Abdol Hossein Sardari: The Iranian consul who saved French Jews

Abdol Hossein Sardari: The Iranian consul who saved French Jews

Film-maker Mahdieh Zardiny wants recognition for the Muslim diplomat who saved hundreds from Nazi persecution

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

From concocting an elaborate ruse that misled top-ranking Nazis to falsifying official documents and passports, one Muslim diplomat literally risked everything to help save hundreds of Iranian Jews in Paris during the Second World War.

Despite this, the heroic efforts of Abdol Hossein Sardari largely faded into obscurity over the years, while attempts to have him officially recognised as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem have been thwarted by insufficient evidence.

Iranian-British filmmaker Mahdieh Zardiny made it her quest to reveal the full extent of his selfless bravery and has spent more than three years gathering new documents to submit to Yad Vashem, resulting in her intriguing 90-minute documentary, Sardari’s Enigma.

Zardiny, who studied documentary filmmaking at Royal Holloway University, London, reveals she came across the story of the unsung hero five years ago while interviewing a Holocaust survivor for her first documentary, Big Red J.

Like many others, Scarlett Epstein revealed how she and her family were assisted to safety from Nazi persecution thanks to the efforts of Sardari.

“I got curious and decided to try and find other people who were helped by him,” explains Zardiny, who is hoping to release the film later this year.

“I discovered he was a consul who saved Iranian and non-Iranian Jews, as well as non-Jews, during the Second World War in France. But there was only brief information available about him.”

In a bid to find out more, Zardiny travelled to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, as well as Switzerland and Germany to piece together any documents pertaining to Sardari.

Mahdieh Zardiny has made a documentary, Sardari’s Engima, about the heroic efforts of Iranian consul Abdol Hossein Sardari

A research trip to France also proved fruitful, because it was here that she discovered the police had meticulously monitored the courageous consul’s personal life and diplomatic activities, including his involvement in forging Iranian passports to help his desperate countrymen.

But perhaps most staggering, some documents revealed how the young diplomat had managed to persuade German officials that Iranian Jews were not the same as European Jews – and were not actually Jews at all.

He argued they should be afforded special protection in the same way as non-Jewish Iranians, who were considered “pure-blooded Aryans” according to Nazi ideology.

“He even came up with a name for them – ‘Djuguten’. There is no meaning for that and there is no real word,” says Zardiny. “He tried to persuade the Germans that Iranian Jews were different.

“He argued that their customs were the same as other Iranians, that they don’t speak Hebrew, only Farsi, and that they celebrated the same festivals. For that reason, he said there was no specific religion in Iran and that everybody was the same.”

At first, high-ranking German officials refused to accept his argument for exemption. In December 1942, Adolf Eichmann even denounced Sardari’s reasoning as “the usual Jewish tricks and attempts at camouflage”.

But Sardari persisted and continued writing letters arguing for the exemption of Djuguten, as well as hosting lavish banquets for Nazi officials at the Iranian consulate, based at Rue de Fortuny, in Paris.

While not immediately successful in convincing his German contacts, his charm offensive did afford him more time to help hundreds of Iranians living in Paris and delayed attempts to deport them to Nazi death camps.

He also began issuing hundreds of blank passports to help families travel across Europe back to Iran.

From her research, Zardiny suggests the number of passports held in Sardari’s safe was at least 500, although each passport could have been used for more than one person within a family – meaning a much greater number were actually saved by his actions.

ADN-ZB II. Weltkrieg 1939-45 Frankreich unter der Besetzung der faschistischen deutschen Truppen, Anfang Juni 1942. Ab 1. Juni 1942 werden auch in Frankreich die Juden gezwungen, den gelben Stern zu tragen. UBz.: zwei jüdische Frauen in Paris. 3627-42
More than 75,000 French Jews were deported to Nazi death camps during the Second World War

Most incredibly, Sardari carried out his activities even after Iran signed a treaty with Britain and Russia in 1941 and he had been ordered by Tehran to return home. Stripped of his diplomatic immunity and status, he nevertheless stayed in France and persevered in helping save lives.

Yet Sardari has still not yet been recognised as Righteous Among The Nations.

According to Yad Vashem, there is insufficient evidence relating to how much the diplomat had put his own life at risk.

But in Zardiny’s mind, there is no question that Sardari placed himself in an extremely perilous situation to help others.

“To me it’s very obvious that his life was at risk, there’s no doubt about that.”

“He was in a country that was already occupied by the enemy, while his homeland, Iran, had declared war against Germany. He was working illegally in the embassy, because it had been closed.

“He acted as a consul and made up this name, Djuguten. He’s lying to the Germans and on the other hand, Iran doesn’t know that someone is in Paris illegally issuing passports. So he’s really in danger from both sides.

“To me it’s very obvious that his life was at risk, there’s no doubt about that.”

Zardiny’s research also revealed while Sardari helped Iranian Jews and non-Jews, he also helped Turk and Afghan nationals, as well as at least one British woman.

After the war, Sardari’s life was marred by tragedy, including the disappearance of his Chinese lover during the Chinese Civil War of 1948 and charges of embezzlement by the Iranian government.

In 1979, he was stripped of his pension and property during the Iranian Revolution and spent his last years living in England, where he died in 1983.

According to Zardiny, her film sheds new light on what happened during these later years and includes an interview with a close relative.

Excepting a posthumous recognition by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles in 2004, the story of Sardari’s bravery and his personal life has remained mostly unknown – something that Zardiny hopes to readdress with her moving documentary.

“I hope to give him the recognition he deserves and keep his story alive,” concludes Zardiny, who has submitted her research to Yad Vashem.

“Sardari was someone who really tried to help people and didn’t care about their religion, their race or where they came from. For him, it was just about helping humanity.”

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