In 1982, when I was serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, a professor of history at Yale named Firuz Kazemzadeh came to talk with me about the persecution of the Baha’i religion.
That was the start of a friendship that lasted until Firuz’s death yesterday, at age 92. He is a man who should be honored and remembered.
Firuz was born in 1924 in Soviet Russia, where his father was ambassador from Iran. (It is a telling reminder about today’s Islamic Republic, which viciously persecutes the small Baha’i community, that a century ago a Baha’i could be an important member of the Iranian diplomatic corps.) Firuz went to elementary and high school in Moscow, and then managed to escape the war in 1944 by traveling east—through China, to California, where he enrolled at Stanford. In 1950 he got his Ph.D. from Harvard. He taught at Yale from 1956 until his retirement. His many books, and chapters in books, about Russia, Iran, and the Caucasus were marked by erudite and penetrating scholarship—and clear writing.
In 1999, when I was appointed to the then-new U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I found that Firuz had also been appointed (by President Clinton) and we were able to see each other regularly—and to travel to the Middle East together. Over the years, Firuz and his beloved Wilma moved to California and we kept in touch mostly by email.
This account does not convey the sweetness of Firuz Kazemzadeh. This lovely man had seen the evils history can bring—to Russia, to his native Iran, to his coreligionists in the Baha’i faith—but he remained courtly and thoughtful at all times, with an ever-present and delightful sense of humor. To know him was to hear fascinating tales of his youth in Moscow, his trek across Asia to California during the Second World War, his time in academia, and of course to learn about the Baha’i. He was until advanced age limited his activities very active in the Baha’i National Council and National Spiritual Assembly here in the United States, and contributed scholarly articles about the faith to the Baha’i encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. The fate of the Baha’i, who are today persecuted not only in Iran but throughout the Muslim world, never left his mind. When we travelled to Egypt together in 2001, he made sure to visit the Cairo prison where several Baha’i men were jailed—for the crime of being Baha’i. There, he could offer solace and hope to the prisoners by his presence and his efforts to free them.
Firuz, rest in peace. A beautiful life, well lived to the end.