Iranian viewers tune in to story of their own Oskar Schindler
The little-known story of Abol Hossein Sardari, a junior diplomat at Iran's embassy in Paris when the city fell to Hitler in June 1940, has been turned into a hit television drama series.
The show, which sympathetically dramatises the plight of Jews in the Second World War, is captivating Iranian viewers more used to hearing their firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, casting doubt on the Holocaust and ranting against the Jewish state.
Mr Sardari succeeded in having Iranian Jews in France classified as having a "non-racial" connection to the Jewish people. He also gave 500 Iranian passports to non-Iranian Jews in Paris, providing non-Jewish identities to help them escape persecution.
The dapper Mr Sardari is fictionalised as Habib Parsa, an Iranian envoy who falls in love with Sara, a French Jewess. There are heart-wrenching scenes of families being pulled from their homes and packed into trucks.
"Where are they taking them?" the horrified hero asks an onlooker. "To the concentration camps," he is told.
Kazem Ghariba, an avid viewer, watches the show every Monday in his Tehran grocery shop. "Through this film, I understood that Jews had a hard time in the war - helpless and desperate."
The Holocaust is rarely mentioned in Iran's state media and is not discussed in school books. But the series, Zero Degree Turn, was produced by the state-run media, which is under the control of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is airing on a state-run channel.
As such, Iran's version of Schindler's List is seen as an attempt by its leadership to counter damaging publicity from Mr Ahmadinejad's historical revisionism.
The show's tacit political message underscores a distinction made by Iranian officials who insist their hostility to Israel should not be seen as anti-Semitism: they oppose the Jewish state, not the Jewish people.
Ayatollah Khomeini made Iran's Jews acceptable in the eyes of the 1979 Islamic Revolution he fathered by declaring: "We recognise Jews as separate from those godless Zionists." Some 75 per cent of Iranian Jews nevertheless left Iran, but about 25,000 remain. They form the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel.
The drama series was written and directed by Hassan Fatthi, who enlisted the help of Iran's Jewish Association, an independent body that safeguards the community's heritage and which has criticised Mr Ahmadinejad for dismissing the Holocaust as a "myth".
AN ADMIRABLE RECORD
ABOL Hossein Sardari, who died in 1981, received little recognition until 2004 when he was awarded for his actions in the Holocaust by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. In the same year, Iranian American Jewish organisations delivered hundreds of pages of documents to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority in Israel, hoping it would make him the first Iranian to be given the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Yad Vashem said this week he had helped Jews in Paris and commended his "admirable" conduct.
But it tentatively decided not to bestow the award because of "inconclusive documentation" that Sardardi acted at personal risk to himself. The necessary documentation is probably in the archives of the Iranian foreign ministry.