First Arab to be named ‘Righteous Gentile’ (updated)

 It is perhaps a mark of the thawing of Egyptian-Israeli relations that the family of Dr Mohamed Helmy has agreed to accept a certificate from Yad Vashem honouring the Egyptian-born doctor for risking his life to rescue a Jew in wartime Berlin. The family had refused to do so in 2013.  i-24 News reports: (with thanks: Lily)

Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian-born medical doctor who lived in Berlin, will be officially recognized
by the Israeli Holocaust museum and memorial for risking his life to
shelter four Jews during World War II.

Helmy’s family will accept the award on his behalf at a ceremony to take place at the German Foreign Ministry on Thursday.

Helmy
will be the first Arab to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations—a
title given to non-Jews by the Israeli Holocaust Museum who risked their
own lives to save Jews from the Nazis.

To date, more than 26,000 individuals from 44 countries have received the honor.

Helmy,
who died in 1982, was first nominated as Righteous Among the Nations in
2013 but his family at the time refused to accept the honor since it
came from an Israeli institution.

Four years later, a relative of Helmy has agreed to accept the honor on his behalf.

Courtesy Yad Vashem

 

Ana Boros Gutman during her visit with her daughter Carla, Dr. Helmy and his wife Emmy, 1969

Nasser
Kutbi, an 81-year-old professor of medicine from Cairo whose father was
Helmy’s nephew and who knew him personally, will travel to Berlin to
accept the award, which will be presented to him by Israel’s Ambassador
to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff.

Helmy was born in Khartoum
in 1901 and settled in Berlin in 1922 where he studied medicine and
eventually became the head of urology at the city’s Robert Koch
Institute.

Helmy was fired from his position in 1937
after the Nazis came to power, and as a “non-Aryan”, was barred from
working in the public health sector. Helmy was arrested by the Nazis in
1939 along with other Egyptians and was released a year later account of
poor health.

When the Nazis began deporting Jews from
the city, Helmy hid a Jewish family friend, Anna Boros, 21, as well as
her mother Julie, stepfather Georg Wehr, and grandmother Cecilie Rudnik,
in a cabin he owned in the city for the duration of the war.

Courtesy Yad Vashem

 

Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations certificate of honor to be presented to Dr. Helmy.

 

Helmy provided for all of the
family’s needs and arranged alternative hideouts when he himself was
under Nazi investigation. He arranged for Anna a certificate from the
Central Islamic Institute in Berlin, headed by the Grnad Mufti of
Jerusalem, attesting that she had converted to Islam, as well as a fake
marriage certrificate saying that she had married an Egyptian man in a
private ceremony at Helmy’s home.

“A good friend of our
family, Dr. Helmy … hid me in his cabin in Berlin-Buch from 10 March
until the end of the war,” Boros, who latter married and took the last
name Gutman, wrote in letter to the Berlin Senate after the war.

“He
managed to evade all their interrogations. In such cases he would bring
me to friends where I would stay for several days, introducing me as
his cousin from Dresden. When the danger would pass, I would return to
his cabin. … Dr. Helmy did everything for me out of the generosity of
his heart and I will be grateful to him for eternity,” she wrote.

Read article in full

Why have more Arabs not been named as ‘Righteous Gentiles’, Haaretz asks. Ofer Aderet interviewed Robert Satloff, author of Among the Righteous:

Significant developments that occurred following World War II, the
founding of the State of Israel in particular, overshadowed this legacy
of rescue. “As an Arab, there wasn’t much to gain – but there was a lot
to lose – by being identified as a protector
of the Jews and their rights,” Satloff noted.

At the same time, Jews, including those who were saved by Arabs, weren’t
eager to tell about their Arab rescuers. “To many of those remaining in
North Africa, memories of their horrible wartime experience were
swiftly overtaken by the less systematic but often
more violent anti-Zionism that compelled hundreds of thousands to quit
their homes for Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s,” Satloff writes.

For decades, the focus of study was the Holocaust of European Jewry, and
historians, scholars and institutions paid much less attention to the
legacy of the Holocaust among Mizrahi Jewry. The Jews themselves also
did not discuss or study the subject very much.

So there are several reasons for the absence of Arabs being named
Righteous Among the Nations: Arabs didn’t volunteer to tell people about
how they had saved Jews; Jews didn’t provide information about their
Arab saviors; and at the same time, the establishment
did not go to great lengths to find those Arab rescuers. Add to all of
this the strong trend of Holocaust denial in the Arab world and the
result is not very surprising.

Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, the state archivist and former director of the Yad
Vashem archives, once wrote in Haaretz, “that if there were an Arab
Righteous Gentile, his descendants apparently don’t want to know about
it, and this naturally makes it hard to find out
about him, since the tales of Jews who were saved are usually
discovered through personal testimonies, and not through archival
records.”

Nonetheless, over the years there have been several cases in which
researchers or others provided information that could have convinced Yad
Vashem to confer the title of Righteous Among the Nations on Arabs. One
of the most famous cases is that of Khaled Abdel-Wahab,
a Muslim Arab from Tunisia, whom various testimonies credit with saving
dozens of Jews. Yad Vashem twice declined to name Abdel-Wahab as
Righteous Among the Nations on the grounds that he did not risk his life
to save the Jews that he saved. Risking one’s
life is a prerequisite for receiving the honor.

Another well-known case is that of Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder
and rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who, according to different
testimonies, hid Jews inside the mosque, including a rising star at the
time, singer Salim Halali. When previously questioned
about this case, Yad Vashem replied, “Yad Vashem made a supreme effort
to locate survivors whom Benghabrit saved during the Holocaust and also
worked very hard to collect archival material related to the rescue
activity in the Paris mosque, and also contacted
the mosque archives for assistance – but all of these efforts came to
naught. No testimonies of survivors or relevant documents were found.”

Read article in full

My comment: Historians have cast doubt on the role played by the rector of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit. Far from being a Righteous Gentile, he seems to have collaborated with the Vichy regime and when consulted in at least four cases denied the individuals were Muslim (G Bensoussan, Les juifs du monde arabe, p101).

 

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