From a very young age, my father was very serious and ambitious. He was an exceptional student in school, and at 15 years of age started helping his father in his business in the afternoons, while studying for school at nights. At school, they spoke Persian; on the street, they spoke Azeri Turkish; and at home, Lishan Didan, a Jewish Aramaic dialect. Besides these languages, my father also spoke Assyrian and Armenian, languages spoken by other minority groups in Azerbaijan.
When Nathan was old enough, he joined the family business and worked with my father and grandfather. Only after school, of course. My grandfather was poor in today’s terms, but compared to his surroundings, he was quite prosperous. He wasn’t rich, but did make a decent living. With the help of my father and later on my uncle, business ﬂourished and the family’s ﬁnancial situation improved. They traveled to Tabriz and Tehran a lot for their business, and worked very hard. My father always wanted to study and become a scholar, but life didn’t allow him. He also played the violin, and even took part in his school’s orchestra. He was the ﬁrst Jewish boy in Urmia to complete his matriculation exams in the science department of his high school.
When my father was in 12th grade, last year of high school, World War II broke out. In the whole Jewish community there was only one radio, and it was in Uncle Isaac’s home. Uncle Isaac, AKA Dadasha, was the father of Aziz Khakshouri, who later on became my father-in-law. Everyone came to Uncle Isaac’s to listen to the news. I wasn’t born yet, of course, but I know about the period from my father’s stories. He told us there was a lot of unsettling news, but it usually turned out to be a false alarm.
But not always. ”After a period with many false alarms,” he would tell us, “we ﬁnally managed to go to sleep quietly. But at night we woke up to the sounds of bombs. A bombing on the town of Urmia! Iran was attacked by the Russians from the north, and by the American and British from the Persian Gulf in the south.”
During World War II, the UK and the USA sent aid to the Soviet Union via the Persian Gulf through a route called “The Persian Corridor,” that passed through Azerbaijan. It was very important for them that this line of delivery for weapons and goods remain intact and running. In 1941, Iran was invaded by British and the Russian forces, who wanted to secure their corridor as well as their oil supply, and didn’t approve of the Shah’s affinity to Germany. They deposed Reza Shah and exiled him to South Africa — some say he abdicated on his own accord to their contentment — and his son Mohammad Reza Shah was crowned in his place.
Urmia was practically on the border with Russia. In order to avoid bloodshed, the commander of the Iranian soldiers told them to stand on both sides of the road while Russian troops come in. Unfortunately a drunk Iranian soldier shot a Russian soldier, the Russian soldiers shot back at the Iranians, and the Russian invasion of Iran turned into a bloodbath. Look how one person can change everything in a delicate situation!
My grandfather’s family lived 500 meters (about 550 yards) from the Bazaar, and my father witnessed all this happening: First, they set ﬁre to the Bazaar, then plundered everything, and ﬁnally started to kill. My father said it was terrible to see how calm people become wild animals. In such situations, anti-Semitism usually raised its ugly head, and Jews just had to lay low until the storm was over. Only someone who saw these things with their own eyes can understand how terrible it was. They killed whomever they saw and even uprooted trees. They did things nobody can imagine. All soldiers and reservists had to be drafted for the army.
Around this time, my father’s sister Almaz — the eldest daughter of Yaghoob Khakshouri and Tavus — married their cousin, Shekho. In those days, weddings were celebrated for seven days. The ﬁrst six days of Almaz and Shekho’s wedding celebration were very merry, but on the last day everyone was sad, because they knew that on the next day Shekho had to go to the front, for reserve service. My father was 23 years old at that time. It was a miracle that he and his brothers were not drafted.
After a while, so my father told me, some low-ranking soldiers came back from the frontier and reported that the great Iranian army was a mess: there were no officers on the frontier, there was no plan, no food, no equipment — nothing. Most soldiers just threw away their weapons and ﬂed. Only 3–4 soldiers — Jewish soldiers — stayed in the battleﬁeld, and Shekho was one of them. He didn’t come back. The family had no information about his whereabouts. Was he alive at all? Wounded? They were in complete darkness. Shekho’s father, my father’s uncle, went the 90 kms from Rezaiyeh to Khoy by foot to ﬁnd out what had happened to his son, but to no avail. Then, slowly, things calmed down. The war didn’t end, but it was less intense. Northern Iran was still under Russian siege. As a businessman, my father noticed that despite the war, gold coins lost a lot of their value. This was odd: usually in times of distress such as war or economic instability, people resort to gold as a stable currency, and its value rises. It took him some time to ﬁnd out that it was due to a “ﬂood” of gold in the market: The weapons that soldiers had thrown away at the front found their way to civilian hands, and the Kurds paid good gold coins in exchange to these weapons. The story has a surprising Jewish twist: Many of these weapons were smuggled out of the country, through Iraq to Palestine, and were sold to the Hagana. Nobody knew about these affairs as they were happening. Only years later, when Iranian parliament discussed how Iranian weapons came into the hands of the Hagana, did people realize what had been happening under their noses.
The war went on for four years. The people suffered a lot, as happens in all nations during wartime. And Shekho’s fate was still unknown. After a long time of unsuccessful searches for Shekho, he suddenly showed up on the doorstep of his home. It turns out he had been taken prisoner from the front, and the Russians brought him to Tabriz! He had been so close all this time, but was not allowed to have any contact with the family. We were very happy! I mean, I wasn’t born yet, but hearing this story from my father I always identiﬁed with the family’s feelings. Shekho and Almaz resumed their married life. They were a very happy couple, had two sons and three daughters, and lived together until death did them part.
In 1933, Hitler came to power and his propaganda machine reached Iran, too. Antisemitic sayings became a daily routine: “O world, beware! Jews are the sole source of all poverty and misery in our countries!”
When Nazi troops invaded Russia in 1941, non-Jewish Iranians were thrilled: At last, the Germans will come and free Iran from the Russians!
The Russian aggression towards Iran didn’t start with “the Persian Corridor.” It went back to the Russian-Persian wars in the 19th century, and Iranians — especially in Azerbaijan — still hold a grudge against Russia for tearing away large parts of Greater Iran, and against the Qajar Dynasty, who failed to defend Iran against this Russian aggression. The humiliating treaties of Golestan and Turkmenchay divided Azerbaijan between Iran and Russia.
When the German army reached Grozny, the capital of Chechnya — only 48 hours away by train from the Iranian border — the Muslims began to divide the upcoming Jewish booty between themselves: the houses, the property and even the girls. The Jews were desperate. We didn’t have the slightest hope. Hitler’s invasion of Iran seemed like a done deal. My father used to say they really truly believed that Hitler would prevail, and the gentiles were ecstatic about his forthcoming victory.
One day my father was at the barber shop. Not to get a haircut, of course, because Jews were considered najes — impure — and could not get haircuts in gentile Barber shops. But they were still allowed to be present there, and my father went to get updated: In those times, no one thought about scheduling a barber’s appointment. People just popped in when they needed a haircut, and if the barber was busy, they waited their turn. While the customers were waiting, they talked, of course, and so the barber shop became the unofficial town meeting-place and news-hub. On that day, my father used to tell us, one Assyrian man said Hitler would under no circumstances win the war. “I wanted very much to believe him, but I couldn’t,” he would reminisce. “I took comfort in the fact that not all gentiles hated us.” And then the Assyrian continued: “Hitler cannot win the war because he’s not only ﬁghting a war but is also trying to kill all the Jews, and one cannot accomplish both tasks together.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if killing all the Jews was just another task like paving roads or delivering goods!
During World War II, food was scarce in the markets, and inﬂation skyrocketed. You could only buy food with state-issued coupons that were distributed among the people. On the last year of the war, dealers and rich people accumulated goods and hid them, in hope of selling them later for a high proﬁt. This made food even more scarce. My father heard that in the city of Khorramshahr you could ﬁnd grain that was brought from America. Khorramshahr is an inland-port city in the province of Khuzistān, some 1100 km south of Rezaiyeh (Urmia), but a man like Youssef would not let this impede him. He had a mission! The trip from Rezaiyeh to Khorramshahr is a whole day’s trip by car today, and he went by bus!
He went there as soon as he could, managed to buy a few trucks full of grain, and brought them to Rezaiyeh. Although they could make a great proﬁt, Youssef and his father did not bring these grain trucks in order to make money, but only to help the people satiate their hunger. They couldn’t give it away for free — they were not that rich after all — but they did sell it at the lowest price possible, only to cover their expenses while helping the hungry in this emergency situation.
When they reached Rezaiyeh, my father and grandfather did not offer all of the supply on the market at one time, but rather a certain portion each day. This allowed them to keep the supply going on for a longer time, and gave the people of Rezaiyeh the feeling that the famine is over and supply would not run out. And so, once there was no sense of emergency anymore, the people who had accumulated food to sell for proﬁt stopped doing so, which put more food on the market. Slowly but surely, the situation normalized, thanks to my father’s efforts. When the next year’s crops ripened, the market really returned to normal.