An Iranian official risking his life to save Jews? This scenario, while unlikely nowadays, actually happened during the Holocaust.
Iranian diplomat Abdol Hossein Sardari provided critical assistance to Iranian Jews in occupied France (1940-1944). In June 1940, following the German invasion of France, Iranian ambassador Anoushirvan Sepahbodi left for Vichy in the unoccupied zone to reconstitute the Embassy there. This left Sardari, the Consul General of Iran, in charge of consular affairs in Paris. In this capacity, Sardari appealed on several occasions to exempt Iranian and other Central Asian Jews living in German-occupied France from anti-Jewish measures decreed by French and German authorities.
At the beginning of World War II, about 150 Jews from Iran, Afghanistan, and Bukhara (a city in the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan and the former cultural center of the ancient Persian Empire) resided in France. Sharing linguistic and cultural ties, many of these Central Asian Jews, fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, had settled in Paris during the 1920s. Following the German occupation of northern France in 1940, representatives of these three communities presented themselves to Vichy French officials and the German occupation authorities as “Jugutis” (Djougoutes in French). Jugutis were the descendants of Persian Jews who, forced to convert to Islam in 1838, continued to practice Judaism privately in their homes. Official identity papers, such as passports, generally identified Jugutis as Muslims.
Sardari was in charge of the Iranian consular office in Paris in 1942. There was a sizeable community of Iranian Jews in Paris when Adolf Hitler invaded and occupied the city.
Leaning on the national socialist perception that Germans were Aryan, Nazi Germany and Iran had an agreement which protected all Iranian citizens against German acts of aggression. Sardari was able to protect Iranian Jews, whose families had been present in Iran since the time of the Persian Empire. (Cyrus the Great personally ordered the Jews of Babylonia to be freed from Babylonian slavery.)
He very strongly argued this point to the Germans and specifically ascertained that the Iranian Jews were protected under these statutes. The Nazis grudgingly agreed and accordingly, many Persian Jews were saved from harassment and eventually deportation by the Nazi regime.
But Sardari went further. Once he realized the full nature of Nazi ambitions, he began issuing hundreds of Iranian passports for non-Iranian Jews to save them from persecution.
Sardari’s plan actually worked. When Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, a directive was issued that Iranian Jews should be exempt. In addition, Sardari gave out between 500 and 1,000 Iranian passports, without the consent of his superiors. This saved 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish lives, as passports were issued for entire families. His actions were later confirmed and applauded by the government of Iran.
Sardari’s later life was blighted by many misfortunes, including the disappearance of his Chinese lover during the Chinese Civil War in 1948, charges of embezzlement by the post-war Iranian Government, and penury in his final years due to the loss of his pension rights and property in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. After a period spent living in a bed-sit in Croydon, he moved to Nottingham where he died in 1981.
Sardari has been honored by Jewish organizations such as the convention in Beverly Hills, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center on multiple occasions.
Sardari never took any credit for what he did. When Yad Vashem asked him in 1978, three years before he died a poor exile in London, about his wartime activities, he responded: “As you may know, 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.