Iran's Newest Hero Aids WWII-Era Jews

Shahabeddin Hosseini portrays the hero, an Iranian diplomat in occupied Paris, in the miniseries
Shahabeddin Hosseini portrays the hero, an Iranian diplomat in occupied Paris, in the miniseries "Zero Degree Turn," airing on state-run television. (By Amir Abedi -- Associated Press)
By Nasser Karimi
Associated Press
Monday, September 17, 2007

TEHRAN, Sept. 16 -- It is Iran's version of "Schindler's List," a miniseries about an Iranian diplomat in Paris who helps Jews escape the Holocaust -- and viewers across the country are riveted.

That's surprising enough in a country whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has questioned whether the Holocaust even took place. What's more surprising is that government media produced the series, and it is airing on state-run television.

The Holocaust is rarely mentioned in state media in Iran, school textbooks do not discuss it and Iranians have little information about it.

Yet the series, titled "Zero Degree Turn," offers a sympathetic view of the Jews' plight during World War II.

"Where are they taking them?" the horrified hero, a young diplomat who works at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, asks someone in a crowd of onlookers as men, women and children with yellow stars on their clothes are forced into trucks by Nazi soldiers.

"The Fascists are taking the Jews to the concentration camps," the man says.

The hero, Habib Parsa, then begins giving Iranian passports to Jews to allow them to flee occupied France to what was then Palestine.

Though the Habib character is fictional, it is based on a true story of diplomats in the Iranian Embassy in Paris in the 1940s who gave out about 500 Iranian passports for Jews to use to escape.

The show may reflect an attempt by Iran's leadership to moderate its image as anti-Semitic and to underline a distinction that Iranian officials often make -- that their conflict is with Israel, not with the Jewish people.

About 25,000 Jews live in Iran, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel.

The series could not have aired without being condoned by Iran's clerical leadership. The state broadcaster is under the control of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all matters in Iran.

Moderate conservatives have been gaining ground in Iran, where there is growing discontent with the ruling hard-liners over tensions with the West and a worsening economy.

The government allowed the series to break another taboo: Many actresses appear without conforming to the state-mandated Islamic dress code. The producers wanted to realistically portray 1940s Paris, and thus avoided the head scarves and head-to-foot robes that all women usually must wear on Iranian TV.

Ahmadinejad sparked widespread outrage in 2005 when he described the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, as a "myth." He has also said the state of Israel should be "wiped off the map." His government organized a conference in December of Holocaust deniers and skeptics from around the world.

The TV series has been a revelation for some Iranians since it began in April and has pulled viewers away from more popular satellite channels, which are banned but often watched anyway on illegal dishes. Eight episodes remain.

"Once, I wept when I learned through the film what a dreadful destiny the small nation had during the world war in the heart of so-called civilized Europe," said Mahboubeh Rahamati, a bank teller in Tehran.

The series began with a love story between Habib and a French Jew, Sara Stroke, in the early 1940s. After Paris is occupied by the Nazis, Habib decides to forge Iranian passports for many French Jews to save them from the Holocaust -- starting with Sara and her family.

"I have watched the series from the beginning," said Sedigheh Karandish, a mother of two. "It's pulling me in to see what these two people do at the end. Hopefully, it will be a happy ending."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company