When France fell to Germany in 1940, Sister Agnes Walsh and Abdol Hossein Sardari risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.

Eighty years on, we celebrate Interfaith Week 2020 by telling the life stories of these heroic individuals. In their own ways, they each represent the best of humanity and the essence of interfaith in action.

Abdol Hossein Sardari was an Iranian diplomat stationed in Paris during the Second World War. When France fell to Nazis and the deportation and registration of Jews began, he immediately set to work trying to convince the German and Vichy authorities that Iranian Jews were an obscure Iranian minority he called the Djugeten. Sardari strategically argued that given Djugeten were Persians who had converted to Judaism they were not ethnically Jewish, to save them, and exempt them from the Nazi’s race laws.

Sardari’s attempts to secure this concession brought much needed time for Iranian Jews in France, while Nazi “race experts” set to work trying to prove the validity of his claims. By August 1941, and with the status of Iranian Jews still in question, Iran fell under Allied occupation. This forced the Iranian government to close its diplomatic presence in France and Sardari, who remained in Paris, lost the protection of his diplomatic status.

Despite losing his protection, Sardari continued to do what he had been doing since the German occupation, quietly issuing travel documents to as many Jewish families as he could find. At great personal risk, Sardari had used the confusion he had caused around the racial classification of Iranian Jews to launch an underground campaign to get Jews – Iranian and non-Iranian – out of occupied Europe and to the safety of Iran.

Right up until Adolf Eichmann personally intervened to end the Djugeten claim, Sardari’s efforts are believed to have directly saved as many as 2,000 Jewish men, women and children. It is a testament to his efforts that many of the Persian Jews living in France during the Nazi occupation survived the Holocaust. Thousands of Jews and their descendants owe their lives to Abdol Hossein Sardari who has affectionately become known as the ‘Iranian Shindler’.

Meanwhile, 350 miles from Paris at the St Vincent de Paul Convent in Cadouin, Sister Agnes - formally Clare Walsh from Hull - was faced with her own dilemma. Pierre Cremieux, a French father hiding from the Nazis, had approached the convent and asked Sister Agnes to hide his wife, seven-year old son, and four-month-old baby twins.

Sister Agnes may have been touched by the plight of the Cremieux family but risked the lives of everyone in the convent by offering the Jewish family shelter. Yet, knowing the risks, Sister Agnes personally pleaded with the Mother Superior to help the desperate family.

Directly because of Sister Agnes actions, the Cremiux family were granted sanctuary. For the duration of the war, the family remained hidden on the grounds of the St Vincent de Paul Convent, cared for by Sister Agnes. After the war, the Cremieux family kept in touch with Sister Agnes, and in 1990 the twins provided testimony that directly led to her gaining official recognition as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in Israel and then a decade later as a British Hero of the Holocaust.

Both Sardari and Agnes are beacons of light against the darkness that was the Holocaust. Yet as history has shown, the painful lessons of the Holocaust have not been learnt. In the decades since, genocides have been committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Today, we see reports of Uighur Muslims in China, shackled and blindfolded, separated from families and loaded onto trains. In a world scarred by genocide, these reports bear a very painful resonance.  It is on each of us to remember with purpose and stand firmly united against prejudice and division. In Interfaith Week and beyond, I urge everyone to follow the example set by Sardari and Agnes and to shine a light on injustice wherever you see it. It is not enough to celebrate our diversity; we must also actively defend and support it.

Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE is Chief Executive at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust