November 21, 2018

Plasco Building disaster rekindles painful memories for L.A.’s Iranian Jews

For many Iranian American Jews, the fire and collapse of the historic Plasco Building in Tehran a few days ago was a tragedy for the community on so many levels.  The heartbreak comes not only from the loss of 75 innocent lives who tried to fight the fire or were trapped in the building, but the building’s demise rekindled the painful memories of the unjust execution of Habib Elghanayan, the Jewish community leader who originally built the structure. The Plasco Building was one of the remaining symbols of the Jewish community’s height of success in Iran during their modern “golden age”.  Not to acknowledge the Elghanayan family’s role in this building’s creation and not to acknowledge the tragedy that befell Habib Elghanayan at the hands of the Iranian regime is also a travesty.

Media news outlets worldwide have not extensively acknowledged the very important role of the Elghanayan family in the Plasco Building’s creation or only briefly mentioned Habib Elghanayan’s name in passing. Elghanayan and his brothers were perhaps among the most affluent and successful Jewish businessmen in Iran prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution. They not only imported an array of goods from the West into the Iranian market and expanded infrastructure, but they brought new technologies to Iran that helped the country manufacture its own goods and as a resulted helped employ thousands of Iranians in their businesses. With their success, the Elghanayan family was equally generous in giving back to countless needy causes in Iran, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

In recent days I’ve interviewed a number of Los Angeles area Iranian Jews who had both fond and painful memories of the Plasco building. They offered a unique history and perspective on the building and on the execution of its developer Habib Elghanayan. The Plasco building completed in 1962 and standing at 17 stories was iconic because it was the first privately built “high rise” of the modern era created in Iran. It was also the first modern “mall” of that early era in Iran filled with floors that were home to many new stores for various unique goods and services. The Plasco building was not only elegant and modern in design and structure for its time, but it was a huge departure from the ancient slum-like “bazaars” of Iran’s past where people typically went to buy their goods. At a time when Iran was beginning to modernize, the building was not only a symbol of the country’s positive transformation, but it was also a powerful symbol of immense achievement of Iranian Jews. It was likewise a symbol of great pride for Iranian Jews who just four decades prior had been forced by the Qajar kings of Iran to live in poverty and in run-down ghettos. Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist living in Los Angeles, recently said to me “Jews were proud of course, that a Jewish person had built this iconic building, but many elders in the community were apprehensive about its implications and the much expected backlash by Muslims, envious of Jewish accomplishments”. The Jewish community leaders in Iran’s worry about the Plasco building’s backlash was real because according to Shahrzad Elghanayan (Habib’s granddaughter), Iranian Shiite cleric Mahmoud Taleghani objected to the idea that a Jew had built the tallest building of its time in Iran. No doubt Taleghani, Khomeini and other Shiite clerics were furious at the Pahlavi kings who had created an environment of co-existence and tolerance among Muslims and non-Muslims in Iran. The late Shah of Iran and his father had  essentially set aside the old Islamic Shariah laws which were designed to impose or ensure superiority of Muslims over Jews or other “infidels”. The Plasco Building built and owned by a Jew was a direct slap in the face to that radical Islamic dogma at that time because the notion of a Jewish building being taller in size than Muslim owned buildings was a totally unacceptable notion for the fanatic Iranian religious clerics! In fact, Nikbakht also shared an incident of anti-Semitism he encountered as a child relating to the Plasco Building while he was in close proximity to it with his parents on one outing…

“One evening, perhaps in 1964, as we were leaving the smelly fish market on Istanbul Avenue, my father had to drag us through a huge mass of jubilant people, towards a few taxis stopped in the middle of the street, a distance away. I could see between the bodies of tall adults that there was a great fire across the street. Some people were dancing and snapping their fingers as they chanted in an Iranian street rhythm; ‘Elghanian is burning!’ Even as a child, I couldn’t believe how anyone could be happy about a building on fire! We finally reached a taxi and my father pushed us inside, trying to get us out of there as soon as possible, but there was no driver inside. The driver was standing next to the taxi, watching the fire as my father tried to get him inside and have him drive us away. ‘What’s the hurry?’ The driver asked, let us watch the building of the dirty Jews burn’, using the highly derogatory term for Jews of “Johood”. At that moment, my father motioned us to be silent, as we witnessed our first true episode of deadly hatred of Tehran’s average citizens, towards ourselves, our first lesson about anti-Semitism. It turned out however, that the building on fire was the smaller building next to the Elghanian building, housing the old Tehran Cinema”.


(Inside the iconic Plasco Building prior to the January 18th fire that destroyed it).

In my humble opinion the heart and soul of the Plasco Building died when its original developer Habib Elghanayan was executed in 1979 by the Iranian regime for no reason than to strike fear in the hearts of Iran’s Jews and to help spark their mass exodus out of the country. On May 9, 1979, Elghanayan was executed by a firing squad of the Iranian revolutionary guard after being accused of trumped up charges of spying for Israel and America. Elghanayan was first given a 20 minute sham trial in front of the Iranian revolution court and TV cameras, but never given an attorney, nor any chance to defend himself from the baseless charges. When Elghanayan was executed, the news spread like wild fire among Iran’s 80,000 strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country. On that disastrous day, the lives of Iran’s Jews were forever transformed for the worse. It was then that they realized when their beloved community leader could be so easily executed with no real evidence, then they too were no longer safe in a country where they had lived for nearly 3,000 years.


(Iranian Jewish leader Habib Elghanayan)

In 2009, on the 30th anniversary of his execution, I had the unique opportunity to interview Elghanayan family members, Iranian Jewish leaders and Iranian Muslims who all knew Habib Elghanayan closely to recall their memories of his imprisonment and execution. One of the most revealing interviews I had was with Sion Elghanayan, Habib Elghanayan’s brother who told me that Habib had left Iran during the initial chaos of the revolution but then returned back to Iran because of his patriotism for Iran and commitment to Iran’s Jews as their leader. “We all begged him not to go back to Iran— including then Israeli Prime Minister Begin because we all knew the new regime would execute him if he returned,” said Sion Elghanayan. “He said, I have done nothing wrong for them to execute me. I’ve created jobs and businesses to help the country grow and helped many Iranians of all faiths. Why should they kill me?”. Unfortunately the regime’s thugs arrested Habib Elghanayan and after a sham trial he was executed. Likewise, Sion shared the fact that his family had made plans to bribe prison officials to help Habib escape the prison and country but that Habib refused to go along with the plans. “He told us he would not go along with the plan to escape because if he did, the Iranian regime would take revenge by executing Jews in Iran. In this way he sacrificed his life for the community”.

Another revealing interview came from an Iranian Muslim businessman by the name of Nasser Oliae who was a long time Elghanayan friend and had nothing but praise for him. “One day they must create a giant statute of Habib Elghanayan in the middle of Tehran for all of the great things he did for that country! He brought the plastics manufacturing industry to Iran, he hired thousands of people, he gave generously to thousands of Iranians of all religions who were needy. He was a man who truly loved Iran and wanted to see the country’s success” said Oliae.

Habib Elghanayan was an innocent Jew who was executed for no reason by the evil Iranian regime and that regime still today has not apologized to Iranian Jewry for this great crime they committed! For this reason it is very difficult for Iranian Jews living outside of Iran to forget Habib Elghanayan and his remarkable life’s achievements not only for the nation of Iran, but for his own Jewish community.

On a side note, Elghanayan family members recently informed me that the Plasco Building was sold by them in 1975 to Hojabr Yazdani, an affluent Iranian Baha’i businessman. Following the revolution, the Iranian regime’s official “non-profit” organization named “Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan” confiscated the Plasco Building from Yazdani in 1979 and has been operating it since then. The “Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan” which translates to the “organization for the oppressed people” was a front group established by the Iranian regime’s ayatollahs after the 1979 revolution to expropriate the assets of any person whom they believed were “infidels” in order to allegedly “re-distribute” it to the poor or needy in Iran. Unfortunately for Iran’s poor, the “Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan” has in the last 38 years never given a penny to them but instead the money and assets this group has confiscated over the years from Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bahais have all gone into the pockets of the ruling Iranian ayatollahs. All of the Elghanayan family assets and properties were also confiscated by the “Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan” as well. What is truly unfortunate about the recent Plasco Building fire was the fact that since it was owned by the Iranian regime, no one will be brought to justice for the failure to upkeep the building and prevent the fire hazards that brought it down! We will never know what caused the fire or explosion that destroyed this iconic building in Tehran and sadly the ayatollahs who profited from the building for the last 38 years will never be held accountable for their fire code violations that caused the loss of so many innocent lives in this disaster.

In the end, the Plasco Building fire disaster not only caused the death of many individuals but it was a loss of one of the remaining symbols of Jewish contributions to Iran during the 20th century. The building was also a symbol of the bygone era of modernity and new development that an Iranian Jew by the name of Habib Elghanayan and his brothers had brought to Iran. Today we cannot forget the calamity that befell Habib Elghanayan at the hands of the current Iranian regime, nor can we forget the tremendous contributions thousands of Iranian Jews made to the betterment of the nation of Iran during the 20th century.

(Habib Elghanayan’s grave in Tehran’s Jewish cemetary today)