As Jews worldwide remembered and honored the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust in recent weeks, Dr. Ari Babaknia, a renowned Newport Beach Iranian-Jewish obstetrician and gynecologist, was crisscrossing the country — touring Southern California and New York City — and making his own unique contribution to the cause.
The 60-something Babaknia is not a formally trained Holocaust scholar, nor a professional historian, yet he found himself educating Iranians of various religions about the Nazis’ Final Solution and other 20th-century genocides. His undying passion to learn about the Shoah in the last two decades has made him the sole voice of Holocaust awareness to millions of Iranians in the United States and overseas.
“Many years ago, I realized that there was no book about the Holocaust in Farsi, even though there are more than 150 million people in the world who are fluent in Farsi,” said Babaknia, who attended medical school in Iran but underwent his specialty training at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “My goal and the goal of my organization, the Memorah Foundation, is to spread the truth about the Holocaust in the Middle East because people in the region and Iran have been hearing rhetoric about the Holocaust, and now they want to know the truth about the Holocaust.”
In 2012, his efforts culminated in the publication of the first and only original Farsi-language history of the Shoah, a four-volume, 2,400-page book called “Holocaust.” (There have been some works related to the topic translated into Farsi, but none nearly as comprehensive.) Then, earlier this year, he published “Humanity, Not,” a 300-page English-language book that juxtaposes the words of scholars, survivors, Holocaust victims and others with impressionistic sketches about the Shoah from the late Iranian-Muslim artist Ardeshir Mohasses.
“Mr. Mohasses was like the Iranian Norman Rockwell — perhaps more famous than Rockwell because he was internationally renowned,” Babaknia said. “He did 300 amazing paintings, capturing almost every aspect of the Holocaust, capturing both the emotions and ethics of the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust in a very graphic manner.”
Babaknia’s earlier work, “Holocaust,” is more of a straightforward history. It details the events of the Shoah from the rise of Nazism in Germany to the final days of World War II. The book is also filled with graphic photographs from the era as well as countless official U.S. and European government documents from the time period. The final volume chronicles other genocides that occurred in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.
He wrote out the book by hand, which required 13,000 pages, and spent $2.5 million over the years on the research, assistants and other elements necessary to put it together.
More than 3,000 copies of the book have been sold through a select few bookstores in Southern California and online. All proceeds have gone to the Memorah Foundation to educate individuals of Middle Eastern background about the Holocaust and the need for tolerance.
“Believe it or not, 90 percent of the buyers of the Holocaust book in Farsi have been Iranian-Muslims because they have real interests and curiosity to learn more about it,” Babaknia said. “There has never been a definitive book about this subject matter in their mother language until now, which is drawing their attention.”
Its success has led to speaking invitations from many Iranian community and social groups, including mosques.
Ali Massoudi, a 77-year-old retired Iranian-Muslim journalist based in Irvine, said the book has wide appeal.
“I’ve received feedback myself that people in Iran who have seen Dr. Babaknia on Iranian television broadcasting from the U.S. have been encouraged to learn more about the Holocaust and are trying to find out how to get their hands on copies of the book,” he said. “Dr. Babaknia’s book presents the Holocaust as a tragedy for all of humanity and not just the Jews — this has really resonated with Iranians of different faiths.”
Babaknia’s books come at an important time for his target population. In March, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned if the Holocaust took place, and the country’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a longtime Holocaust denier. The Iranian regime also has hosted several conferences over the years, featuring American neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists.
Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-American human rights activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said there will be lasting, positive impacts among average non-Jewish Iranians living in Iran and elsewhere as a result of Babaknia’s work.
“After more than three decades of censorship of the Holocaust in Iran, Dr. Babaknia’s documentation of this historical event in Farsi and its potential of becoming a credible source for future generations of Iranian-Muslims is indeed a major landmark whose importance will increase with time,” he said.
Babaknia said he has plans in the near future to make “Holocaust” available online for anyone to download for free from his foundation’s website, knowhate.org. This online resource provides visitors with information about the Holocaust and other genocides in Farsi and English, with translations in Turkish and Arabic expected to come.
Despite the positive reception Babaknia’s book has received from non-Jewish Iranian-Americans, the author said he’s been surprised by the amount of indifference he’s encountered from many Iranian Jews.
“I am honestly amazed that people in the Iranian-Jewish community tell me in front of my face, ‘Thank you for what you have done, but I’m not going to read your book because it will make me sad.’
“Our emotions about the Holocaust should be more than anger, more than sadness and more than a revolting feeling. We have to read and learn about the Holocaust so we can become better human beings and become more sensitized to others’ suffering.”
Tabby Davoodi is among the young leaders in the local Iranian-Jewish community who have been drawn to Babaknia’s message and efforts to educate Iranians about the Holocaust.
“The Talmud teaches us that ‘in a place where there is no leader, strive to be a leader.’ Dr. Babaknia embodies this wisdom and call to action,” said Davoodi, executive director of 30 Years After, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish organization. “In the end, the Shoah belongs to all Jews, including Iranian Jews, because it is forever tragically sealed in the fabric of the Jewish people,” Davoodi said. “As Iranian-American Jews, we are but one thread in this unbreakable fabric, and any loss of Jewish life anywhere around the world is ours to mourn.”
For more information about Dr. Ari Babaknia’s new book and Shoah commemoration events in the Iranian-Jewish community, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.