An extraordinary profile in courage has slipped below the radar for three-quarters of a century. Now thanks to Dr. Fariborz Mokhtari of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., this remarkable person has been given the recognition he richly deserves.
Mokhtari is the author of “In the Lion’s Shadow,” a carefully researched and truly inspiring account of Muslim Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari’s saving of Jews during the Holocaust by issuing over 2,000 passports from his post in Nazi-occupied Paris. Sardari acted with great courage and ingenuity to facilitate Jews’ escape from Nazi-controlled lands. He continued to do so even after his consulate was closed following German occupation of northern France. Mokhtari spoke here in March during the annual Interfaith Series that formed part of the Wilton Library’s very impressive Wilton Reads program.
Sardari kept his accomplishments quiet post-war. He did so though he lived under a cloud for failing to obey his own government’s wartime order that he return home. In fact, after his post-war return to Iran, he was arrested on trumped-up charges that were later dismissed. His assets were seized in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, and he died in poverty in England shortly thereafter.
Staying on station in Paris put Sardari at great personal risk both at the hands of the Nazis and in his home country. He did so because he felt he must use his position to save others. First, he saved Jewish Iranians. Then he issued the remaining blank passports he had in his possession (with no opportunity to replenish them given his own questionable diplomatic status) to Jews whom he found ways of creatively casting as Iranian nationals. In fact, German records indicate that Sardari saved 2,400 Jews when other contemporaneous records indicate there were only 500 actual Iranian Jews in France at that time.
How he accomplished this is a remarkable story: Before the German invasion of France, Sardari had already built close relationships with French authorities as well as with fellow foreign diplomats. He did the same with Germans when they occupied Paris. Like Oskar Schindler, Sardari was a master at assiduously cultivating personal relationships to accomplish his lifesaving ends. With the benefit of his Swiss doctorate-in-law education, Sardari also crafted legal arguments designed to fit within Nazi racial profiling.
Iranians were classified as Aryans by the Nazis in significant part because of Hitler’s strong desire to further cultivate Germany’s long-standing business relationships with Iran. Sardari built upon that classification system to urge that Jewish Iranians were in fact Aryans who chose to follow Moses’ teachings but were also full participants in Iranian life and culture over many centuries, as for example in celebrating Muslim and national holidays and in other respects adhering to practices common to all Iranians.
Sardari traced the history of Jews in Iran back to Persian Emperor Cyrus who in 538 B.C.E. freed the Jews from their Babylonian captivity after Cyrus decisively defeated the Babylonians. Cyrus was noted for his religious tolerance, and a number of Jews chose to stay behind in Persia when Cyrus allowed Jews wishing to return to Jerusalem to do so. Sardari asserted that for the 2,500 years thereafter, Persians of all cultures had so intermarried as to be racially indistinguishable Aryans whether they adhered to the Jewish religion or not.
Sardari made his views known both orally to Nazi diplomatic leadership in Paris and in written memoranda with much broader circulation. In fact, Mokhtari’s analysis in detail of German archival records reveals how widely Sardari’s memoranda circulated among even the most senior Nazi leadership both at diplomatic and at “racial policy” and extermination levels, including to the notorious Adolf Eichmann himself. Sardari’s memoranda created enough confusion and inter-agency disagreement to forestall negative Nazi action on their subject matter, allowing Sardari to use his Parisian German and French connections to facilitate getting Jews out under cover of the passports he issued.
It was an audacious plan conceived by an ingenious legal mind that left Sardari himself heavily exposed but that worked brilliantly as he not only exhausted his entire supply of passports but also saw to transportation arrangements out of Nazi-occupied territory for those who received them.
Mokhtari does a magnificent job of capturing both Sardari’s work and the larger picture of Western and Russian machinations in Iran before, during and after World War II that destroyed an effective, though nascent, constitutional monarchy and left in its wake chaos and destruction. We all pay the price for that to this day.