Heroism of Arabs saved Jews during Holocaust: UK Times
Posted by musliminsuffer on December 12, 2006
In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
=== News Update ===
Saviours in a strange world
Heroism of Arabs saved Jews during Holocaust: UK Times
The Sunday Times December 03, 2006
Many Jews had a lucky escape during the Holocaust – when Arabs risked their own lives to rescue them. Deirdre Fernand reports
Anny Boukris was just a child when the soldiers came knocking at the door. The year was 1942, and German troops were occupying her town and her homeland of Tunisia. Boukris lived with her parents, Jacob and Odette, in the seaside town of Mahdia, along its eastern shore. She and her brothers and sisters wanted for nothing. Jacob, a Jewish businessman, was doing well; they could even afford a maid.
All that changed with the fist at the door. Since the arrival of German troops that year, the family had suspected something would happen. They had stocked up on food, packed their family heirlooms into a boxroom and placed a bookcase in front of the door.
All to no avail. The soldiers inspected the house, found the hiding place and took all their precious belongings. Anny minded her stamp collection being confiscated.
Their house was being requisitioned as a barracks, the soldiers said, and they had only an hour to leave. Anny’s father kept his wits about him. He quickly arranged for his family to find refuge in an old factory nearby. Aunts and uncles joined them, and although the living conditions were far from satisfactory for everyone, they all felt safe enough.
A few weeks later came another knock at the door. This time the caller was no German but a local man, the son of a wealthy landowner. “You are all at great risk,” he told them. “You must leave straight away.” In the middle of the night he drove them to his farm, about 20 miles away. There they stayed hidden for four months, until the Germans had been driven out of the country and they could return home. It was only then that Anny came to understand the significance of the rescuer in the night.
The man was 32-year-old Khaled Abdelwahhab, a prominent and well-connected Arab from Mahdia, who made it his business to fraternise with German officers so he knew what was going on. Handsome, sophisticated and educated in the West, he made an agreeable companion and would sit drinking with them into the early hours. He knew, for instance, which brothels they frequented, which females they lusted after. He had also heard tales of local girls, many of them Jewish, being abducted for sex and never being seen again.
One night, one of the soldiers confided to him that he had his eye on a beautiful Jewish woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, whom he was going to take away “for his own pleasure”. When Abdelwahhab realised that the blonde he intended to rape was Anny’s mother, Odette, he sprang into action. He plied the soldier with drink, and when he eventually fell into a stupor, Abdelwahhab drove directly to the farm and whisked everyone to safety. “We left like that,” Anny recalled. Abdelwahhab, who later married and had a daughter, became a lifelong friend of the Boukris family. Forever an honoured guest, he was always invited to celebrate the sabbath with them, sitting down to share chicken couscous and memories. There, around that table, they would talk of the war. Arab and Jew shared a special bond.
Abdelwahhab’s heroism in saving Odette from abduction and rape – and rescuing her entire family from persecution and possible death – would have been forgotten were it not for the efforts of one remarkable historian of the Middle East, Robert Satloff. A 44-year-old American of Jewish descent, he has devoted the past four years to searching out lost heroes of the Holocaust. Not just any heroes, but Arabs such as Abdelwahhab. “He could so easily have been killed if the German officer had found out that he had tricked him to save a Jewish woman,” he says. Executed swiftly, perhaps, or tortured to death in any of the 104 “punishment” camps then being built across the Sahara.
Satloff’s quest for good men took him not to Europe, where 6m perished under the Nazis and where virtuous men like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg risked everything to save lives, but to the shores of North Africa, where France’s possessions of Morocco, Tunisia and Algiers – and its Jewish population – had fallen to the Germans.
“We all know the horrific stories of the Jews who died in Europe under the Nazis,” he says.
“I wanted to look at the long reaches of the Holocaust. Persecution was not just a European story. I wanted to investigate what happened to Jews living among Arabs when the Nazis arrived. Their stories have been overlooked for far too long.” He reminds us that had allied troops not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, then the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and maybe Egypt and Palestine too, might have met the fate of their brothers in Europe.
The result of his detective work, which drew upon scores of interviews with witnesses and survivors of pogrom, is contained in his newly published book, Among the Righteous. “I set myself a simple goal,” he says. “To tell the story of one Arab who saved the life of one Jew.” He had in his mind a saying from the Koran: “Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.” This passage echoes the Jewish exhortation: “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”
Satloff, who runs the influential think-tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, began to dig in wartime archives and libraries but could find little about the half-million Jews of North Africa. There were bare statistics – nearly 5,000 were killed in air raids or as a result of forced labour – but few details. Questions hung in the air. What became of the Jewish families in Casablanca and Algiers when the tanks rolled in and the jackboots marched? What happened when Vichy, the collaborationist government of Marshal Pétain, brought in anti-semitic laws?
As Sir Martin Gilbert, the respected historian of the Shoah, points out, the fate of Jews outside Europe has only recently emerged as a topic of interest. It was not until 1997 that Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial and library of remembrance, published its first volume on the wartime persecution of Jews in Libya and Tunisia. And it was only last year that three documentaries on the plight of North African Jews aired on Israeli television.
Then another, larger question began to bother Satloff. Could there ever have been an Arab Schindler? An Arab Wallenberg? As the world remembers, Oskar Schindler, whose story was told by Thomas Keneally in the award-winning Schindler’s Ark, was the German factory owner who defied the SS to rescue as many as 1,300 Jews. Wallenberg,
a Swedish diplomat working in wartime Budapest, is credited with saving as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews.
In pursuit of his Arab Schindler, Satloff, who is fluent in Arabic, French and Hebrew, moved with his wife, an economist at the World Bank, and two young sons to Morocco in 2002 and began his research in earnest. He turned himself into a Simon Wiesenthal in reverse: where the legendary Nazi hunter, who died last year, sought criminals to bring them to justice, Satloff sought champions. Over steaming cups of sweet mint tea in houses and cafes, he listened to tales from the past. Some people were eager to speak of their wartime tribulations, as if they had been waiting all their lives to unburden themselves; others were more guarded. Acceptance and suspicion of him went hand in hand.
In the event, he found not one saviour but many. Wherever he went he collected stories about Arabs welcoming Jews into their homes, sharing their meagre rations, guarding their valuables so Germans could not confiscate them, and warning leaders about SS raids. Abdelwahhab, who died in 1997 aged 86, features prominently in his gallery of heroes, along with Si Ali Sakkat, a former mayor of Tunis who hid 60 Jewish workers who had fled a labour camp, and Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of a Paris mosque, who helped 100 Jews evade persecution in 1940. Similarly, the Bey of Tunis, Tunisia’s wartime ruler under the Germans, is reported as having told members of his government: “The Jews… are under our patronage and we are responsible for their lives. If I find out that an Arab informer caused even one hair of a Jew to fall, this Arab will pay with his life.” As one old gentleman from a small town in Tunisia remarked, “The Arabs watched over the Jews.”
Satloff is prepared for such tales of Arab derring-do to stir controversy. Denial of the Holocaust in Arab lands is not uncommon. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has declared to his supporters that Jews invented the “legend” of the Holocaust. Hamas’s official website has labelled the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews “an alleged and invented story with no basis”. And recently, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria told an interviewer he doesn’t “have any clue how [Jews] were killed or how many were killed”. So if the Shoah never happened, or has been exaggerated, how can Arabs such as Si Kaddour Benghabrit or the Bey of Tunis have played any part in it – noble or otherwise?
It was witnessing the 9/11 attacks that prompted Satloff to embark upon his book. Watching the twin towers collapse, an event he saw from the relative safety of a Midtown office building in Manhattan, he wondered what he, as a Jew, an American and an Islamic scholar, could do to bring together warring ideologies. In his mind, the plume of smoke rising from the towers conjured up the chimneys of the death camps. “I decided that the best thing I could do would be to combat Arab ignorance about the Holocaust,” he says. “And the most effective way of doing that was to tell a positive story. Any history that I wrote had to involve the Islamic world and its Arab heroes.” As he points out, in a fractured, fragmenting world, dialogue is both desirable and essential.
Today, Schindler and Wallenberg are perhaps the most famous men to have been officially recognised by Yad Vashem as “righteous among the nations”. They are just two of the 21,310 Gentiles honoured for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Individuals come from Chile and Croatia, Lithuania and Latvia, but there is no representative on that list from Tunisia, Morocco or Algiers. “There are Turkish and Bosnian Muslims cited,” says Satloff, “but nearly 60 years after the war, no Arab has ever been officially recognised.”
Perhaps the testimonies of women like 71-year-old Anny Boukris, whose mother was rescued by Abdelwahhab, hold the clue. She spent years trying to tell people about her family and the debt they all owed to the dashing young Arab. But none of her neighbours wanted to know. Satloff, who checked her story with several sources, has his own explanation: “I came to the sad conclusion that there are two main reasons that no Arabs have been included among that righteous list. First, many Arabs (or their heirs) didn’t want to be found, and second, I think many Jews didn’t look too hard.”
Officials from Yad Vashem have expressed interest in Satloff’s work. Throughout his research he has been in contact with its Department of the Righteous, which scrutinises the credentials of candidates, and he will be making all his files available to them. The final decision to afford the honour is made by an independent public committee comprising Holocaust survivors, lawyers, historians and individuals, and is chaired by Supreme Court judges. “But Yad Vashem doesn’t act like a detective agency,” says Satloff. In practice, the process of recognition, a painstaking and laborious operation, is usually initiated by Holocaust survivors or their families – and that has not yet happened. “So far, the commission has yet to receive a request to recognise a person as ‘righteous among the nations’ from an Arab country,” says a spokesman.
Whatever the outcome, Satloff already has one victory under his belt. By providing documentary proof of their incarceration, he has helped dozens of survivors of 100 labour camps in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia gain thousands of pounds’ compensation from the German government. And if he has his way, maybe Khaled Abdelwahhab, the elegant and good-looking man he calls “the Paul Newman of Tunisia”, will become the first righteous Arab. No wonder that after 25 years of writing about conflict in the Middle East, he calls this “the most hopeful story I’ve written”.
In order to understand the bravery of these Arab heroes, it is necessary to put their behaviour in context. As a remark by the philosopher Edmund Burke warns us, “It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.” There were plenty of men who did nothing.
From the beginning of the second world war, Nazi plans to persecute and eventually exterminate Jews extended throughout a great swathe of Arab lands. Though Germany and its allies controlled this region only briefly, they made substantial progress towards that goal. From June 1940 to May 1943, the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators and their Italian fascist allies applied in Arab lands many of the precursors to the Final Solution. These included not only laws depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, rights of residence and free movement, but also torture, slave labour, deportation and execution. Though there were no death camps, many thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labour camps. The very first concentration camps to be liberated by allied troops in late 1942 were in Algeria and Morocco. About 1% of North African Jews (4,000 to 5,000) died under Axis control, compared with more than 50% of European Jewry. As Satloff says, “These Jews were lucky to be in Africa, where the fighting ended relatively early and where boats – not just cattle trucks – would have been needed to take them to the ovens in Europe.”
In this world, Arabs were both willing participants and collaborators. They worked as interpreters, going house to house with SS officers pointing out where Jews lived, oversaw work gangs and guarded prisoners in labour camps. Without a compliant populace, the persecution of Jews would have been impossible.
Were Arabs merely following orders? An interviewer from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum once put that question to Harry Alexander, a Jew from Leipzig, Germany. After his father was taken to Sachsenhausen and his brother to Buchenwald, he managed to escape to France. There French authorities sent him to the notoriously harsh Vichy labour camp at Djelfa in the Algerian desert. “Nobody told them to beat us all the time,” he said. “Nobody told them to chain us together. Nobody told them to tie us naked to a post and beat us and to hang us by our arms and hose us down, to bury us in the sand… No, they took this into their own hands and they enjoyed what they did.”
Satloff tracked down another survivor of the camps, Morice Tondowski, a 92-year-old Polish-born Jew, to his retirement home in Ilford, Essex. He had joined the Foreign Legion in France but was stripped of his rifle under Vichy’s anti-semitic laws and sent to Berguent labour camp in Morocco. Tondowski told him about one of the worst kinds of punishment, the tombeau – French for tomb. Prisoners who were judged not to be working hard enough were forced to dig holes and lie in these faux graves for weeks on end, day and night. Surviving only on 175 grams of bread and one litre of water a day, they lay in their own waste. If they made the slightest movement they would be beaten. One of Tondowski’s best friends, a fellow Pole, died after weeks in the tombeau. “I think of him all the time,” the old man told him.
It is little wonder that Satloff prefers to dwell on the humanity of men like Si Ali Sakkat, another of his local heroes, who died in 1954. He was the Tunisian landowner who came from a noble Muslim family that could trace its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad. After a career in public service, including a stint as mayor of Tunis, he retired to his splendid 740-acre farm outside the city with fields of grazing sheep and shady olive groves. Not far away from his land was an Axis labour camp. At a critical point of the battle for Tunisia, fighting broke out in a nearby valley. Amid the bombs and gunfire, a group of about 60 Jewish workers seized the opportunity to escape and found their way to Si Ali’s property.
“They were lucky to come to his door,” says Satloff, who struck up a friendship with Si Ali’s grandson. “He didn’t hesitate to offer each of them food and lodging. This was a man of ready and simple kindnesses.” Opening up his outbuildings and barns for them, the country squire sheltered them for weeks until allied troops, on their way to Tunis, could liberate them.
Just as remarkable are the actions of Si Kaddour Benghabrit. Perhaps the most influential Arab in Europe, he was the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris. Under the noses of German occupiers, he saved as many as 100 Jews by allowing his staff at the mosque to issue them with certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could evade arrest and deportation. Two months after the Germans took control of France, they caught up with the scam and ordered Benghabrit to stop. When Satloff visited the mosque to investigate this claim, he was shown a letter telling Benghabrit to desist. It read: “The occupation authorities suspect the personnel of the Mosque of Paris of fraudulently delivering to individuals of the Jewish race certificates attesting that the interested persons are of the Muslim confession.” For reasons that are unclear, or perhaps because the Germans lacked firm evidence, no action was taken against Benghabrit. He died in the 1960s and is buried in the same holy plac!
e that gave so many Jews a lifeline.
In recording these stories, Satloff’s work is far from finished. Now back living and working in Washington, a regular on the university-lecture circuit, he is still discovering more heroes. What next? A sequel? A film of the book? “I’ve only scratched the surface,” he says. “We know not all Arabs joined with the European-inspired campaign against the Jews. The few who risked their lives to save them provide inspiration beyond their numbers.”
In the final days of his last research trip, he came across the story of a group of Arab shepherds from western Tunisia, who hid fleeing Jews. “When the Germans came looking for Jews, the Arabs would say they are their cousins,” he was told. But the race against time is on. Those who lived through the war are dying out.
Just eight weeks after telling her story for the first time in 60 years in all its stirring detail – from the hammering on the door to the midnight flight – Anny Boukris breathed her last.
BECAUSE YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW