Abdol-Hossein Sardari was an unsung hero in France during World War Two. Despite the German occupation, Abdol-Hossein Sardari used his position to help several thousand Iranian Jews escape the clutches of the Gestapo. Little was known about his exploits once World War Two ended in 1945 and it has only been in recent years that they have come to light. The BBC recently called Sardari the “Schindler of Iran”.
Abdol-Hossein Sardari was born in 1885 and was a member of the Qajar royal family. As a young man, he lived a privileged life but all this ended in 1925 when the Qajar royal family lost control of Iran. Sardari now needed to earn a living and he went to Geneva University and studied for a law degree. He graduated in 1936 and in 1940 he took charge of the Iran Diplomatic Mission in Paris. Following the surrender of France many embassy staff moved to Vichy France. This included the Iranian Embassy staff. However, Sardari was left in Paris as head of the diplomatic mission that was based there.
A small and close-knit community of Iranian Jews lived in and around Paris. Most led comfortable lives. This came to an end when the Nazis occupied Paris and the Gestapo arrived. Eliane Senahi Cohanim, a survivor from the time, said: “It was scary. It was very, very scary.”
The most vital thing they needed to leave France was a valid passport from the Diplomatic Mission that would allow them to get to Tehran. Many of the Iranian Jewish families had been in Paris prior to 1925. After the fall of the old regime, the new regime in Tehran changed passports for the Iranian people. Therefore the ones carried by the Iranian Jews in Paris were not valid. This is why they needed new ones as the Nazis would not have allowed them to travel on the passports that they had as they simply were not valid.
The Cohanim family was helped by Sadari who issued passports and travel documents for them that allowed them to undertake the one month journey to Tehran. Eliane Cohanim likened Sardari to an Iranian Oskar Schindler in that he saved in the region of 1000 Iranian Jewish families – though no one is actually sure of the correct figure.
Abdol-Hossein Sardari was in a difficult position. Officially, Iran was neutral at the start of World War Two. However, the Tehran government had built up a good and lucrative trading relationship with Nazi Germany and Sardari as a member of the country’s diplomatic corps was not expected to rock the boat. Hitler had even declared that Iran was an Aryan nation and that the people of Iran were racially similar to Germans.
In Paris, all Jews had reason to be fearful. The Gestapo had a successful system of finding Jews based on informants who was suitably rewarded. In the lead up to the forcible deportations to Eastern Europe, all Parisian Jews, an in other areas of occupied Europe, had to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes. When it became clear that Drancy was being used as a transit camp before the enforced travel east, many Jews understandably became desperate.
Sardari used his position and influence to save the lives of the Iranian Jews in France. He argued with the occupying Nazi authorities that Iranian Jews were not ‘real’ Jews and therefore did not come under Nazi racial law. He claimed that many centuries ago Jews in what is now Iran accepted the teachings of Moses and became ‘Iranian Followers of Moses’. For this reason, Sardari argued, the Iranian Jews in Paris were not ‘real’ Jews and that they were “Djuguten”. Sardari argued that the “Djuguten” should not come under Nazi racial law and his case was considered so good that “race experts” in Berlin became involved. Even these so-called experts were non-committal and told the Nazi authorities that more time was needed to study the issue along with more money to finance it. By December 1942, the issue even went as far as Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of ‘Jewish Affairs’ in Berlin. Some believe that Sardari presented his case in such an expert manner that few in authority in Berlin were willing to challenge it. The only one who came out and stated that the story was untrue was Eichmann who simply said that Sardari’s claim was “the usual Jewish trick”.
However, the delay in Berlin gave Sardari the one thing he desperately needed – time. He issued as many travel documents as he could. No one is actually certain how many families Sardari saved. It is thought he may have had access to between 500 and 1000 new Iranian passports and that 2000 people may have been saved as a result, including children.
Abdol-Hossein Sardari took enormous personal risks while doing this. If the Nazis were willing to forcibly cross border frontiers and round up innocent people and murder them, then they would have had little time for someone declaring that he had diplomatic immunity from prosecution. Also the pact signed between Germany and Iran had been ended by the British/USSR invasion of Iran and the appointment of a new leader.
After World War Two ended few knew about what Sardari had done. The world was appalled by the news of the death camps and the 6 million Jews murdered in them. The story of the Iranian Jews in Paris would have seemed almost inconsequential when compared to the horrors of what had occurred in Eastern Europe.
He continued in the diplomatic corps after the war ended but his career had its ups and downs even after 1945. In 1952, he was recalled to Tehran and charged with misconduct and embezzlement with regards to the passports he had used when he helped Jews escape. It took Sardari until 1955 to clear his name and he was allowed to continue his work. When he finally retired from the Iranian Diplomatic Corps, he settled in London. Sardari lost just about everything when the Peacock Throne was overthrown in the 1978 Iranian Revolution. He lost property in Iran and the new revolutionary regime, under the guidance of the Ayatollahs, stopped his much needed pension.
Abdol-Hossein Sardari died in obscurity just three years later in 1981 having spent the last three years of his life in a bedsit in Croydon. His work received official recognition in 1984 when the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles paid tribute to his humanitarian work in France during World War Two.