement. Fortunately his immediate family no longer lived in Iran at the time, he said.
Throughout his imprisonment he was tortured and interrogated about his statements against Holocaust denial, his film on the St. Louis and his Jewish connections. The authorities exhibited him on Iran TV and accused of being a spy for the CIA, MI6, and Mossad.
Following his release, Bahari reconnected with Stewart, who adapted Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival” into the 2014 film “Rosewater.” The name of the film comes from the odor of the nauseatingly sweet perfume Bahari’s most vicious interrogator favored.
He wasn’t the only member of his family thrown into prison for political beliefs. His father, a communist, spent two years in jail in the 1950s for his politics and his sister, Maryam, was imprisoned for six years for being a member of the Communist party.
That might help explain why his parents weren’t surprised their son became so invested in Jewish culture and history, he said.
Human rights crusader
After he was released from prison, Bahari worked to highlight human rights violations in Iran and elsewhere.
“One of the reasons Maziar is such a perfect person to do this, is that he is able to connect the museum’s past with the present. Growing up in a Jewish community in Teheran he can speak to anti-Semitism in the Middle East,” said Sindy Lugerner, assistant director of development and operations for the Museum’s Northeast regional office.
Additionally, Maziar’s background can help reach those who might not have a direct connection to the Holocaust, Lugerner said.
Bahari has spent more than two decades delving into the Holocaust. In that time, the world saw the Rwandan genocide, the massacre of Srebrenica, the crimes against humanity occurring in Syria and against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
While many people know about the Holocaust, they have not internalized its lessons, Bahari said.
Speaking about the Holocaust and the Gestapo’s tactics during the Nazi regime can teach Iranians about the Holocaust and send the message of “Never Again,” he said. It also makes Iranians more aware of their own government’s tactics.
Beyond that, Bahari said he’d like to see the Holocaust taught in prisons and refugee camps, where many people are coming from countries where anti-Semitism is ingrained and Holocaust denial rampant.
Additionally, he said it’s important to reach people in countries such as Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates where anti-Semitism is “really embedded in the population.”
“A lot of people call me an Israeli stooge, or a stooge of the Jews. It’s a badge of honor. I like to sympathize with Jews, I like to sympathize with other human beings,” Bahari said.
Teaching that sympathy to fellow Iranians and Arabs from other countries now living in the US is challenging, he said.
About a year ago, as part of a project he took a group of 15 to 20 people from Iran and other Arab countries through the USHMM. He wanted to get each person on camera to talk about their reaction to what they had learned.
“The Iranians, who were now living in the diaspora, were willing to come before the camera. But not one single person from an Arab country was willing to appear. They were sympathetic, but they dared not come on camera because even though they were living here they were afraid for family still living back home. They were worried any show of sympathy with Jews could not go unpunished.”
Bahari’s forthcoming documentary “82 Names,” produced in cooperation with the USHMM, tells the story of Mansour Omari, a human rights activist who survived imprisonment and torture by the Assad regime in Syria.
On display at the USHMM’s exhibit, Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us, are five pieces of cloth Omari brought to the Museum containing the names of 82 fellow prisoners scrawled in ink of blood and rust, written with a chicken bone, and smuggled out in a shirt.
“Writing the names of the prisoners was a heroic act,” Bahari said. “He risked his life to do that — ordinary heroism celebrating the individual.”