As Paris lay under German occupation in World War II and Jews in the city feared for their lives, an unexpected rescuer appeared at the Iranian embassy.
Abdol Hossein Sardari, a non-Jewish Iranian consul representing the shah’s government, is estimated to have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews from Hitler. He did so by issuing Iranian passports with a false claim that nevertheless appealed to the Nazis’ sense of racial superiority: The bearer was not Jewish but “Djougouten,” an Iranian minority that was ethnically Aryan.
This relatively unknown act of heroism is the subject of a new documentary, “Sardari’s Enigma,” produced and directed by Iranian filmmaker Mahdieh zare Zardiny. The film — Zardiny’s first full-length feature — made its US debut at a screening at Georgetown University on April 26.
“To me, it’s all about a man who saved lives,” Zardiny told The Times of Israel. “Even if I did not choose [to make a film about] Sardari, I would be curious about what a great job he did in a very peaceful way.”
According to Fariborz Mokhtari, the author of “In the Lion’s Shadow: The Iranian Schindler and his homeland in the Second World War,” the Nazis classified non-Muslim Iranians as either “nicht juedische Abstammung” (not of Jewish descent) or “Blutmassig nicht Juden” (not Jewish by blood). In a 2012 The Times of Israel article following the publication of his book, the Iranian-born political scientist related that 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.
“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,” said Mokhtari, who estimated the diplomat gave out between 500 and 1,000 Iranian passports and saved 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish lives, as passports were issued for entire families.
The accidental Iranian Holocaust documentarian
Filmmaker Zardiny grew up in a Muslim background and describes Iran as more religiously diverse and tolerant than people may think, with Muslims, Jews and Zoroastrians.
“We have many Jewish people now living in Iran,” she said of the country with the Middle East’s second-largest Jewish population after Israel. “I think they would like to see the film. Sardari may have helped some of their ancestors.”
She said, “To me, it’s not fair if people [are oppressed] because of their beliefs, no matter if they’re from Moses or Christian or Muslim or any other thing.”
When Zardiny first went to the UK to attend Royal Holloway University, she said she “had no idea about the Holocaust, its significance.” After she met the late Holocaust survivor Scarlett Epstein, however, she found Epstein’s narrative so captivating that she made a documentary short about her.
“I think about the Holocaust in a really tragic way,” she said. “It’s so sad… The only thing I think about is the mothers, fathers, children, people [who were] murdered.”
Researching Epstein led Zardiny into learning about Sardari. Her subsequent film is the culmination of a five-year journey from 2013 to 2018 that covered three continents. She interviewed eyewitnesses and experts, including individuals saved by Sardari, their family members and his biographer Mokhtari. She also conducted research on him at national archives in the US, France and Switzerland.
Along the way, she questioned why Sardari is not included among the Righteous Among the Nations. She said she has submitted documentation in support of his candidacy to Israel’s national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.
Responding to an inquiry from The Times of Israel, Director of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem Dr. Joel Zisenwine explained the institution’s decision not to add Sadari to the list of over 27,360 others who have been honored for saving Jews.
“The case of Abdol Hossein Sardari is familiar to Yad Vashem and the Commission for the Designation of Righteous among the Nations,” Zisenwine told The Times of Israel. “The commission reviewed the documents in the past but found insufficient documentation to award him the title Righteous among the Nations.”
Zisenwine added, “Firsthand accounts of survivors providing details about the circumstances of rescue and documentation regarding the rescue are among the basic criteria needed to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.”
Current documentation and testimony of Sardari’s deeds still may not be enough for Israel’s Holocaust institution, but are more than sufficient for filmmaker Zardiny. “To me, he was so smart, so brave,” she said.
When Iran was a refuge for Jews
Sardari has been compared with Oskar Schindler as a Holocaust hero. But the comparison is bittersweet. Penn State Middle Eastern history Prof. Lior Sternfeld said that “towards the end of his life, he certainly did not enjoy any of the fame or respect that… Schindler enjoyed later in his life.”
Likewise, the Iranian diplomat’s achievements might surprise some who are less familiar with his story and more familiar with the offensive Holocaust cartoon contest sponsored by the Tehran municipal newspaper, Hamshahri.
Yet Sardari is part of a broader narrative of Iranian heroism during the Holocaust. In addition to his achievements in Paris, the Iranian government welcomed 400,000 Polish WWII refugees, including 25,000 to 30,000 Jews.
People in Iran have increasingly taken notice. Decades after the Islamic Revolution toppled the government Sardari served, he was depicted favorably in the 2007 Iranian soap opera “Zero Degree Turn” about a wartime Paris romance between a non-Jewish Iranian man and a Jewish Frenchwoman. In 2017, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cited Sardari during some rhetorical sparring with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu accused Iran of being anti-Semitic,” said Sternfeld, the author of the 2018 book “Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran.” Zarif replied that there were “three times in history when Iran rescued Jews — Cyrus the Great; Esther and Mordechai; and the Second World War, with Sardari and the Polish refugees.”
Sternfeld said he thinks Sardari’s story “will help to dismantle the idea Iran is an enemy of the Jews — an argument often made by Israelis, by Netanyahu.”
An Iranian in Paris
Sardari was arguably born to be a diplomat. As the film recounts, he grew up in a family with links to Persian royalty and politics. In 1937, he was posted to the Iranian embassy in Paris as first secretary in charge of consular affairs.
But when Paris fell to the Germans on June 14, 1940, the embassy was closed. According to the film, an Iranian embassy reopened in the city of Vichy, but the government of Reza Shah needed someone to look after the Paris embassy, and so Sardari returned there as consul. It was there, in that capacity, that he began to help Jews in the city.
Iranian Jews claim the Babylonian Exile as part of their history and today they are the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel. During WWII their numbers were comparable to Egypt and smaller than Iraq.
Sternfeld explained that in Sardari’s day, Iranian Jews, like their coreligionists from North Africa and the Middle East, came to Paris “to do business and study. They were in the trades, in the import-export business.”
To help them, according to the film, Sardari won the friendship of the German authorities by throwing lavish parties in the embassy, then benefited from their favorable view of him when he issued his lifesaving passports, which attested that the bearers were “Djougouten” — people who followed Mosaic law but were ethnic Persians from the Aryan race.
“Even though all the Germans knew there were no Djougouten in this world, they had a great connection with him and accepted it,” Zardiny claimed. “He convinced [the German authorities] that ‘you have to accept my lie, even though you know it’s a lie.’”
And it worked, aided by bribes to officials. As the film recounts, Sardari enlisted his Jewish friend Ibrahim Morady, a prominent Persian carpet dealer in Paris, to assist with the rescue effort, placing 500 Iranian Jews under Morady’s responsibility. The film shows Zardiny interviewing both Morady’s son Claude and niece Eliane Cohanim.
“Sardari would do his best to help us survive,” Cohanim says in the film.
Fellow Iranian Jew Jean Papahn told Zardiny that when the Nazis sent his father to the Drancy concentration camp, his mother implored Sardari to intercede on his behalf. Sardari successfully claimed he was among the Djougouten.
“Without Sardari, I wouldn’t exist today,” Papahn says in the film. “He saved all of my friends during the war. I will always be grateful to him.”
Yet there were obstacles. Not all the Germans were sympathetic to Sardari’s claims. He attracted suspicion from Adolf Eichmann, and on May 8, 1942, Nazi officials stripped him of his diplomatic protection, and the shah’s government ordered him back to Iran. (By this time Iran’s government had changed after an Allied invasion forced Reza Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.) Yet Sardari stayed in Paris, hosting parties at the embassy and issuing passports to Jews despite the fact that he now had no authority to do so.
“We can’t imagine what would have happened if Germany understood he was lying,” Zardiny said. “They did not want to be tricked by a non-German.”
And, she added, “without caring about his government, Sardari issued passports to all [Jews] in the embassy, not just [Iranian Jews].” Zardiny cites Sardari’s rescue of non-Iranian Jews as a further factor for Yad Vashem when reconsidering his status as Righteous Among the Nations.
She said that in addition to the Iranian Jews he saved, there were also Jews from Georgia and Damascus. For one non-Iranian Jew, Sardari not only supplied Iranian citizenship, but also a fictitious Iranian birthplace.
While the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and other Jewish institutions have posthumously honored Sardari for his actions, Israel’s national institution, Yad Vashem, has reserved judgement.
Scholar Sternfeld said that the diplomat deserves a second look.
“I don’t think Yad Vashem has given an appropriate inquiry into the case of Sardari,” Sternfeld said.
For his part, Sardari never took any credit for his heroism. According to author Mokhtari, when Yad Vashem approached Sardari in 1978 to recount his deeds, 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.”
A mysterious end
Although the end of the war brought liberation to Paris and victory to the Allies, it also brought anguish to Sardari. His Chinese lover, former opera singer Chiao-Yen Chow, returned to China in 1947. When Sardari finally went back to Iran, he faced a trial for the passports he had issued; he was pardoned by the shah.
Sardari was out of the country during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, his nephew, former prime minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, who had served in that position for 13 years, was executed in the wake of the revolution.
“Sardari felt so scared, so insecure, over how his nephew was executed in Iran,” Zardiny said. “During the revolution, some of [Sardari’s] property was taken [by] the Iranian government… Everybody told him, ‘Iran is coming after you. They executed your nephew. Maybe they’re coming after you.’”
According to the film, Sardari’s life ended in mysterious circumstances several years later. He rented a house in Nottingham, England, near his great-nephew Amir Ali Sardari, who in the film recalls his uncle’s affinity for Marks & Spencer and “high-quality food.”
One day Sardari’s landlord told his nephew that he had left, with no forwarding address. Amir Ali Sardari would subsequently receive a phone call from the Queen’s Medical Centre that his uncle had died. He would have been 66 or 67 years old at the time.
Zardiny describes how she and Amir Ali Sardari attempted to learn what had happened; according to the film, he was cremated on March 31, 1983. (A biographical statement on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website lists 1981 as the year of his death.)
Zardiny hopes that by reviving the memory of Sardari’s wartime heroism, she can inspire others to act with similar selflessness.
“In the years of the 1940s, people like Sardari did not choose to be neutral like their country. They acted to save many lives from certain death,” said Zardiny.
With contributions from Raphael Ahren.