Local leaders speak out against Ahmadinejad, Iranian regime

Ralph Samuel’s life was saved by his name.

The 7-year-old from Dresden, Germany, escaped the Holocaust aboard a Kinder-transport bound for London, where he met Samuel and Becky Epstein, a middle-class Jewish family that had selected him for adoption.

“Mr. Epstein picked my name off of a list of children who needed to be saved because [his] first [name] and [my] last name were the same,” Samuel told j. in an interview. “And his son Peter’s middle name was Ralph.”

While Samuel fulfilled the Epsteins’ dream of having a second child, he worried about his own family’s survival in Germany. He later would learn that his father died in Auschwitz, leaving his mother alone. As luck would have it, Samuel said, the Epstein family saved her life as well, by hiring her as a domestic.

Samuel attended the University of London and, at 27, moved to the United States. He lived in New York and Washington, D.C., before settling in Oakland, where he lives today.

The 77-year-old tells his story of survival to high school students through his work with the Holocaust Center of Northern California. He teaches young audiences that individuals, like Samuel and Becky Epstein, can make a difference.

On Sept. 22, Samuel addressed a different audience — a small but diverse group of coalition leaders, rabbis and speakers who gathered for a press conference to condemn the Iranian regime for its treatment of Jews, women and members of the LGBT community.

Rabbi Camille Angel from Congregation Sha’ar Zahav welcomed about 20 people to Pink Triangle Park and Memorial in San Francisco, a Castro District site that honors LGBT Holocaust victims with 15 freestanding triangular granite pillars. The location was chosen to spotlight Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust.

“The [Iranian] president says the Holocaust is a lie,” Samuel said. “I’m here to tell the people of Iran that the Holocaust did happen, because I was there.”

Samuel was one of four guests to speak at the event. Joining him were Thom Lynch, former executive director of San Francisco’s LGBT Center; Hene Kelly, legislative director of the California Alliance for Retired Americans; and Ben Bakhshi, an Iranian Jew whose family fled Iran.

Bakhshi discussed his family’s experience in Iran, citing incidents such as his aunt’s imprisonment for wearing a mandatory headdress that the government deemed “too colorful.” His family now resides in Marin and Los Angeles.

“I hope people realize that something serious is going on in Iran, and it’s similar to what we’ve seen before,” said Bakhshi, 22, of Foster City. “It’s happened to fellow Americans. What has brought us here together is that this is a land of freedom, which gives us the opportunity to expose countries we’ve come from.”

Sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League, among other Jewish, pro-Israel and Holocaust organizations, the event was held in conjunction with nationwide rallies protesting Ahmadinejad speaking Sept. 23 at the United Nations General Assembly.

Jewish groups across the country lobbied world leaders to enforce existing U.N. sanctions and take further steps against Iran. They also urged countries to cut trade with the Islamic Republic, pass new laws against doing business with Iran and strengthen the coalition of nations actively trying to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

“I think we got our message out,” Yitzhak Santis, director of the JCRC’s Middle East Project, said after the press conference.

“Iran is a society that is extremely intolerant of the LGBT community, religious minorities and women,” he added. “It is a truly fascist, anti-democratic society.”

JTA staff writer Uriel Heilman contributed to this report.

Amanda Pazornik