Nearly three years ago, close to 300 curious Iranian Muslims packed the Iman Cultural Center, a Los Angeles area Iranian mosque to hear a lecture from Dr. Ari Babaknia, an internationally-known Iranian American scholar and author of books on the Holocaust. It’s a topic of curiosity for many Iranians who have had limited or no exposure to it over the years.
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 Holocaust in the last two decades has made him the sole voice of Holocaust awareness to millions of Iranians in the United States and overseas.
“I had a lot of my own unanswered questions,” said Babaknia, who has lived in Southern California since 1980. “Where was the world when these atrocities occurred? Where was President Roosevelt? Where was Churchill? And how much were they aware of these atrocities?
Babaknia, who is a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, own curiosity about the Holocaust, led him on a 16-year journey to research and write the first Farsi-language nonfiction book about the Nazi genocide during World War II. Completed in 2012, his efforts culminated in the publication the four-volume, 2,400-page book called “Holocaust.”
“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.”
Babaknia initially took a one-year sabbatical from his medical practice to complete the book, but he soon realized that the task needed more time. He spent the next 15 years – and more than $2 million – to finish the project. His work included visits to libraries and archives across the country looking for documentation, reviewing historical records and paying for a few assistants to help edit – and type – thousands of pages of manuscript.
“I wrote 12,000 pages of the entire book by hand because it was much easier for me to express the emotional and mental gravity of this event when I wrote Farsi in longhand,” Babaknia said. “I feel incredibly honored and privileged to have been given this opportunity to complete this historical book because my savings was spent during my life on a cause that has had a real impact on people’s lives.”
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.
The book and Babaknia’s countless appearances on Farsi-language satellite television programs and Iranian religious centers in the U.S. in recent years have indeed had a substantial impact. The Holocaust – viewed as a matter of historical record in most of the world – remains a controversial topic in Iran.
Since 1979, with the establishment of the current Islamic regime in Iran, the Holocaust and other Jewish history has not been taught in schools in Iran. In fact, in recent years, some Holocaust revisionist history and even neo-Nazi ideology on the Holocaust has been offered to university-level students by certain academics in Iran.
Ignorance about the Holocaust – and the anti-Semitism that backs such ignorance – remains a viable position in some areas of Iranian public life. In 2012 Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during an interview on CNN, refused to denounce Nazi atrocities. “Whatever event has taken place throughout history, or hasn’t taken place, I cannot judge that. Why should I judge that?”
Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian American human rights activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said Babaknia’s book has had a substantial, long-term impact on how average Iranians view the Holocaust.
“We (are) already seeing most Iranians compare their smaller historical misfortunes to the Holocaust, or recognize Hitler as a symbol of absolute evil without having read anything about them,” Nikbakht said. “The horrors of the Holocaust being visually and easily accessible to Farsi speakers will therefore etch this picture in their minds in a more comprehensive manner.”
“Holocaust” has sold more than 10,000 copies since its publication, through a few select bookstores in Southern California and some websites worldwide. Babaknia said a digital version of his book in Farsi available for download from his website knowhate.org at no charge. All proceeds from sales of the book have gone to the Memora Foundation, a nonprofit set up by Babaknia to educate people about the Holocaust and tolerance.
U.N. estimates show that 70 million Farsi speakers live in Iran, 30 million live in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and 20 million live in Europe and North America.
“I believe Dr. Babaknia’s book has been very popular because it was written in a straightforward and simple Farsi language, and he did not let any political ideology influence his research or writing. He just presented the facts and numbers from the Holocaust, which allows the reader to truly understand this event,” said Reza Goharzad, a California-based Iranian media personality who edited the book.
“Dr. Babaknia did not write this book just about the 6 million Jewish people killed in the Holocaust; this book also presents the facts about the other 5 million non-Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis,” Goharzad said. “So this book presents the Holocaust as a tragedy for all of humanity, and this allows more people to open up and relate better to it.”
Then in 2014, Babaknia 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.”
While non-Iranian scholars could not read Babaknia’s book, they were pleased with the positive feedback from Farsi-speaking readers and historians.
“The enthusiasm and appreciation of the diverse capacity audience at the Museum of Tolerance launch of the Holocaust book in Farsi attests to the need and timeliness of this publication,” said Liebe Geft, director of the Los Angeles museum. “It hopefully bodes well for the wider dissemination of legitimate Holocaust education to the significant Farsi-speaking populations throughout the world.”
For his part, Babaknia said he will continue to educate and speak to Iranian audiences in the U.S. and worldwide about the Nazi genocide and other genocides since then in an effort to help prevent future tragedies.
“Our emotions about the Holocaust should be more than anger, more than sadness and more than a revolting feeling,” said Babaknia. “We have to read and learn about the Holocaust so we can become better human beings and become more sensitized to others’ suffering.”