“Some of the Jews in Iran (under the Shah) were like the Jews in Germany,” says Laudie Freed (with thanks: JIMENA February newsletter). “After all the oil money had poured in to the country in the 70s and the country was prosperous, they didn’t think anything could happen to them.”
Laudie’s family began leaving Iran years before most. In the 1940s and 50s her grandfather made a decision that life for his Jewish children would be much better in the United States. While all the female children had French names Laudie’s mother’s was Persian, Mahin. Of her six siblings, Mahin was the only one to stay in Tehran. She feared the anti-Semitism she saw from the lower rungs of the government. But, she felt she had found a solution when a marriage was arranged with her and a Jewish lieutenant and doctor in the Iranian army, Nassrolah.
“I remember people saluting my father,” Laudie says.“I remember his sword; big, long scary, steel sword.”
While his Muslim subordinates respected him, Iran was still Iran: a culture hostile to its large Jewish minority. And a country that continues to be hostile to its Jewish citizens under the stewardship of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“There were not same system of rules* as you have here [America],” Laudie says. “My father wanted to buy fruit off of a cart. He touched a cucumber. And the cart owner says, ‘get your hand off that cucumber you dirty Jew!’ The next day my father put on his uniform and went to the cart. ‘How are you lieutenant?’ said the man owning the cart. My father threw the cart on the ground. The man owning the cart asked why? My father said, ‘I am the dirty Jew, that’s why!’”
But such shows of bravado were not enough, and while Iran’s Jews felt safe under the Shah, Laudie says there was a feeling that it couldn’t last. “There was always talk of an overthrow. Iran was surround by countries against the Shah. The borders were hovering with insurgents.”In the mid 1960’s, someone told my father, ‘your house will be my house after the revolution.’ I am not going to argue with him. The house is probably his now.” It was that fear that had pushed Laudie’s grandfather to send his children away, even though he ran a very successful import and export business and lived in an enormous mansion protected by large iron gates.
“There were parties on the rooftop with lanterns and women wearing ornate dresses,” Laudie says. But the days of the parties on the roof were to come to an end. Laudie left Tehran definitively in 1966. To get visas from Iranian officials her family said that they were going on vacation in Israel. Her father was offered a job at Hadassah hospital, but life in the fledgling country was hard and they continued to America. “I thought I was taken from black and white and I was put in color. There were crayons and art supplies in school. There were nice teachers; there was a gentler kinder way here. It shocked me. It was like a different planet.”
Her Aunt’s family in New York had changed their name from Khajezedah to Karlin. Laudie’s aunt Louise Karlin was the first Iranian Jew to attend an American university, NYU. Like her aunt’s family, Laudie’s ran their fingers over a phone book looking to Americanize their name.
While Laudie’s family built a new life in America, danger grew for the rest of the family back in Iran. Soon after the revolution, in 1979, Laudie’s aunt’s uncle, Habib Elghanian, was executed. His crime – being the Jew who built Tehran’s first skyscraper. “You cannot build a building higher than a mosque,” Laudie says.
Because she arrived before the major exodus of Iranian Jews, which came in the hectic days during and after the revolution, Laudie remembers a Los Angeles with very few Persians.
“Whenever you saw someone from Iran you hugged and became instant family because there was just a handful in the 60’s.”(...)
Laudie is concerned for Jews who still live in Iran. “I don’t know how safe it is there,” she says. “I think that in Iran you take degradation and get used to it. I had a cousin who recently came from Iran. She didn’t think that having to write on your job application that you were a Jew was a big problem. She had gotten use to that requirement and just accepted it.”
While Laudie is fearful for those who remain under the current administration she is also glad about its leader’s ostentatious anti-Semitism. “I am grateful for a new president. At least he speaks the truth of his heart and doesn’t disguise it. He brings to light the true fanaticism in the Iranian government.
”While decades and a revolution separate Laudie’s memories of Iran to what the country is today, she sees the same simple hatred.
*In Shi'a Islam, Jews were considered najas, or unclean