Habibollah Elghanian was born in 1912 C.E., 1291 of the Persian calendar, to a religious Jewish family of the Oudlajan Neighborhood, a.k.a. the “Jewish Ghetto” of Tehran, Iran. His father, Hadj Babayi was a pious man who worked at his tailor’s shop in the Neighborhood. His mother belonged to the renowned Elghanian family. They did all they could, holding no reservation, to provide for the nurturing and education of their seven sons and a daughter.
Habibollah Elghanian graduated from the Alliance “Ettehad” Schools. At the age of 15, he started to work at a hotel owned by his relatives. Soon afterwards, together with his brothers, they began to do business at a store in the Grand Bazaar of Tehran. Before long, their industry, persistence, and innate genius, would help them expand their ventures in several directions.
In 1937 C.E., 1316 of the Persian calendar, Habibollah Elghanian and brothers opened a trade company in the Sara-ye Hadj Essmaeil "Ishmael", a chamber or corridor of the Bazaar of Tehran, and they went on to import watches and clocks, textile and clothing merchandise, radios, sewing machines, porcelain tableware, and other essential commodities, from Europe and the United States. Through their incessant efforts, they climbed the ladders of success and earned themselves particular fame and credibility in the business circles of Tehran.
In 1949 C.E., 1328 of the Persian calendar, Habibollah Elghanian married his maternal cousin, Nik-khah a.k.a. Mah-Soltan. The couple brought three sons and a daughter to the world.
As he expanded his career, he volunteered to join in as a member of the two Chambers of Commerce and of Mines & Industries. Thence, he became friends, and developed cordial relations, with some of the best known and most trusted businessmen and industrialists of the country. Shortly afterwards, he had earned himself special popularity and admirable respect in both of the Chambers.
In the 1970’s C.E., Hadj Habib Elghanian, as he was commonly known to people, was invited along with a few other members of the Chamber of Commerce to visit China, in order to lay the grounds for trade expansions between the two countries. As a Jewish businessman, he was one of the rare figures who de facto accelerated the industrialization of the country through investing in the private sector and creating small and large industrial units. And his earned credibility in foreign trade enabled him to benefit from cooperations with the Western industrial countries, and to remain for three decades the pioneering figure in Iranian commercial and industrial innovations.
At the outset, Hadj Habib Elghanian established several industrial companies and factories. Among them, he founded in 1958 C.E. the Plasco plastic manufacturing company in Tehran, an industrial unit which he would develop over time into the largest and most developed center for the production of plastic parts in the Middle East. Next, he launched the General Steel household appliances factories, as well as the Iran Aluminum Profile Industries. Subsequently, he launched the Plastic, and the Pipes, production facilities of the Northern Iran, the General Electric refrigerator factory, and production units where chairs and other furniture, including travel beds were made. He founded the industrial companies for the production of the vegetable oil, and soaps, the Pars-America Industrial Company, and another company to trade in leather, wool and cotton.
Through his incessant endeavors in domestic production, he raised the production yield of his factories, even as he maintained the production quality at the international standards, so far as he exported a portion of the products to such foreign markets as Iran’s neighboring countries, including the Persian Gulf states.
As the pioneering figure in non-oil exports, Elghanian took many effective steps within the Iranian industry and commerce to prevent the Persian currency from flowing abroad. Also, by creating new job opportunities for the younger generation, he helped lower the unemployment rate across the country by a remarkable degree.
Elghanian’s business ventures also included an active role in the construction sector. Designed and built in 1962 C.E. by the Israeli engineers, the 16-story high Plasco Tower was the first commercial high-rise to be built in Iran. Perhaps Elghanian’s best-known project, the Plasco Tower was built in the central Tehran, at the Istanbul Intersection, using a metal skeleton, and featuring elevators and advanced air-conditioning systems.
A related project, also from ca. 1962 C.E., the 12-story high Aluminum Tower was the third highest commercial building to rise in Tehran. The building, erected at the then Shah “Jomhouri” Avenue, featured a unique façade that employed primarily aluminum and glass material.
Besides raising towers, Elghanian built several shopping centers and commercial buildings at various sites across Tehran. Together with his brothers, they also invested in the construction of towers in the Holy Land. To that end, they completed in 1968 C.E. a 23-story commercial building known as The Shimshon “Samson” Tower.
It should be noted that Hadj Habib Elghanian often donated substantial sums for the building or the renovation of synagogues, mosques, hospitals, schools and other public projects; and as such, he earned himself a permanent niche in history as a philanthropist figure. He was an outstanding public figure of the Jewish community, who actively helped improve or establish such philanthropic institutions as those meant to house the poor children or the elderly. Despite his crowded schedule, he was always ready to respond to those in need. He often stayed late in his office, using many hours of his spare time to address the needs and troubles of those who came for help. On many occasions, he covered the cost of surgeries for those who couldn’t afford the treatment themselves.
With his kind and welcoming smile, Elghanian helped financially those who endured their need with honor. Regardless of their color, race, ethnicity or religion, he helped many businessmen and their families at the verge of financial ruin, providing the funds, saving them from the fall. Hadj Habib Elghanian was a board member and a shareholder at several banks, and he used his position to personally guarantee loans issued by the banks to cover the marriage expenses for young couples in need, pay the educational expenses for those who otherwise couldn’t afford, or assist those in need of purchasing a home, thus helping to resolve their problems in the guise of grants. When the Dr. Rouhollah Sapir Hospital was struggling with some urgent financial need to repair and renovate its badly worn out water pipes, nevermind looking for some major funding to expand the hospital, add new sections, and modernize its older parts, Hadj Habib Elghanian acted personally to provide the required budget for these projects. He provided the aid in part by donating construction material, metal profiles, aluminum doors and windows, etc., even as he drew on his personal credit to guarantee a major loan from the Iranian National Bank in the sum of 7 million rials. The fund was provided to those in charge of Dr. Sapir Hospital to carry out the renovations.
Thus, a hospital building that had been nearing literal ruin was saved by the heroic aid of this philanthropic man, and it turned into one of the most modern and best equipped hospitals of the southern Tehran. The hospital made certain that those in need of medical help in the southern neighborhoods of the Iranian capital would not be deprived of free treatment.
Given his fine reputation and immense popularity within the Jewish community, Hadj Habib Elghanian was encouraged by friends to run in the elections for the Tehran Jewish Association. Thus, in 1962 C.E., he was elected to the new Board of Directors of the Association, who in their first post-election meeting chose Elghanian as the Chair of the Association to fill the seat just vacated by his predecessor, Morad Arieh. Elghanian would go on to serve that office for 18 years, bringing home much remarkable good, leaving behind an outstanding imprint. Among his services in that capacity:
1) The National Fund of the Jewish Association was established, and thus, one of the oldest demands of the community was realized.
2) Many real-estate properties belonging to Jews, whether in Tehran or in other cities, which had been wrongly seized, or which had been left without an owner, were legally registered to and acquired by the Tehran Jewish Association.
3) The Cultural Committee of the Tehran Jewish Association was established to address the status of the schools, pupils and academic students, and to promote the Jewish culture. A prominent aim of the Committee was to offer scholarships to students in need, and to the gifted students.
4) The Conflict Resolution Council of the Tehran Jewish Association was established, comprising of a number of authoritative and well-reputed figures of the community. Under the auspices of Mr. Massoud Haroonian, the Committee aimed to help and resolve familial, financial and business issues of its visitors.
5) The site of the Tehran Jewish Association was built, located on the Sheikh Hadi Avenue.
6) During Elghanian’s time at the helm of the Association, and by the relentless efforts of Yousef Cohen, the Representative of the Jewish community in the Parliament, the Jewish inheritance law was modified, so that the share received by the female beneficiaries, young or adult, from the death of their parents or spouses, would be made equal to those of the male inheritors. The updated code was made into the national law, and it was registered under the laws pertaining to the personal affairs of the Jews of Iran.
An English adaptation of an excerpt in Persian from Tahavolat-e Ejtemaee-e Yahudian dar Gharn-e Bistom, i.e. The Iranian Jewish Community’s Social Developments in the Twentieth Centuruy.
In 1975 C.E., 1354 of the Persian calendar, the Office of Princess Ashraf Pahlavi invited several heads of the Iranian Jewish community to meet for some negotiations. During the meeting that took place between the Jewish delegation — who comprised of Hadj Habib Elghanian, the Chair of the Tehran Jewish Association; Yousef Cohen, the Jewish Representative to the Parliament; Chacham Yedidiah Shofet, the Chief Religious Leader; Lotfollah Hay, a former Jewish MP; et al — and the Head of the Office of the Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Abdol-Reza Ansari spoke of the role played by the Jews in the flourishing of Iran, adding that Her Honor Ashraf had some major social and philanthropic plans on mind, and that she wished the Iranian Jewish community to have an outstanding role in realizing those plans. To that end, she had asked the Jewish Association to collect a sum of 100 million dollars, i.e. 600 to 700 million toumans of the time. Collecting such a colossal sum was impossible for the Jewish community, and no solutions were offered as to how to accept and carry out such an assignment. As such, the response to this plan seemed to be left as void. Two weeks later, at the top of the 7 AM morning news, the Iranian National Radio announced that Hadj Habib Elghanian, the famed billionaire, had been arrested. That same day, the news was also featured on the front pages of both Ettela’at and Kayhan national dailies, with much detail and extended commentaries.
Following three days of relentless pursuit, it became clear that Hadj Habib Elghanian had been exiled for three months to the city of Sanandaj, situated in the far Western Iran, on the accusations of “over-selling his products”. Although Hadj Habib benefited fully from the extraordinary support and sympathy of the loving Jewish Kurds of Iran, whose caring spirit to some extent helped ease the pain of the ordeal, the report of his arrest was seen as an unexpected blow. Besides, such moves left an unpleasant impact on the morale of the Elghanian family, and on the Jewish community of Iran at large. Finally, two and a half months later, as Elghanian’s lawyers and other heads of the Jewish community persisted on the case, an effort which included contacting the legal authorities, the Office of Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, and several other figures of the state, the Iranian court ruled to acquit Hadj Habib from all charges.
As Hadj Habib Elghanian returned to Tehran, and once he had set foot on the airport, he was arrested again, this time accused of “over-selling” two units of plastic salt dispensers; and he was sent to jail.
To free Elghanian, the Tehran Jewish Association at once convened for a meeting, attended by a number of prominent figures of the community, to decide and take the necessary legal steps to resolve the situation as soon as possible. With much exerted effort, two and a half months later — that is, after five months of exile and imprisonment — Hadj Habib Elghanian was freed from the prison. A year after these events, his wife Nik-khah passed away. Thus, to help himself bear the sorrow, he left the country for some time in Israel and the United States.
Hadj Habib Elghanian was still abroad when the Islamic Revolution of Iran took place. Despite advice to the contrary, he returned to Iran, since he believed that he had done no wrong to worry about. Soon afterwards, however, he was arrested on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary State Prosecutor.
In the spring of 1979, on the 18th of Ordibehesht, 1358 of the Persian calendar, following a three-month arrest, Hadj Habib Elghanian, the Chair of the Tehran Jewish Association, and the great investor and industrialist, was sentenced to death by the Islamic Revolutionary Court, on the accusations of “corruption on the earth” and “Zionist espionage”, and he was immediately delivered before the firing squad, even as all that belonged to him and his family were confiscated.
Hadj Habib is considered to be among the earliest civilians and first members of a religious minority, that of Jews, to have been executed in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. The community was stunned by this sudden shock and spent a long time in disbelief, while the tragedy became a turning point for many Jews to resolve and leave behind their homeland of Iran. It should be noted that Elghanian denied all of the accusations that had been brought forth against him by the Revolutionary Court, and that he declared himself to be innocent and clear of all such claims. In his Will, he asked his inheritors to attend to his accounts, to pay off all his debts to whomever he owed, and to pay the overdue salaries of his employees. Saying farewell to his family, he asked them to pray for him and his forgiveness for a year.