Iranian Schindler defied Nazis to save 2-3,000 Jews

He WAS an aristocratic and charismatic bon viveur who loved parties, good food and fine clothes. But Abdol-Hossein Sardari was also a hero, an Iranian diplomat in wartime Paris who saved thousands of Jews.

Mr Sardari has been dubbed the Muslim Schindler after the German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews in the Second World War.

His courage and cunning – which saw him insist Iranian Jews were exempt from racial purity laws – are celebrated by Fariborz Mokhtari, author of In The Lion’s Shadow, a new book that draws on archival material and personal accounts of those Mr Sardari helped.

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One was Eliane Senahi Cohanim. She was seven when she fled France for Iran with a passport supplied by Mr Sardari. “He saved my life and that of my family,” Ms Cohanim, 78, said in an interview from California. “He was definitely like Oskar Schindler.”

Mr Mokhtari sees his book as a timely reminder of the millennia-old tolerance of Iranian culture, overshadowed in recent years by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust.

“Even today the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel is in Iran,” Iranian-born, Washington-based academic Mr Mokhtari said.

Many Jews left Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, but some 25,000 remain. Judaism is still an official religion and Jews have a seat in parliament.

Mr Sardari found himself in charge of Iran’s legation in Paris after Germany invaded France in 1940. The ambassador, a relative, entrusted him to look after the mission when Iran’s embassy moved to Vichy, capital of the collaborationist French regime. Iran was officially neutral but maintained trading ties with Germany, which declared Iranians an Aryan nation, akin to Germans. Iranian Jews in Paris were still persecuted.

To protect them, Mr Sardari cultivated German and Vichy officials. Using his skills as a lawyer, he exploited the absurd Nazi racial purity laws to secure exemptions for Iranian Jews from anti-Jewish measures. As a result, the Nazis gave Iranian Jews the same status as other Iranians.

Mr Sardari’s mission became far more dangerous when Britain and Russia invaded Iran in August 1941. He was ordered home. Despite losing his diplomatic immunity, he stayed in France to keep helping Iranian and other Jews.

He used money from his inheritance to fund his office, working under the protection of the Swiss embassy which now represented Iran.

By December 1942, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of Jewish affairs, deemed Mr Sardari’s arguments to be “the usual Jewish tricks and attempts at camouflage”.

Nevertheless, he persevered, helping families flee Paris just as tens of thousands of Jews were being deported to death camps. He also had up to 1,000 blank Iranian passports in the legation’s safe, which made no mention of religion or race.

Mr Mokhtari estimates Mr Sardari helped save some 2,000 to 3,000 Jews. The passports and identity papers he issued made many feel secure enough to remain in France. They also enabled holders to receive food rations, aiding families with young children.

Farhad Sepabody, a teenager during the war, remembers Mr Sardari, his maternal uncle, as a “good Samaritan” who helped Iranians of all backgrounds. Mr Sardari never sought recognition or reward for his deeds, always insisting he had only done his duty.

His only known public remark was a humble comment in 1978 to Yad Vashem, the Israeli National Holocaust Memorial.

“As you may know,” he wrote, “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.”