Remembering the Muslim 'Schindlers' Who Saved Jews From the Nazis

From an Iranian diplomat who helped Jews in France to a Muslim-Indian spy, a campaign by the I Am Your Protector group hopes to inspire coexistence by commemorating unlikely saviors.

Participants in the "I Am Your Protector" event in NYC honoring Muslims who saved Jews in WWII
Erik McGregor

A naturalized French dandy, Iranian diplomat Abdol Hossein Sardari liked to walk the streets of Paris in a top hat and spectacles. The year was 1940, and Sardari had just taken over the Iranian consulate in Paris after the Nazi invasion. A son of the deposed Persian Qajar Imperial family and himself a Geneva-educated lawyer, Sardari found himself in a tight spot as Nazi anti-Semitic policies grew stronger: he was at once the official representative of Iran – an important trading partner for Germany – while also responsible for France’s Iranian-Jewish expatriate community.

As Iranian Jews were included in Nazi racial purity laws, they were forced to wear a yellow patch and carry stamped documents. Sardari watched as Nazis began rounding up thousands of foreign Jews in 1943 and deporting them to Auschwitz via the Drancy transit camp in northeast Paris.

So Sardari moved quickly. Iranian Jews, he argued, were no blood relatives of European Jews – instead, like Persians, they were part of the Aryan race. “By virtue of their blood, their language, and their customs,” he wrote, “Persian Jews are assimilated into the indigenous race and are of the same biological stock as their neighbors, the Persians and the Sartes (Uzbeks).”

A statue in London honoring the Indian-Muslim spy Noor Inayat Khan, who worked for the French Resistance in World War II.
Wikimedia Commons

SS officer Adolf Eichmann was in charge of transporting European Jews to the death camps and grew frustrated with the Iranian lawyer’s argument (“The usual Jewish tricks and attempts at camouflage,” he wrote in a letter). As Nazi racial experts scrambled to determine whether Iranian Jews were truly Aryan or not, Sardari bought himself more time by issuing new Iranian passports for the Iranian-Jewish community. These allowed for freer travel across Europe and saved over 2,000 lives.

The full details of his work remain unclear. Some claim Sardari also worked to save 1,500 non-Iranian Jews, but no evidence of this has surfaced.

When asked by Yad Vashem in 1978 about his wartime activities, Sardari replied humbly, “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.”

Abdol Hossein Sardari. Iranian diplomat is believed to have saved more than 2,000 Iranian Jews from the Nazis.
Wikimedia Commons

Sardari has not been honored by Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations, because the museum says it doesn’t yet have enough evidence. Sardari died alone and without recognition in London in 1981. He was later recognized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 2004, and a popular Iranian TV soap opera “Zero Degree Turn” (2007) was loosely based on his actions during the war. A book by Fariborz Mokhtari, “In the Lion’s Shadow: The Iranian Schindler and His Homeland in the Second World War” (2012), also chronicled Sardari’s efforts.

Last week, Sardari was remembered among other Holocaust-era Muslim saviors of Jews at a commemoration ceremony in New York’s Washington Square Park. A group of students gathered there, bundled in winter coats and sidestepping snowbanks.

The ceremony was a unique one: an interfaith group of Muslim and Jewish students, led by New York University’s Imam Khalid Latif and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, lit candles. At the same time, the Living Theater performed reenactments of protectors’ testimonies.

Organized by the grassroots organization I Am Your Protector, this New York ceremony was part of an international campaign to tell the stories of unlikely protectors – those who overstepped the expected boundaries to help others – through performances, social media and films.

Standing up for the Other

“Hatred becomes legitimate when a group is depicted as monolithic and when this group is perceived as representing a threat,” says Dani Laurence, cofounder of I Am Your Protector. “We are exposing stories that show that no group, no community, is monolithic. Even in times and places of conflict, war and genocide, people have stood up for each other across the conflict line,” she says. “They have not let a narrative, even if believed by the majority, make them hate the Other – because they were the Other.”

Members of the Living Theater at the I Am Your Protector ceremony in Washington Square Park, January 27, 2016.
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Sardari is just one of many names remembered: There is Albanian King Zog I (1895-1961), who opened the borders of Albania to all Jewish refugees – thus making Albania one of the only European countries with more Jews at the end of the war than before it. And Khaled Abdul Wahab, a Tunisian who ferried two dozen Jews to safety as the Nazis took over the town of Mahdia, and then protected them for the next two years. A former mayor of Tunis, Si Ali Sakkat, was approached by 60 Jewish-Tunisian laborers escaping a labor camp, begging for shelter; Sakkat brought them into his farm in the Zaghouan valley, southwest of Tunis.

Noor Inayat Khan – whose story was recently documented in the PBS film “Enemy of the Reich” – was a Muslim woman with Indian roots who spied for the Allied forces in Paris, providing critical information for the French Resistance right up until her arrest and subsequent execution at Dachau in 1944.

Si Kaddour Benghabrit, founder of the Muslim Institute at the Great Mosque of Paris, was an imam who allegedly forged papers for up to 100 Jews to certify them as Muslims and save them from deportation during the war. Mohamed Helmy, meanwhile, was an Egyptian-born doctor living in Berlin who personally hid four Jews throughout the war years, and was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2013.

“When people see that someone was willing to protect the Other, their supposed enemy, it changes their perspective entirely,” says Laurence. She has been involved, along with a team of other volunteers, in organizing I Am Your Protector events worldwide, including in Washington, Lahore, Geneva and Tirana.

Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian educator and peace activist born in Jerusalem (and also a Haaretz contributor), works to develop I Am Your Protector programming and recruit activists in the Muslim community. When Abu Sarah was 9, his brother was arrested and allegedly beaten by Israeli police, on suspicion of throwing stones. He later died of complications caused by those injuries.

“I grew up on revenge,” Abu Sarah reflects. “I wanted to make his killers pay the price. So I became very active in Fatah, became a youth leader in East Jerusalem, did a lot of writing for the youth magazine, mobilized young activists for Fatah. When I went to study, I realized I needed to learn Hebrew. So I went to learn Hebrew in an ulpan [Hebrew language school], where it was my first time with Israelis and Jews other than soldiers and settlers. Learning the language, I started to get to know some people and started building some friendships, and it had a huge impact on my outlook on life ... I went through a long journey of learning history and stories of the Other. Because you grow up only learning your own story. And that’s often the challenge – it’s a direct challenge to your own narrative. You have to figure out how you’re going to deal with it.

“The success of protection must be highlighted, over the success of violence,” he says, adding, “Today more than ever before.”