During WWII, people found different and creative ways to save Jews from internment and death. Perhaps the most unusual method involved using Nazi racial laws to convince the German government that some Jews were not actually Jewish.
First, a brief history lesson. The Persian Empire controlled Afghanistan and parts of what eventually became the Russian Empire. Then during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 many were forced to flee – some of whom were ethnic Iranians who observed different faiths.
By 1920, Paris was home to some 150 Jews who came from Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, but they all shared a common culture (Persian) and language (Farsi), making them ethnically Iranian. Iran translates into English as “Land of the Aryans.”
Enter Hitler. As far as he was concerned, Aryans were a pure race with a superior civilization until they were corrupted by Jews and other non-Aryans. He was intent on getting rid of all Jews.
As the Iranians are Aryans, they were considered exempt. It also helped that Germany and Iran had a thriving trade relationship. While it was true most Iranians were not Christian; the efficient German bureaucracy had an elegant solution.
Muslim Iranians were officially deemed nicht juedische abstammung – not of Jewish descent. Iranian-Armenians, Zoroastrians, and Christians were classified as nicht Juden – not Jewish by blood. As for Iranian Jews, that was another story entirely.
Although no one is sure of the exact figures, it is estimated there may have been 200 to 300 Iranian Jews in Paris and surrounding communes, by 1940. They were anxious when the first German tanks rolled into Paris on June 13. Fortunately, they had a hero.
Abdol Hossein Sardari was born in Tehran, Iran in 1914 to the ruling Qajar family. Sadly for him, that dynasty was toppled in 1925, so Sardari had to get a job. After training to be a lawyer in Geneva, he accepted a post at the Imperial Iranian Embassy in Paris as a junior diplomat.
Just before the tanks rolled in, Iran’s ambassador fled with the senior staff to France’s unoccupied southern half. Sardari became the new Consul General. As Iran was officially neutral and enjoyed friendly ties with Germany, he thought all ethnic Iranians in France would be exempt from classification. He was wrong.
Iranian Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David. Calls to Tehran did not help – they had a good thing going with Germany and did not want to rock the boat. He hosted lavish parties for German officials, but they refused to budge – Jews were Jews. By October, all Jews were banned from the judiciary, military, education, and the press.
On October 28, 1940, he sent a letter to the German Embassy in Paris. The following day, he sent another to the new French Vichy government which stated that:
According to the study, the Jugutis of Central Asia belong to the Jewish community only by virtue of their observance of the principal rites of Judaism. By virtue of their blood, their language, and their customs, they are assimilated into the indigenous race and are of the same biological stock as their neighbors, the Persians and the Sartes (Uzbeks).
In other words, Persian Jews were not racially Semitic. They were pure Aryans who practiced Judaism. As for the study he was referring to; there was none. Nor has there ever been such a thing as a Juguti. Sardari made it all up; but would it work?
By the summer of 1941, six Iranian Jews who had registered with the police were sent to the Drancy internment camp outside Paris. The rest went into hiding. Refusing to let his law experience go to waste, Sardari went to the Prefect of Police and managed to get two released. He might have been more successful were it not for a diplomatic disaster.
In August 1941, a joint Anglo-Soviet force invaded and occupied Iran. Fearing he might be pro-Axis, they deposed the Persian emperor and put his son, Mohammed Reza, on the throne. Iran was no longer neutral and officially joined the Allies.
The Iranian ambassador was recalled. So was Sardari, but he refused to leave, even when his salary was stopped. In July 1942, the Final Solution came into effect – leading to the arrest of over 13,000 Jews in Paris alone. Desperate, Sardari sent a letter to Berlin on September 29 to plead the status of Iranian Jews.
The Racial Policy Department reviewed the case, but could not decide either way. They asked for a second opinion from the Institute for Research of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt and other departments. The conclusion was that more study and funds were needed.
Sardari did not wait for a decision. He had some 500 to 1,000 passports in the embassy that did not state the bearer’s religious affiliation. Sardari got to work.
With those passports, Iranian Jews who did not wish to leave could stay, but be immune to arrest. Each passport included an entire family so once the Iranian Jews were taken care of, he handed the rest out to non-Iranian Jews.
In December 1942, Adolf Eichmann (author of the Final Solution) declared Sardari’s statements to be “the usual Jewish tricks and attempts at camouflage.” By then, however, it is believed that his passports had protected up to 2,000 Jews (Iranians and otherwise).
Sadly, Sardari received no credit for what he did. The post-war Iranian government accused him of overstepping his authority, while the Iranian Revolution of 1979 stripped him of his pension. In 1981, he died in England – unrecognized and penniless.