Saturday, December 16, 2006

There's no denying this Iranian Holocaust survivor

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, reports the Jerusalem Post (with thanks Albert, Lily).

Earlier this year, Ezrapour, 88, was honored at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills after coming 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, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington 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.

"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.

For the Iranian Jews of Los Angeles, remembering the Shoah has taken on a new, sorrowful resonance following recent statements denying the Holocaust by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obviously Ezrapour's story is especially significant .

Upon learning of Ezrapour's 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 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."

Ezrapour can still recall the names, dates and events surrounding his internment in various camps in southern France.

His 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, they 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 he 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, in accordance to Vichy laws.

In late 1942, he and several hundred other 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.

He 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 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, 80 kilometers from the Spanish border.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, 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.

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