Our family comes from Iranian Azerbaijan, two provinces in the north of Iran bordering with Turkey and the former Soviet Union. They say the ﬁrst Jews came to Azerbaijan after the destruction of the Second Temple.
In the 19th century, at the time of the Qajar Dynasty, Iran was forced to sign some humiliating treaties with the Russian Empire, in which Iran (then Persia) ceded a large part of Azerbaijan to Russia. Russian Azerbaijan became Soviet Azerbaijan, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is an independent state. However, Iranian and formerly-Soviet Azerbaijan are culturally, and in almost every other aspect, one country. Muslims on both sides of the border speak Azeri Turkish, and Jews also speak Lishan Didan, literally “our language” — a dialect of Aramaic.
My maternal grandmother, Hamael Saltanat Benjaminoff, whom we called Saltanat Khanom, was born in 1905 in Urmia, the biggest Jewish community in Azerbaijan. At that time, in families that were relatively affluent, young people were married to their relatives in order to keep the money in the family. Saltanat Khanom married her ﬁrst cousin, Elias Benjaminoff, at 18 years of age — quite late for her time. It was an arranged marriage, of course. Practically all marriages at the time were arranged. The couple lost two young children, and my mother was their third, and only surviving child.
My grandfather, Elias, used to travel to Europe quite a lot, which was very rare back then. On his last trip, shortly after his marriage and just before the Second World War, Elias contracted appendicitis while in Vienna and was operated on and hospitalized there. He fell in love with the Austrian Jewish nurse who tended to him, married her and brought her to Iran. Polygamy has been forbidden by Jewish law for centuries, but Iranian law allowed it at the time, and actually still allows it today, with certain restrictions.
Saltanat Khanom was a very progressive woman for her time, and marrying late allowed her to become even more opinionated. She immediately initiated a divorce, broke up with her husband, and single- (and empty) handedly raised their daughter Margrit — my mother.
Although raised by a single mother, my mother never had a feeling of deprivation. They were not rich, but not poor either. They could have been much wealthier, though…
My great grandmother, Saltanat’s mother, had some gold, which she hid. Nobody wanted to seem greedy or as if they have their eye on the gold, so no one dared ask her where she had hidden it, and she never told anyone of her own accord. When she passed away, they dug up the whole yard, but couldn’t ﬁnd it.
Really! Somewhere in Urmia, Iran, lies our family treasure, which has never been found!
My mother had ﬁve stepsisters and one stepbrother from Elias’ second wife. My grandmother, Saltanat Khanom, made every effort for the stepsiblings to have a good relationship with my mother, and invited them to her house so my mother wouldn’t be alone.
Elias Benjaminoff and the Austrian nurse had children alright — six of them — but their marriage was not a happy one. I didn’t see them a lot, but whenever I did — they were ﬁghting. Elias would always tell his wife: “If I hadn’t taken you to Iran and saved you from the Nazis, you would have been burnt with all your family!”
That’s how I know she was Jewish. Although my mother used to play with her stepsiblings as a child, the connection grew weaker after she got married, and in the family we hardly ever talked about my grandfather’s wife.
My father, Youssef Mikhael Khakshouri, was born in Urmia (known as Rezaiyeh, during the Pahlavi period) on 1917, the oldest of 9 children of Yaghoob Khakshouri. My paternal grandmother, Gülar, had a few stillbirths before she had my father. I never got to know her. She passed away when my father was 8 and his brother Nathan was 4. My grandfather Yaghoob then married Tavus Khanom, and had 7 more children with her. One of them was Marusa Khanom, who, in 1942, convinced Nanne Khakshouri not to have an abortion, but keep the pregnancy and bring Sasson into this world. Tavus raised my father and uncle, and was a wonderful mother to them. When she passed away, my father sat Shiva and observed the whole year of mourning customs, although as a non-biological child he had no obligation to do so. For example, he would only attend a wedding ceremony (chuppa) but did not stay for the music and dancing.