You don’t need to tell Maziar Bahari about the challenges of trying to educate his fellow Iranians about the Holocaust.
“I grew up in Iran in the 1960s, to a politically conscious family. I left and wasn’t indoctrinated,” says the Iranian-Canadian journalist, filmmaker and activist. “But there are people who were born after the [Islamic] revolution and are only exposed to misinformation and antisemitism. That’s all they know.”
In a bid to try to counter that, Bahari – best known for his incarceration in Iran while reporting on the 2009 election protests there, a harrowing event that was later turned into the 2014 movie “Rosewater” by Jon Stewart – has teamed up with the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for a special project to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday.
Together they have translated into Persian the authorized graphic novel about Anne Frank, the world-famous teenage diarist who hid in an Amsterdam attic before being discovered by the Nazis.
The translated graphic novel is part of something called the Sardari Project, a program that aims to make Holocaust education accessible and engaging to young Iranians in both Iran and the diaspora. (The project is named in honor of Iranian diplomat Abdol Hossein Sardari, who worked to save Iranian and non-Iranian Jews in occupied Paris during World War II.)
It’s a collaboration between USHMM and IranWire – a news website founded by Bahari and run by a group of diaspora Iranian journalists – looking to counter the Iranian government’s Holocaust denial, suppression of information and antisemitic rhetoric.
“Iran is a place where the regime has a policy and practice of denying the Holocaust at the highest level and politicizing it,” says Tad Stahnke, director of international educational outreach at USHMM. “At the same time, it suppresses information coming in. What we’ve been trying to do is reach ordinary Iranians. So, we looked for a partner that can reach young Iranians – which led us to IranWire.”
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Bahari explains that part of the problem is that most diaspora Iranians, even if they understand basic English, “have a hard time grasping complex issues like the Holocaust. So, they have to resort to their own language: Urdu, Bengali, Arabic Persian,” where the content “is rife with antisemitism.” Arash Azizi, a historian at New York University, was a consultant on the project. He notes that while the Iranian educational curriculum for 12th-graders does cover World War II, including the Nazi regime, Hitler and the Allied victory, there is “not a single word about Jews or the Holocaust.”
Fascination with the Shoah
By his own admission Bahari is fascinated by the Holocaust, starting with when he immigrated to Canada in 1988. He learned that even in his adopted country, Jews were historically subjected to persecution: from Jewish quotas at universities to the Canadian refusal to take in Jewish refugees during the war.
His first film, in 1995, was a documentary about the voyage of the Saint Louis – the ship carrying Jewish refugees that was denied entry to Cuba and the U.S. in May 1939, and had to return to Europe. Over a quarter of its passengers would eventually die in the Holocaust.
In his inaugural post for the Sardari Project in December 2020 – under the headline “Holocaust education on an Iranian news website: Why not?” – he wrote: “As an Iranian, learning about the Holocaust has also given me a better understanding of the tragedies in my own country, especially since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when an ideological regime came to power.”
Besides the translated Anne Frank graphic novel, the online project also features stories on Nazi propaganda; victims of the Nazis and their collaborators; Nazi racial ideology; wartime resistance; and postwar trials for Nazi war criminals.
“When we launched the project, we were surprised to learn that Iranians wanted to know more details, to learn about the different phases – from the rise of the Nazis to the concentration camps to postwar Europe. So, we created a series of articles, a Holocaust encyclopedia, webinars, and create videos for social media,” Bahari explains.
“The problem with most institutions, even if they’re well-intentioned, is that they’re siloed from unrepresented communities,” he says. “Creating Holocaust memorial programs in Jewish schools or English-language institutions in the West is important, but mostly it’s preaching to the converted. And simply appropriating existing material to other languages, or not promoting it on social media, isn’t effective. Simply adding Persian subtitles to ‘Schindler’s List’ and hoping it’ll stick is wishful thinking,” he says, referring to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film about the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving some 1,200 Jews. “They first have to be told how to unlearn some stuff they learned back home.”
In a world where social media is overrun with misinformation, both the museum and Bahari find themselves on the frontline, trying to combat Holocaust denial and antisemitism while focusing on education and not politicizing the Shoah.
“You can’t avoid politicization of history, but you have to target tropes and conspiracies head on,” Bahari says. But contrary to the perception in the Western media, he believes only a fraction of antisemitic content online originates from Arab-speaking countries or even Iran.
“Most of the misinformation, from conspiracy theories about Jewish globalists to Jewish spreading of COVID-19, originates in the West and trickles into different languages,” he says. “It’s rare to see content like that originating in, say, Syria or Iran. They simply adapt it and add their own ‘spice.’”
Bahari says the insistence on Holocaust education isn’t only limited to combating antisemitism. “Being exposed to this content strengthens a skill of critical thinking, which hopefully will help everyday Iranians come out of that shell of misinformation and suppression the Iranian government built for a very long time.”
And even though he knows it’s a monumental task to reach those Iranians, he’s sure it is possible. “Because [Iranian] people are dissatisfied with the government, they’re increasingly interested in what we’re doing and following what we do,” he says. “They’re listening.”