Iranian Jewish Culure
Dr. Rouhollah Sapir

Dr. Rouhollah Sapir

Physician, Philanthropist

Dr. Rouhollah Sapir is enshrined in the Iranian Jewish history as a selfless doctor and humanitarian who sacrificed his life knowingly in the line of service to his fellow human beings, one who accepted to lose his life in a holy crusade to save other lives, like a true lover.

Rouhollah Sapir was born in 1911 C.E. to a well-to-do Jewish family of Tehran. He was the second son of the late Mirza Agha-Jan and Banou Nosrat. His grandfather, Hakim Shelomo “Doctor Solomon” was an erudite doctor in the court of Nasseraddin Shah, the King of Qajar. His mother Nosrat Hakim was highly active and productive as a midwife. Rouhollah Sapir received his elementary education at the Nour va Sedaghat “Light and Honesty” School, before completing his high school studies at the American College, as he also learned the English language. As early as his student years, he was already interested in social and cultural activities.

Rouhollah Sapir was among the first Iranian Boy Scouts, rising to the Head Scout of his high school team. For awhile, he taught biological sciences at the Nour va Sedaghat School, and he worked for some time preparing medicine at a pharmacy. He spent his spare time in swimming or climbing the mountains. He also drew upon his literary talents to write plays, and he had them performed at times on the stage at educational institutions. As with the rest of his family, he was fluent in English.

As the School of Medicine was established at Tehran University during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, Rouhollah Sapir became one of the first students to enter the School and graduate with success.

Before long, he began his internship at the Obstetrics and Gynecology Ward of a government-run hospital. During his internship, he experienced how bitterly and inhumanely his fellow Jews, particularly a certain young and pregnant Jewish woman, were treated. This made him look for a solution to protect his people in such cases against anti-Semitic behavior. To realize his visions, he joined the Iranian Jewish Youth Center, and side by side the philanthropic aims and efforts of this organization, he stepped forward and formed certain networks which would provide and promote general and public hygiene and assist the underprivileged sectors of the society.

The next step was to establish a center or headquarters wherein people would be offered with medical services and other forms of support. Among the several locations considered, the Mullah Haninah Synagogue on the Cyrus Street was chosen and approved for such services. Even though the care-taker of the synagogue, Yousef Melamed, was himself sick in bed, he welcomed the idea, ready to offer any help that he could. Shortly afterwards, the new center entitled The Kanoon Kheyr-Khah Clinic, or “The Philanthropy Center Clinic”, was introduced to the public. A large number of Jewish doctors welcomed the initiative and expressed their willingness to collaborate sincerely with the clinic. Among them in particular was the young Dr. Rahim Kohan “Cohen”, who spent much of his time with Dr. Sapir and likewise dreamed to serve the society.

To provide the necessary budget and maintain, develop, and altogether drive forward the goals of the Kanoon Kheyr-Khah, its members led by Dr. Rouhollah Sapir began to collect public support and donations for the center, as well as food and medical supplies. Also to that end, with the participation of such famed artists as Maestro Mousa Ney-Davoud and Morteza Ney-Davoud, and with the collaboration of Ms. Molouk Zarrabi and a few other artists, a successful concert was organized. The concert was warmly and exceptionally received, and its proceeds helped resolve some of the financial problems of the Kanoon.

At their peak, Dr. Rouhollah Sapir’s services ran into the destructive tempest of World War II. About the middle of 1941, Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced into exile, the Allied forces occupied Iran, and the world continued to burn in the flames of the war. Among the woeful consequences of the war, famine, poverty, hunger, pillage, stampede and violence raged through the country, and various contagious diseases spread everywhere. Plague, cholera, sexually transmitted diseases, typhus and typhoid seized upon Iranian cities at the throat. The Oudlajan “Sar-Chal” neighborhood, a.k.a. “the Jewish ghetto” of Tehran, the Cyrus Street, and Sar-Poulak, these areas didn’t remain exceptions to this rule. The influx of the Polish refugees who had managed to escape the war in Europe only exacerbated the situation. The war-ridden children found their ways to the Jewish houses of the Neighborhood, while the war patients were hospitalized at the Kanoon Kheyr-Khah Clinic. The Sar-Chal Neighborhood now faced poverty, hunger and misery even more intensely than before. Increased levels of contamination, an utter lack of medical facilities, and widespread negligence of basic hygienic principles, these led to an outbreak of typhus. This cruel disease shamelessly surrounded the poor people of the Sar-Chal Neighborhood, and as with the monster of war, it began to claim scores of human lives.

The Iranian Jewish Youth Center, supervised by Dr. Sapir, launched their relentless campaign around the clock and saved hundreds of critical patients from certain death. Besides attending to the patients, Dr. Sapir acted personally as the Messenger of Hygiene and Cleanliness. Among his many responsibilities, he supervised the hygienic conditions of the stores, butcheries, and homes, and he taught matters of personal and public hygiene to the people. He went to the City Hall to expedite and maintain the hygiene of the alleys, homes, synagogues, and other public places, and to keep them clean. He even undertook to provide and distribute the newly marketed DDT powder to uproot the lice. He went to the Office of Food and Groceries Merchants to provide cereals, rice, sugar and sugar cubes, which were rationed at the time.

To decrease the loss of lives, Dr. Sapir’s efforts found vaster dimensions. He expanded his work at the clinic, while he paid regular visits to the typhus and typhoid patients at their homes. It was as if he had forgotten himself in this holy crusade. Eventually, his ceaseless efforts rendered Dr. Sapir weak and exhausted. In the spring of 1943, a few days before the Passover, Dr. Sapir felt feverish and bruised, but he disregarded the symptoms, ignoring even the pleas and warnings of those around him to take more care of himself. His sense of duty wouldn’t let him be for a moment. Even though typhoid was contained by then in most parts of Tehran, there were still signs of it in the Sar-Chal Neighborhood. Or perhaps Dr. Sapir had contracted the typhus disease. At the end, this young doctor fell ill to bed, and he died on April the 12th, 1943 of the complications of the disease.

Before he died, Dr. Rouhollah Sapir had only one wish: “Don’t let the Kheyr-Khah Clinic fall apart.”

Over the coming years, the small Kanoon Kheyr-Khah “Philanthropy Center” Clinic would grow into what is known today as one of the most sophisticated and best equipped hospitals in the south of Tehran, aptly renamed as Dr. Rouhollah Sapir Hospital.

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