LONDON — When the Gestapo ordered the Jews on the island of Rhodes to report to its headquarters in July 1944, Selahattin Ülkümen acted fast. As the Turkish consul, he demanded the release of all the Turkish citizens and their families, reminding the German commanding officer, General Ulrich Kleeman, that Turkey was neutral. He even invented a Turkish law that said that spouses of citizens were considered citizens themselves. Threatened with an international incident, Kleeman let 50 Jews go, of whom 13 were Turkish citizens; the other 1,700 were deported to concentration camps.
Thirty-year-old Ülkümen paid a heavy personal price, as the Germans bombed his consulate in retaliation, mortally wounding his pregnant wife and killing two staff members. He spent the rest of the war detained by the Germans. Today, however, he is among a small group of Muslims honoured by Israel for risking their lives to save Jews during the Shoah. Their little-known story is the subject of a small new display in the offices of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Anglo-Jewry’s representative organization. Some 20,000 educational brochures on the subject have also been distributed.
“These acts have not been talked about,” says Rabbi Natan Levy, the Board’s Interfaith and Social Action consultant, who put the display together with a Muslim partner, Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters. “But we felt this was the right time, particularly in the UK, where relations between the two communities at the grassroots level are often fraught. We don’t often talk to each other about the positive things we’ve done together.”
In all, Israel has named 70 Muslims “Righteous Among the Nations” – the official designation for gentiles who saved Jews in World War II — although there are many other examples of heroism not classed as “righteous.” But until five or six years ago, their stories were barely known. According to Mughal, this was because many of the Muslim communities concerned relied on oral history, making research difficult. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also provided an incentive on both sides “to bury human-to-human contact.”
The bulk of research still comes from just two sources, both produced over the past decade: one book, Among the Righteous by Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which was published in 2007, and the photographs of Norman Gershman, who spent five years photographing Muslims who saved Jews during the war.
Satloff’s discoveries included the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who gave “numerous” Jews certificates showing that they were Muslims, allowing them to escape deportation, as well as Si Ali Sakkat, a Tunisian landowner who sheltered in a barn 60 Jews who had escaped from a labor camp, until they were liberated by allied troops.
The vast majority of Righteous Muslims come from Albania, where just two Jews were deported
Other cases span the Balkans, Turkey, north Africa, and Europe, but the vast majority of Righteous Muslims come from Albania, where just two Jews were deported. The reason was the national code of honor, known as “besa,” which is rooted in the Muslim faith, and dictates that once someone has enjoyed a family’s hospitality, they are forever protected by them. Although it was under direct German control, Albania became known as a haven for Jews, with the indigenous population sheltering and giving false papers to over 1,000 refugees.
Photographer Moshe Mandil, his wife Ela and their two children, for example, fled from Yugoslavia to the Albanian capital Tirana after the German invasion in 1941. Initially they were welcomed into the home of one of Moshe’s former apprentices, who also gave him work. When the Germans took over Albania, 17-year-old Refik Veseli, who worked in the same photography studio, smuggled the Mandils to his parents’ home in the mountains, where they hid above a barn with three other Jews for the duration of the war.
“In those difficult times the Albanians revealed themselves in their full glory and greatness,” wrote Moshe’s son Gavra to Yad Vashem in 1987. “No Jew remained without the protection of an Albanian. In many cases, like our own, the hiding of Jews involved the danger of death and required colossal self-sacrifice!… They attached the greatest importance to human life.”
The Veselis embody another factor that, Mughal argues, binds many of the righteous Muslims: they had personal connections to those they saved.
“People put their lives on the line for people they regarded as friends and brothers because they knew them and understood them.”
The implication, he says, is that there was a lot of interaction between Jews and Muslims – and that in today’s multicultural society, we too must “get to know our neighbors more, engage with them. If we feel we understand our neighbors, that’s the glue.”
But just how relevant are these stories to today’s Jewish-Muslim relations, which tend to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict? Only a small minority of examples of Muslim heroism were carried out by Arabs, in the Vichy territories in north Africa. These include Arab shepherds from western Tunisia who hid fleeing Jews and Muslim preachers in Algeria who forbade their followers from helping to confiscate Jewish property.
Mughal believes that there are more cases, but that research is still in its very early stages.
‘We must find them, and not allow divisionists to say, “let’s bury that part of our history”‘
“We must find them, and not allow divisionists to say, ‘let’s bury that part of our history,’” he says.
Levy maintains that examples of Muslims saving Jews in no way cancel out the opposite story, of Muslims helping to persecute Jews, but the fact that they were rare does not negate their importance either.
“You can make the same claim about good Germans,” he says.
He hopes that the stories that are being uncovered will have resonance in the Arab world, where Holocaust denial is rife.
“It’s hard to be a denier if your community is celebrating people in its midst who were involved in helping people during the Holocaust,” he says.
Equally, he hopes Jews will gain a more nuanced picture of the Muslim community.
“People ask me, ‘what did the Muslims ever do for us’. They wait to hear the answer, ‘nothing’. Now we can say, ‘see what they’ve done, they put their own lives on the line for us’.”
In many cases, the Jews who were saved maintained contact with their Muslim rescuers, and even tried to repay them in some small way. When Moshe Mandil, for example, opened up a photography shop in Novi Sad after the war, he gave Refik Veseli a job as an apprentice, and invited him to live in his house.
Fifty years after the Holocaust, when Sarajevo came under attack by Serbian forces, Yad Vashem organized the evacuation of the Hardaga family, who had sheltered Jews during the Holocaust and whose father-in-law was even executed for the crime. The observant Muslim family found refuge in Israel in 1994.
‘The effects of the bravery of the Holocaust are still with us, creating ripples’
The Hardaga story, says Levy, is “the paradigm of the key text in both Jewish and Muslim tradition – that ‘whoever saves one life, it is considered that they saved the entire world.’ The effects of the bravery of the Holocaust are still with us, creating ripples. It’s not just historical – it’s a living story where the narrative goes on, shaping how we speak to each other and building bridges.”
At the opening of the display in mid-April, a spark of that was visible, as representatives of the Jewish community mingled with Muslims, some of them representing organizations with which the Jewish establishment has no official ties, as well as a handful of Sikhs and Hindus.
According to Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organization which in the past has refused to attend Holocaust Memorial Day events and been attacked by the Jewish leadership for an “Islamist bias,” “I wasn’t aware [of the Muslim Righteous] until I got an invitation to this event. Sadly we tend to hear more of people who have committed crimes and evil, and very little of people who have saved lives and honored lives.
“Because of the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine, we find both communities are not very complimentary of each other. When the Muslim community hears how a Jewish organization is honoring the righteous Muslims, I’m sure it will make them appreciate it’s not all bad out there. For Jews to acknowledge righteous Muslims sends a strong signal that Jews do appreciate Muslim contributions to humanity.”