Tag: Holocaust in Arab and Muslim lands

Nazis influenced Egyptian oppression, torture and deportation of Jews

According to a recent book, Nazis on the Nile: The German Military Advisers in Egypt,1949-1967 by Vyvyan Kinross (Nomad), some 6,000 Nazis may have moved to Egypt after WWII. They incited the 1948 pogrom against Egyptian Jews, and helped subject Egypt’s Jews to torture and deportation, Kinross argues. Their legacy may even persist today. Review by Justin Marozzi in The Spectator:

Aribert Heim, known as ‘Dr Death’ and the ‘Butcher of Mauthausen’, escaped justice. He lived quietly in Cairo as the Muslim convert Tarek Hussein Farid until his death in 1992. [Bridgeman Images]

As the government communications specialist and Middle East watcher Vyvyan Kinross reveals in this darkly gripping story, this wasn’t a question of a handful of advisers. At its height, the colony of German experts in Cairo – working across the entire spectrum of the military and security portfolio, from rocket and missile programmes, arms manufacturing and internal security to foreign service, intelligence and propaganda – may have numbered around 6,000.

The author admits that these characters were ‘sometimes unsavoury but always compelling’. This seems an understatement when it comes to Johann von Leers, a key Nazi propagandist and ideologue, honorary Sturmbannführer in the Waffen-SS and a baby-faced anti-hero of Nazis on the Nile. An acolyte of Joseph Goebbels, this was a man who dashed off 27 hate-filled books, including Jewry and KnaveryBlood and Race and Jews are Looking at You, between 1933 and the end of the war.

Having spent several years spewing out anti-Semitic propaganda in Juan Perón’s regime in Argentina, in 1956 von Leers relocated to Cairo, where he served as a political adviser and anti-Israel propagandist for Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s firebrand president, until 1965. When a Toronto Star journalist ferreted him out in his office in the ministry of national guidance in 1956, after a few nervous moments the unrepentant Nazi revealed his true self, launching into tirades against American Jews, Zionist-driven press attacks on Nasser and his uncompromising position on the new Jewish state. ‘Israel is abnormal,’ he told the newspaperman. ‘It must go. It causes trouble.’ Like several of his compatriots, he later converted to Islam, and changed his name to Omar Amin.

Kinross’s timeline is carefully chosen. It encompasses the trio of humiliating Egyptian military defeats: the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-9, Suez in 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967. By the time Egypt suffered its fourth military loss in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the German military, scientific and intelligence advisers at the heart of this engrossing narrative had long gone.

Humour is a scarce commodity here, but there is something bleakly comic about the clash of Teutonic efficiency with the rather more relaxed Egyptian approach to work and the inability of former Nazi and Wehrmacht officers to bend the world around them to their will.

At the centre of the hub of military advisers was Dr Wilhelm Voss, a hyper-efficient man who combined a flair for big-picture thinking with an impressive command of detail – ‘a skillset with which Egyptian management culture at the time was not widely blessed’, Kinross writes. General major Oskar Munzel, a highly decorated Wehrmacht tank officer, shared his frustrations with the Israeli spy Paul Frank: ‘A thousand times I’ve tried to beat into their dead heads that pretty paint and big identification numbers do not a fighting panzer force make.’

In 1952, the German war hero Baron Theodor von Bechtolsheim, a senior naval officer-turned-military adviser, complained that ‘the oriental sloppiness irritates me again and again, while here they just shake their heads about it. Malaish!’ This will sound an echo for anyone familiar with Egypt in the 1980s when the old expatriate joke was that the country was run by IBM – Inshallah (God willing), Bukra (tomorrow) and Maalesh (never mind).

Notwithstanding their many talents, the Germans often struggled to adapt to the different professional challenges in Egypt, not least being their strictly advisory roles. This meant, for example, that they could advise on the persecution and deportation of Jews rather than eliminating them directly, as the Nazis had done in Europe.

One of the darkest chapters in the book surrounds the persecution of Egypt’s embattled Jews who, with the arrival of cold-blooded German know-how, were subjected to oppressive legislation, economic strangulation, dispossession, detention, torture and deportation. The FBI claimed that the 1948 pogrom against Egyptian Jews in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War had been instigated by Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust, who was in Cairo at the time. Mass expulsions of Jews began with the Suez invasion of 1956 and within three months around 10,000 had left. ‘The methods used are so similar to what Hitler did before the war as to be frightening,’ the New York Times reported.

The similarity was no mystery. The leading light of Egypt’s new state security cadre was Leopold Gleim, an SS Standarten-führer and former head of the Gestapo’s Jewish affairs department in Poland. Serving under him was the former SS Gruppen-führer Alois Moser, then wanted in the USSR for crimes against Jews, and Bernhardt Bender, a former SS Sturmbannführer, who ran an interrogation centre in a disused cargo ship nicknamed ‘The Floating Hell’ by Jewish victims. Bender was alleged to have been the brains behind five camps for Jews, one of which was supposedly modelled on Dachau’s Block 10 sterilisation unit. Kinross acknowledges that if there is uncertainty here and over-reliance on western, especially American and CIA, sources, this is because ‘Egyptian records still remain inaccessible’.

Although the competition for most disgusting Nazi exile in Cairo was stiff, the Waffen-SS Untersturmführer Aribert Heim, known as ‘Dr Death’, arguably made it to the podium. As a doctor at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, one of his party tricks, according to the testimony of a survivor, was to kill a prisoner selected for his impeccable teeth by injecting him with poison, cut off his head, cook it in the crematorium until the flesh had been burnt off and then give the skull to a friend as a desk ornament. To evade an international arrest warrant issued in 1962, he fled to Cairo, where he successfully dodged justice until his death in 1992, having lived quietly as the Muslim convert Tarek Hussein Farid.



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The heroic doctor who saved Bukharian Jews from the Nazis

In the week marking the 80th anniversary of the round-up of 13,000 Jews in the Vel d’Hiv stadium,  and their dispatch to Drancy camp outside Paris before deportation to Auschwitz, it seems appropriate to recall an unknown story of heroism in wartime France. Dr Asaf Atchildi, a Jewish doctor from Samarkand,  saved members of the Bukharian community during the Nazi occupation. Here is a remarkable story of rescue, as told by Eve Weinberg in a Harif ‘Lockdown Lecture’.

Gestapo Headquarters in Paris at 86 Avenue Foch

Although only 150 Iranian Jews lived in Paris at the time of the Nazi invasion, the city’s Jewish population also included Jews from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Partnering with Ibrahim Morady and Dr. Asaf Atchildi, a Central Asian Jew and president of the Bukharian community,  the Iranian consul in Paris, Abdol-Hussein Sardari,  submitted documents to Nazi officials testifying that Jews from Bukhara were actually  Jugutis, a made-up term that described Persians who practised the “Mosaic” faith. At the outset of the war, Dr Atchildi and his wife never declared themselves Jews.

Eve Weinberg’s grandfather Aron (Arcadie) and his brothers Albert and Daniel together with Aron’s son David were taken to the Drancy Camp. Dr Atchildi pleaded with the Drancy camp commandant that the detainees were Afghans, not Jews. He managed to obtain the release of Aron and his brothers. But David was being held in  a Suspects’ Camp. The only way to obtain his release ( as he was advised to do by Mr Kedia of the Georgian Jews, who had similarly been exempted from the Nazi race laws), was for Dr Atchildi to go to Gestapo Headquarters at 86 Avenue Foch in Paris.

Taking his courage in both  hands, Dr Atchildi went to 86 Avenue Foch to plead David’s innocence, terrified that he might never get out of the building alive. The young man had been accused of ‘opposition to the German army’. But the doctor managed to prove that he had been framed by a vengeful policeman. The SS officer checked his story, found it to be the truth, and ordered David’s release.

Dr Atchildi’s account was submitted in 1967 to Yad Vashem. But his bravery remained unacknowledged during his lifetime. However, B’nai Brith World Centre bestowed the Jewish Rescuers’ Citation on his daughter Dora Aftergood, 94, in honour of her father. Dr. Atchildi, they said, had put his own life at risk to ensure the survival of over 300 Jews in Nazi-occupied France.  While Yad Vashem recognises ‘Righteous Gentiles’, B’nai Brith initiated the Citation project in 2011 to recognise those Jews who endangered themselves to rescue and protect others in Nazi Germany. Aftergood accepted the award on behalf of Dr. Atchildi in a small private ceremony in Vancouver.

Eve Weinberg  was astonished to learn that her cousin, David’s daughter, had never been told by him about this episode in her father’s life. Eve herself is determined to publicise these stories. She has published her mother’s memoir of her grandparents’ turbulent lives, ‘From Tashkent to Paris’.

You can hear Eve telling how Dr Atchildi rescued her family at 31:40 into this video.


How the Arab world took over the ideology of the Left

After the Great War, Arab societies, like many others, for the first time came to know politics as a modern mass phenomenon in which modern communication technologies were used for mass  mobilization. Intellectuals, journalists, poets, and men of letters replaced religious scholars as the source of moral knowledge and ethical education. Much of the intellectual underpinning of these movements came from Europe – specifically Germany – but had a disastrous effect on Arab societies, argues Hussein Aboubakr Mansour in The Tablet. Mansour’s work is desperately needed:  he is that rare bird – an Egyptian- born Arabic-speaker with a background in philosophy and an inside knowledge of the Arab world’s key influencers:

Iraqis make the fascist salute, 1932

It was (therefore) inevitable that such intellectual and psychological conditions would lead to consequences not too dissimilar from the consequences of such conditions in Europe; the appearance of popular political movements carrying devotional romantic symbols founded by self-styled fuehrers who embodied the potent Leninist mix of intellectual-politicians leading a vanguard in the final phase of a historical struggle toward an inevitable salvific future in which all contradictions will be resolved. In the interwar years in Egypt and the Levant, communist, Arabist, Egyptianist, Syrianist, and Islamist groups proliferated and created an ideologically competitive mimetic contagion. Together, those groups formed a common space where the abstract ideas of German philosophy, nationalism, socialism, unification and European revolutionary thought combined and recombined along with the local symbols of Islam and Arab culture and altered the entire substructure of Arab thought.

If the arrival of the Arabic printing press in the 19th century allowed literary nationalism and romanticist ideas to proliferate among the new educated classes, the shortwave radio brought a new phase of possibilities carrying on its waves the thunderous voices of mass mobilization. The new possibilities of the new technologies were first fully realized in the Middle East by the two protagonists of the global European revolution known as WWII, Italy and Germany. The former established its Arabic Radio Bari station in 1934 and the latter, the Voice of Berlin in Arabic, in 1939. Together, they filled the airwaves with Arabic propaganda of the most sensationalist kind mixing Islamic motifs and symbols with anti-Westernism, antisemitism, and incitement to mass violence. Radio Bari and the Voice of Berlin championed the national liberation of all the Arab and Muslim peoples and warned against the conspiracies of imperialist powers and the “Jewish States of America,” and called for a revolution against the West.

Many of the antisemitic catchphrases and conspiracy theories still found in Arabic culture today can indeed be traced to the legacy of the Voice of Berlin and its Iraqi anchor, Yunis Bahri. According to the British propaganda official, Nevill Barbour, “The Nazis had the skill or luck to find and employ an Iraqi, Yunus al-Bahri, who had a remarkable talent for the sensational type of broadcasting which they favored. Berlin Radio was bound by no scruples and cared nothing for factual accuracy … it, therefore, used every device to inflame Arab resentment against Britain for favoring Zionism, to exploit every conceivable suspicion regarding British actions, and to sneer at Arabs who publicly declared their support of the British connection. The Berlin Radio announcer, for instance, used regularly to refer to Prince Abdallah as ‘Rabbi Abdallah.’”

Nazism and fascism served as an inspiration and a prototype to many aspiring movements such as the Syrian Socialist National Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The excitement in the prospects of a German victory brought, along with Arab intellectual affections to German philosophy, can be clearly read in almost all the memoirs of those who came to political age during the period including Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt and Antun Saadah in Syria. More significant than politicians, in my opinion, are those who would become the founders of Arab and Muslim modern thought, such as the Egyptian thinker Abdulrahman Badawi, the first modern Arab philosopher, a figure of utmost importance, whose memoirs show deep sympathies with Germany and Nazism and a near-pathological obsession with Jews. Or the most prominent Algerian thinker of the era of national liberation, Malek Bennabi, who was accused later by France of having been a Nazi collaborator.

During the war, the minority of Arab intellectuals and thinkers who firmly opposed Nazism and fascism belonged to either the older generations of the pro-British or else were young communists. Otherwise, it is not an exaggeration to say that the overwhelming majority sympathized with Germany and the Axis and encouraged the population to do so. The political fervor of the time was primarily anti-British, anti-French, and anti-Jewish, and in favor of revolutionary mobilization; the question of ideology was secondary at best. That is why qualifiers of ideological identity added to famous figures of the period, such as Haj Amin el-Husseini, often oscillate between describing him as an Arab nationalist and or as an Islamist.

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The Nazi roots of Islamist hate have been obscured

Decades of Soviet propaganda and western post-colonial  anti-Zionism have served to obscure the Nazi roots of genocidal anrisemitism propagated by the wartime Mufti of Jerusalem and the Muslim Brotherhood, as Jeffrey Herf, author of Israel ‘s Moment, explains in The Tablet.  Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was a reactionary movement which incited hatred against  Egyptian Jews and Copts from the 1930s onwards (with thanks: Nitza):

The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini

In early June 1946, Haj Amin el-Husseini, also known as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, escaped from a year of pleasant house arrest in France and flew to Cairo. Husseini, by then often referred to in Egypt simply as “the Mufti,” was internationally renowned as a collaborator with Nazi Germany as a result of his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin in November 1941, and his Arabic language tirades to “kill the Jews” broadcast to the Middle East on the Third Reich’s short wave radio transmitters. Husseini was a key figure in an ideological and political fusion between Nazism and Islamism that achieved critical mass between 1941 and 1945 in Nazi Germany, and whose adherents sought to block the United Nations Partition Plan to establish an Arab and a Jewish state in former British Mandate Palestine, helping to define the boundaries of Arab politics for decades thereafter.

On June 11, 1946, Hassan al-Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, penned the following welcome home to Husseini:

Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimin and all Arabs request the Arab League on which Arab hopes are pinned, to declare that the Mufti is welcome to stay in any Arab country he may choose, and that great welcome should be extended to him wherever he goes, as a sign of appreciation for his great services for the glory of Islam and the Arabs. The hearts of the Arabs palpitated with joy at hearing that the Mufti has succeeded in reaching an Arab country. The news sounded like thunder to the ears of some American, British, and Jewish tyrants. The lion is at last free, and he will roam the Arabian jungle to clear it of wolves.

The great leader is back after many years of suffering in exile. Some Zionist papers in Egypt printed by La Societé de Publicitéshout and cry because the Mufti is back. We cannot blame them for they realize the importance of the role played by the Mufti in the Arab struggle against the crime about to be committed by the Americans and the English…The Mufti is worth the people of a whole nation put together. The Mufti is Palestine and Palestine is the Mufti. Oh Amin! What a great, stubborn, terrific, wonderful man you are! All these years of exile did not affect your fighting spirit.

Hitler’s and Mussolini’s defeat did not frighten you. Your hair did not turn grey of fright, and you are still full of life and fight. What a hero, what a miracle of a man. We wish to know what the Arab youth, Cabinet Ministers, rich men, and princes of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Tunis, Morocco, and Tripoli are going to do to be worthy of this hero. Yes, this hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin Al-Husseini will continue the struggle.

Al-Banna, himself an ardent admirer of Hitler since he first read Mein Kampf, then compared Husseini to Mohammed and Christ.

When al-Banna wrote his panegyric to Husseini, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had a membership approaching 500,000 sympathizers and was the world’s leading Islamist organization. The Brotherhood sought to establish a state based on sharia law. It proposed to abolish political parties and parliamentary democracy. It called for nationalization of industry, banks, and land. It proposed an Islamist version of national socialism and anticommunism, and waged cultural war for male supremacy against sexual freedom and equality for women. It led the cry of opposition to the Zionist project in Palestine with language that made no distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. It was recognized at the time by the Egyptian left as a reactionary if not fascist organization. Hence, al-Banna’s praise for the Nazi collaborator Husseini was not at all surprising for his liberal and left-leaning contemporaries.

After four decades of Soviet and PLO propaganda during the Cold War, then another four decades of Islamist propaganda from the government of Iran and organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the reactionary and antisemitic core of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideas of al-Banna and Haj Amin el-Husseini have, for many, been lost from view, were never known in the first place, or are dismissed as musty historical details.

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The Farhud heralded the decimation of Jewish communities in the Middle East

The Farhud pogrom in Iraq, 81 years ago, was not just a mortal blow to the Jewish community, it was a sign of things to come. From Libya to Syria and from Yemen to Tunisia, murderous pogroms became more and more ubiquitous. Mark Regev writes in the Jerusalem Post. (With thanks: Sandra, Imre):

Lea and Yosef Chen, Mark Regev’s in-laws, left Syria for Palestine on foot (Photo: Chen family)

The leader of the Palestinian national movement, Amin al-Husseini, living in Iraq since 1939, played a crucial role in supporting the anti-British coup that brought Rashid Ali to power and in encouraging the deadly violence against Baghdad’s Jews. With Britain’s reconquest of Iraq, al-Husseini relocated to Berlin, where he served the Nazi regime until its demise. Notwithstanding this wartime collaboration, al-Husseini was elected president of the All-Palestine Government in 1948.

Baghdad’s Jews have a rich heritage. Known as the first diaspora, the community predated the rise of Islam, tracing its roots back to the Babylonian exile of antiquity.

Over the centuries, the Jews of Mesopotamia made an immeasurable contribution to Jewish scholarship and civilization, as well as to the culture and society of the Middle East as a whole.

But the Farhud was not just a mortal blow to one historic community, it was a sign of things to come for Jews throughout the Arab world. From Libya to Syria and from Yemen to Tunisia, murderous pogroms became more and more ubiquitous. And in the aftermath of the Second World War, entire Jewish communities were decimated.

In 1948, there were 135,000 Jews left in Iraq; today, there are less than 10. In 1948, there were 75,000 Jews in Egypt; today, the total number of known Jews permanently residing is 3. In 1948, 140,000 Jews lived in Algeria; today, no community exists there at all.

In Tunisia, the Jewish population in 1948 reached 105,000; today, it numbers some 1,000. In 1948, 63,000 Jews lived in Yemen; today, only a handful remain. In 1948, Morocco had 265,000 Jewish inhabitants; today, just a residue of its former self, the community numbers a few hundred souls.

The eradication of these indigenous communities received official sanction. In 1947, the Political Committee of the Arab League drafted a law declaring all Jews in Arab countries “be considered members of the Jewish ‘minority state of Palestine’; that their bank accounts would be frozen and used to finance resistance to Zionist ambitions in Palestine; and that Jews believed to be active Zionists would be interned as political prisoners and their assets confiscated.”

At the United Nations, Egyptian delegate Heykal Pasha warned, “the proposed [partition] solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Moslem countries… If the United Nations decided to partition Palestine, they might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of a large number of Jews.”

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fadil Jamali went further, stating “Not only the uprising of the Arabs in Palestine is to be expected, but the masses in the Arab world cannot be restrained. The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab world will greatly deteriorate.”

Following the UN’s partition vote of 29 November 1947, some 850,000 Jews were forced to depart the Muslim Middle East – a figure that exceeds by 100,000 the recorded number of Arab refugees that exited the territory of the newly established Jewish state.

Yet, while the Palestinian narrative receives wide international acknowledgment, the experience of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries is scarcely a footnote. Maybe this is because the Jewish refugees were successfully absorbed in Israel and other countries, while for political reasons Palestinian refugees were denied resettlement in neighboring Arab countries, their refugee status deliberately perpetuated as a diplomatic weapon in the war against Israel.

Unfortunately, this self-defeating approach towards Palestinian refugees remains an orthodoxy. In April of this year, current UNRWA commissioner-general Phillipe Lazzarini proposed dealing with his agency’s ongoing financial crisis by “maximizing partnerships within the broader UN system.” Yet, despite the clear managerial logic in enlisting the help of additional UN bodies to support UNRWA’s humanitarian work, Lazzarini was attacked by the PLO for ignoring the “political dimensions.”

Perhaps because of Israel’s achievements in integrating consecutive waves of Jewish refugees, it is possible to forget that a huge proportion of Israeli citizens are either refugees themselves or the offspring thereof – my own children, being no exception, having three refugee grandparents.

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