In August 1939, Menashe Ezrapour could have escaped the horrors of the Holocaust by boarding a train in the French city of Grenoble, but instead, he chose to stay, ultimately becoming the only known Shoah survivor of Iranian Jewish descent interned in concentration and work camps during World War II.
Recently, Ezrapour, 86, came forward for the first time in more than 60 years to publicly share his story of survival, perhaps bringing the local Persian Jewish community closer to the Shoah.
A number of Holocaust experts, including ones from Yad Vashem in Israel, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Ezrapour is probably one of the few -- if not the only -- Iranian Jewish survivors held captive in the camps during WW II.
"To my knowledge, I have not heard of any Iranian Jews being held in camps during the war," said Aaron Brightbart, head researcher at the Wiesenthal Center.
Upon learning of Ezrapour's Shoah experience, several local Iranian Jewish leaders said his story may personalize the Holocaust for Iranian Jews who in the past may not have been as impacted by its effects as most European Jewry was.
"We [Iranian Jewry] have always felt a close bond with the Shoah," said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. "This new revelation for the community just makes it so close to a personal experience for us."
Talking with The Journal at his residence on Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood, Ezrapour can still recall the names, dates and events surrounding his internment in various camps in southern France.
Ezrapour's life-altering experience began when he and his brother, Edward, left their home in the Iranian city of Hamadan and went to Paris in September 1938 to pursue higher education. In August 1939, Ezrapour and his brother journeyed to Grenoble in southeastern France. Shortly afterward, when war in Europe seemed imminent, they decided to return to Iran.
"As we were preparing to leave, my friend from Baghdad, Maurice, who was an Iraqi Jew, encouraged me to stay," Ezrapour said.
His brother returned to Iran, but Ezrapour remained in Grenoble and continued his engineering education at a local university. For the next three years, Ezrapour said that neither France's German occupiers nor the Vichy government bothered him. However, he was eventually forced to register as a Jew in 1941, because Vichy laws required Jews to identify themselves.
In late 1942, he and several hundred Jews in the area were rounded up and sent to nearby detention camps. The French police took Ezrapour to a work camp called Uriage. He said the prisoners there were worried that they'd be deported to Germany.
"After one month there, I got permission to return to Grenoble for two days, and I never returned to the camp," Ezrapour recalled.
Ezrapour said he stayed in the Grenoble home of a Christian woman for two weeks and used false identification papers to get around. He was ultimately arrested after the Christian woman was tricked by a police officer into revealing his whereabouts.
After 45 days in jail, Ezrapour said he was convicted of using false papers and sentenced to serve 40 more days in the Shapoli work camp. From Shapoli, he and other Jewish prisoners were taken to the infamous Gurs concentration camp, 50 miles from the Spanish border.
According to the "Encyclopedia of the Holocaust" (Facts on File, 2000), Gurs was the first and one of the largest concentration camps in France, with approximately 60,000 prisoners held there from 1939 to 1945. According to the 1993 book, "Gurs: An Internment Camp In France," the internees included approximately 23,000 Spanish Republican soldiers who had fled Franco's Spain in 1939, 7,000 International Brigade volunteers, 120 French resistance members and more than 21,000 Jews from all over Europe.
Ezrapour said living conditions were unbearable at Gurs, with too many people crowded together into small barracks and very little food.
"Every day, the only food available was one bowl of watered-down turnip soup and 75 grams of bread, which is the size of a teaspoon," Ezrapour said.
Gurs held thousands of Jews prior to their final deportation to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor in Eastern Europe. However, more than 1,000 detainees at Gurs died of hunger, typhoid fever, dysentery and extreme cold conditions , according to the "Encyclopedia of the Holocaust."
After a month at Gurs, Ezrapour said he and 40 other prisoners were sent to a work camp in southern France called Meyreuil near Marseilles, instead of being deported with thousands of other Jews to Auschwitz.
"After two days there [at Meyreuil], an officer issuing identification cards asked me if I was Jewish, and I told him I was not, and he luckily did not identify me as a Jew," Ezrapour said. "This was an incredible miracle, because later in 1944, two Gestapo officers came to the camp and saw my Jewish name on the list and asked for me. The camp commandant told them I was an Iranian-Iraqi, and they didn't ask for me any further."
Ezrapour said he was subsequently sent to labor long hours in the coal mines near Meyreuil. He also worked as an electrician.
In August 1944, Ezrapour said, Meyreuil was liberated by American forces, and he left the camp. He sought refuge with rebels in the Spanish underground living in a nearby border town.
For the remainder of the war, Ezrapour returned to Grenoble, where he completed his education in engineering. He returned to Iran in June 1946 and worked in the automotive spare parts business.
Despite enduring tremendous hardships at camps, Ezrapour said the experience has not made him bitter but only reinforced his belief in God.
"After witnessing all of the miracles I encountered then, I have always been grateful to God," Ezrapour said. "I had, and still have, a strong belief in God and his powers, that's what got me through the experience."
The list of Dachau prisoners in Paul Berben's book, "Dachau 1933-1945: The Official History" (Norfolk Press, 1975), indicates that there was one survivor of Iranian nationality at the camp in Germany when it was liberated by U.S. forces in April 1945. However, the list does not identify the prisoner's religion. Berben's book also indicates that non-Jews were also interned in Dachau during World War II.
Records from Yad Vashem's Hall of Names reveals that a total of five Jews born in Iran perished in the Holocaust.
This past April, the Wiesenthal Center posthumously honored the Abdol Hossein Sardari, the Iranian ambassador to German-controlled France during World War II, who forestalled the deportation of 200 Iranian Jews living in Paris at the time. In addition, Sardari was also honored for saving several hundred non-Iranian Jews in Paris in 1942 by giving them Iranian passports to escape Nazi persecution.
Ezrapour said that while he did not encounter any other Iranian Jews during his internment in the French camps, most Iranian Jews he has known over the years have expressed great sorrow over the loss of their brethren at the hands of the Nazis.
"They do feel great pain, because their co-religionist brothers were murdered," Ezrapour said. "Perhaps my experience will give them a better idea of the seriousness of what happened."