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One-Way Flight

Shira Yehudit Djalilmand

Arthur Cohen and Jaap Sanders rescued over 3,000 Jews stranded in Pakistan after fleeing Iran. Two decades later, Jaap Sanders reveals the story — or at least, what he can

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

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UNFORGETTABLE Jaap Sanders hasn’t forgotten the adventures of his past — or the more than 3,000 Iranians he helped smuggle into the free world, although many of them probably don’t remember him, or never even knew who he was

I t’s late afternoon and the winter sun is already low in the Jerusalem sky, casting a curious glow over Jaap Sanders’s Har Nof home. The apartment is impeccably furnished, the intricately engraved wooden chests and tables bearing testament to Sanders’s travels to far-off, exotic places, while the numerous paintings by his wife Marlene throw swathes of color across the room.

Jaap Sanders is a trim, dapper Dutch Jew, a fundraising consultant and former yeshivah director with a doctorate in clinical psychology. Smartly turned out, he is polite, precise, and professional, prepared with his own voice recorder to tape our interview. Everything you might expect from an educated European, perhaps. And it was that precision and professionalism that stood Sanders in good stead during the ten years he worked in secret with Amsterdam askan Arthur Cohen z”l to help thousands of Jews fleeing Iranduring the 1980s and ’90s. Much about those secret missions is still under wraps, but for the first time — as the heroes of the saga have either aged or passed on — Jaap Sanders has agreed to finally share the parts that can be told.

There are still an estimated 25,000 Jews in Iran today, including Iran’s “number-one Jew” — a Sabbath-observant member of parliament. Jews had lived in comparative safety and prosperity in Persia for over 2,000 years and had been successful and protected under the rule of the Shah. But in 1979, after the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini seized power, most of the Jews realized the precariousness of their situation and knew it was time to get out, for both their physical and spiritual safety. The wealthiest managed to leave first and move their wealth out of the country as well, but soon the regime clamped down and there was no legal way out. Still, thousands decided to flee.

No Man’s Land

The preferred escape route at the time was through the mountains between Iran and Turkey. There was a Jewish family in eastern Turkey who would help the escapees as far as Istanbul, but many found themselves stranded without papers once they got there.

Many of these refugees found their salvation through the Rav Tov International Jewish Rescue Organization, originally founded in 1973 by Satmar chassidim at the urging of their rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum ztz”l. The agency was intended to be a “protective shield for the global Jewish community living in tyrannical regimes” and was actively involved in rescuing and resettling Jews from the Soviet Union, Yemen, and other countries.

In the early 1980s, Rav Tov rallied to help the Iranian Jews trapped in Istanbul. Rabbi Moshe Duvid Niederman, the organization’s executive vice president, contacted venerated activist Arthur Juda Cohen in Amsterdam for help, which proved to be a providential move.

Cohen, born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1910, fled to Holland in 1933, thanks to his father’s Dutch citizenship. During the war Cohen was a leading member of the Dutch underground resistance, and after the liberation he was honored by Queen Wilhelmina for his efforts during the war, receiving a pension from the Dutch government. After World War II Cohen helped to reestablish the Jewish community in Holland and in the mid-1970s, when already in his 60s, he established Amsterdam’s famous Cheider.

“He was a fearless person when it came to Yiddishkeit and saving Yidden — he did not know what barriers were,” says Rabbi Niederman of Cohen, who passed away in 2000 at age 90. “If he felt something had to be done and someone had to do it, then he would do it, no matter what.”

Meanwhile, Jaap Sanders, a clinical psychologist who was at the time working for the Ministry of Social Welfare, had heard in his shul about a group of Iranian Jews who had made it from Istanbul to Amsterdam but had a problem with their papers. “I thought maybe I could help, with my government position, so I called Cohen. He was very cautious — it was all very hush-hush, plus his war experience in the underground had taught him not to talk to anyone he didn’t know. But he checked me out and called me back, asking me to help.”

Ultimately, the group of Iranian Jews stayed in Amsterdam for almost a year, until, with Cohen’s and Sanders’s help, they were able to make arrangements to move to Los Angeles, New York, and Canada.

Arthur Cohen was close to 80, but that didn’t stop the dapper Dutchman from flying to Pakistan to pave the escape route

“Cohen had a vast number of contacts from his work in the Dutch resistance during the war,” explains Sanders. “These were people with whom he had been through a lot together — they were like a brotherhood and trusted each other implicitly. Somehow, Cohen arranged for the Iranian Jews to come from Istanbul to Amsterdam. He didn’t know what their next stop would be, but he knew he could take care of them in Amsterdam. And so it was — the Jews arrived in Amsterdam and Cohen found them lodgings.”

Cohen had clearly decided to trust Sanders, who also had a personal history of adventure. Born in 1946 in a secular Jewish home, Sanders decided to travel the world for four years after completing his university studies, finally returning to Amsterdam, where in 1975 he became religious.

Cohen, impressed with his new friend, even asked him to be on the board of the Cheider. “As a baal teshuvah, I felt it was a bit out of my league, but I accepted,” Sanders recalls. (Soon after, Sanders became business director of the Cheider, a position he held for another 15 years).

Around that time, Sanders discovered that Cohen would be assisting Iranian escapees on another front. “There was a board meeting of the Cheider,” Sanders recounts, “and Cohen couldn’t make it as he said he had to be in Pakistan. Pakistan? At this point Cohen was closer to 80 than 70 — why was he traveling there? Back in 1969 I actually spent a month in Pakistan, so I knew the country a bit, and I just couldn’t see Cohen walking around Pakistan in his three-piece suit. I decided to go with him. I liked Cohen very much — he was a very charismatic personality even at that age — and I wanted to keep him safe. He was very cautious about me accompanying him, but in the end he relented. Only then did he tell me the purpose of his trip — to help escaped Iranian Jews who were stuck in Karachi.”

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