A Muslim Who Saved Thousands of Jews from the Nazis
The last few weeks, Jewish communities across the world listened once again as there were threats of genocidal violence alongside more Islamic State-generated terror and tragedy, all amid the specter of indiscriminate terror towards innocent travelers. These weeks seem to be the norm rather than the exception. These weeks seem to highlight what the world has not learned from decades of violence — especially violence against Jews.
A look at past heroics can often help us manage the intensity of current events, and perhaps inspire us all to step beyond the impact of endless tragedy and move toward solutions, recovery and peace. As we have learned from the ongoing debate over refugees in Europe, the past is sometimes a prologue. I have many friends who were refugees in the late 1930s, cast out from their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It sounds so familiar, like a headline ripped from a current newspaper.
With this perspective, I have discovered a remarkable story from the past that has obvious connections to what many Muslims, Christians and Jews are navigating today in countries around the world. It is a simple story, but one that provides priceless wisdom on what really works, and what is possible. From 1940 to 1944, Abdol-Hossein Sardari served as the Iranian consul in Nazi-occupied Paris. During this time, Sardari strategically utilized Nazi racial theory to argue and convince the Vichy authorities, and eventually high-ranking Nazi officials, that Iranian-Jews were not actually Jewish, but fully integrated Persians. Sardari’s success was remarkable, considering that the entire Nazi propaganda machine was working aggressively to convince the world that Jews were second-class citizens or worse. In a master stroke of luck and cunning, he convinced the Nazi leadership that Iranian-born Jews should not be subjected to the increasing ordinances issued against all Jews living in France.
A U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum presentation on Sardari highlights his unusual strategy, showcasing a letter he wrote on Oct. 29, 1940, to Nazi officials.
Sardari’s argument for Iranian exemption was eventually accepted in 1942, but he applied it far beyond the approximate 150 Jews of Iranian or nearby Central Asian descent living in France at the time. In his capacity as consul, Sardari had an abundance of stamps and passports available, and protected an estimated 3,000 Jews by including the spouses, family and friends of those 150 under his actual purview. The timing of his success was crucial, as within a mere matter of months, the Nazis deported all foreign-born Jews on French soil, concentrating and exterminating an estimated 13,000 at Auschwitz.
Sardari was a direct descendant of a noble Azerbaijani family from Iran, a family renowned across the region for centuries. Azerbaijanis have been living in Iran for millennia, an indigenous population primarily inhabiting the country’s northwestern provinces. These historic Azerbaijani provinces lost their independence and became part of Iran following a series of wars between the Russian empire and Persia (as Iran was called then) in the early 1800s, while the northern part of historic Azerbaijan became part of Russia. Today, the Republic of Azerbaijan comprises the northern part of the historic country, while the much larger Azerbaijani territory to the south remains part of Iran. The Azerbaijani population of Iran is estimated at 25 to 30 million today, which makes this ethnic group the largest minority in a country with a population of 75 million. For more than 2,000 years, Azerbaijani territory has been a safe haven for Jews, providing shelter and protections from persecution in surrounding regions. Today, the Republic of Azerbaijan is celebrated for this unusual identity, a majority-Muslim champion in multi-faith and multicultural tolerance, as well as a longstanding ally of the State of Israel and the United States.
According to Milikh Yevdayev, the leader of the Mountainous Jewish Community of the Republic of Azerbaijan, it is deeply meaningful that Sardari was of Azerbaijani descent. “What Sardari did for Jewish people was a natural expression of who he was, and where he came from,” said Yevdayev. “He was cut from Azerbaijani cloth, made of courage and love for brotherhood that makes religion or ethnicity irrelevant. Sardari did what he was raised to do: respect and protect the sanctity of human life. Every human life.”
The story of Sardari and the 3,000 Jewish lives he saved has special meaning as we face a new, bold scourge of terror, as well as the anti-Christian, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hatred spreading across the globe. It’s a refreshing glimpse into the past that should inspire us to find answers to the hatred and violence taking place across the world that puts our entire future into question.