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.
On September 27, 1940, the German occupation authorities issued an ordinance requiring all Jews residing in France to register with the police. Those Jews residing in Paris reported to the Département of the Seine; those residing in the occupied provinces outside Paris had to report at the local sub-prefecture for the département responsible for the area in which they lived. In October 1940, Sardari intervened in an effort to protect the Jugutis. In a letter dated October 29, he tried to convince Vichy officials, whose laws were binding in occupied France, that Jugutis were assimilated to non-Jewish Persians by culture and intermarriage and should not be considered Jews under Vichy law. Writing on letterhead for the "Imperial Consulate of Iran," Sardari affirmed:
According to an ethnographic and historical study regarding the Jewish religious communities of non-Jewish race in Russia received by this consulate and validated by the [German] Embassy in Paris on October 28, 1940…the indigenous Jews (Jugutis) of the territories of the former Khanates of Boukhara, Khiva, and Khokand (presently within the Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan) are considered to be of the same [ethnic] origin as those of Persia.
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).
The leader of the Juguti community in Paris during the war was Dr. Asaf Atchildi, a physician from Samarkand (a city in Uzbekistan). In a 1965 memoir, he remembered the dangers that members of his community faced during the German occupation. In the summer of 1941, six Jugutis who had registered with the police were arrested and most of them were imprisoned in the Drancy internment camp outside Paris. Some of them—according to Atchildi—were held as hostages held in retaliation for acts of anti-German resistance.
Other Jugutis, who had also registered with the police and now feared arrest, avoided staying in their own homes. Using a German attestation to the Prefect of Police in Paris in early February 1942 that Jugutis were not to be subject to Vichy's anti-Jewish laws, Atchildi obtained the release of two of the prisoners from Drancy. Atchildi attributed the idea of the "Juguti" argument to fellow members of the community, the Kachurine family, who engaged the lawyer Julien Kraehling to represent them.
In August 1941, Soviet and British forces had occupied Iran. Because they perceived him to be pro-Axis, the Allies forced the Iranian ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941) to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza (1941-1979). As Iran now stood under occupation of the Allies, Swiss diplomats assumed responsibility for protecting Iranian interests in France and elsewhere in occupied Europe in November 1941, and made appeals on behalf of the Iranian Jews.
The Iranian ambassador in Vichy was recalled by his government, but Sardari remained in Paris, continuing to work unofficially on behalf of Iranians, including Iranian Jews, residing in France. According to Asaf Atchildi, on February 11, 1942, Sardari wrote to him asking him, as the leader of the Jugutis in France, to include Jews of Iranian nationality on the list of Jugutis he had prepared for the Vichy authorities.
In letters dated September 29, 1942, and March 17, 1943, Sardari communicated with German officials concerning the status of Iranian Jews residing in Paris and surrounding towns in an effort to protect them from arrest and deportation. Soon after, on May 4, 1943, the names of 41 Iranians were included on a list of 91 individuals of "Jugutis originally indigenous to Iran, Afghanistan, Bukhara (Central Asia) residing in Paris and surrounding towns," prepared by Atchildi for Vichy officials (within the Commissariat-Général for Jewish Affairs).
The actions of Sardari, working in concert with Atchildi, paralleled an acceleration of deportations, as the Germans implemented the “Final Solution” in France. On July 16, 1942, French police arrested more than 13,000 foreign and stateless Jews residing in Paris. French authorities incarcerated single adults and childless couples in Drancy and held families—more than 8,000 men, women, and children—under inhumane conditions at the Vélodrome d'Hiver (a covered sports arena) prior to their transfer to transit camps in La Loiret Département during the following week. One month later, in August, the Germans deported virtually all of those detained on July 16, 1942 by train via Drancy to Auschwitz; few survived.
Framing his appeal on behalf of the Iranian Jews in Paris in the terminology of Nazi racial ideology that he calculated would be persuasive to German officials, Sardari argued on March 17, 1943, that the Jugutis should not be considered racially Jewish. He reported that they were a largely assimilated minority whose members frequently intermarried with non-Jews and spoke Iranian, not Yiddish or Hebrew. Sardari also pointed out that Jugutis in Iran had "all the rights and all the civil, legal, and military rights and responsibilities as Muslims."
In the spring of 1943, as a consequence of Sardari's appeals, submitted in cooperation with Atchildi via Kraehling and Swiss diplomats, the Germans agreed to exempt the Jugutis residing in the occupied zone from anti-Jewish measures; in mid-1943, Vichy authorities adopted the same policy. Historian Warren Green has attributed the German response to the Jugutis and other Caucasian and Central Asian Jewish ethnic groups in France, such as the Russian Karaites and the Gruzinian Jews of Georgia, as part of a broader German policy to cultivate ties with non-Slavic, anti-Communist ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union.
Most of the Jugutis living in France survived the German occupation. One member of the community, Ibrahim Morady, was present in 1994 at a ceremony honoring Sardari at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Tolerance in Los Angeles, California. Morady, along with his parents and two other family members, appears on a list of 38 names that Sardari identified in an appeal to a German diplomat, L. Krafft von Dellmensingen, in Paris on March 17, 1943. The names of the four Moradys also appear on the list of 91 names submitted by Atchildi to Vichy officials on May 4, 1943.
Sardari's nephew, Fereydoun Hoveyda, who was Iran's ambassador to the UN in the 1970s, stated in a 1998 interview that Sardari also helped to protect non-Iranian Jews in Paris during the war by issuing 1,500 Iranian passports to endangered Jews during 1942. Neither documentation nor testimony has surfaced thus far to confirm this implausibly high number (considering the number of blank passports Sardari was likely to have had on hand in light of the small size of the Iranian community in France), and no evidence exists that Sardari helped non-Iranians. Though he lived with his uncle in Paris in 1942, Hoveyda never mentioned the matter in his diary.
After World War II, Sardari remained in the Iranian foreign service, serving as chargé d'affaires in Brussels. In the mid-1950s he left the diplomatic corps and joined the National Iranian Oil Company. He died in London in 1981. In April 1978, three years before his death, Abdol Hossein Sardari responded to the queries of Yad Vashem, the Israeli national Holocaust Memorial, about his actions in this way: "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."
Interest in Sardari's wartime activities resurfaced in 2007, when a serialized soap opera, "Zero Degree Turn," portrayed him as a romantic hero on state-run Iranian television. In the wake of Iranian president Makmoud Amidineijad's denial of the Holocaust in 2006, some analysts viewed the program as an effort to repair Iran's image and to underscore the distinction between Iranian attitudes toward Jews and toward the state of Israel.