LONDON — One day in 1943, Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor who had lived in Germany for more than two decades, received a terrifying summons. Alongside his niece, Nadia, he was to report to the Prinz Albrecht Hotel, the notorious Berlin headquarters of the SS.
When they arrived, Helmy and Nadia were ushered into a room containing a crowd of several dozen men. At its center stood Amin al-Husseini, the virulently antisemitic, pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who had been the Third Reich’s guest of honor for the past two years and its most high-profile symbol of Hitler’s efforts to court the Muslim world. Trusted by the Nazis, Helmy now discovered the reason for the unexplained summons: he was needed to provide his fellow Muslims with medical care.
But as German journalist Ronen Steinke writes in his new book, the encounter was far from all it seemed — for Helmy was no Nazi sympathizer, and the teenager accompanying him was neither his niece nor a Muslim, but 17-year-old Anna Boros, a Jewish girl hunted by the Gestapo who the doctor had been secretly sheltering for the past year.
“Anna and Dr. Helmy: How an Arab Doctor Saved a Jewish Girl in Hitler’s Berlin” is the thrilling and, at times, heart-stopping account of a remarkable but largely unknown story of bravery — and bluffing.
The son of an Egyptian army major, Helmy came to Berlin in 1922 to study medicine. Ten years later, he was still in the German capital, having become a protégé of the eminent Jewish consultant Prof. Georg Klemperer under whom he worked at the city’s prestigious Robert Koch Hospital in Moabit.
Among the thousands of casualties of the Nazis’ notorious April 1, 1933, anti-Jewish boycott were many of Moabit’s doctors, two-thirds of whom were Jewish. Driven out of the hospital by SA stormtroopers and taken to a former army barracks, they were ferociously beaten overnight, with some succumbing to their injuries.
Helmy, however, wasn’t targeted in this purge and, capitalizing on the Jews’ misfortune, thrived professionally. Aged just 31, he was thus promoted from junior doctor to senior consultant. The Nazis “were giving him these privileges and basically making him an accomplice by sharing the loot with him,” Steinke explained in an interview with The Times of Israel. “There was a time when this worked to some degree, when he wasn’t entirely opposed to the regime. He wasn’t initially a political person. He came from an Egyptian military background, [which] is not a progressive or humanist background particularly.”
Helmy’s hospital bosses certainly appeared to view him as, at the very least, not antagonistic to the Nazis. “Although a foreigner, Dr. Helmy’s conduct demonstrated a consistently pro-German attitude,” said a 1934 report. Helmy would later blandly say of his apparent accommodation with Germany’s new masters: “Vacancies had become available.”
That Helmy was able to prosper in Nazi Berlin reflected the Third Reich’s wider attempt to reach out to the Middle East and Arab world — and possibly build alliances against Britain and France there. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, for instance, ordered the press to cease all attacks on Muslims, while the Nuremberg Laws were drafted so as not to ensnare Arabs. Indeed, in a July 1936 meeting hosted by the Foreign Office it was decided that while Arabs might not be racially “related” to Aryans, they should be placed on an “equal footing” with other Europeans. Thus, as early as 1934, Helmy’s supervisor at Moabit described his appointment at the hospital as “highly desirable in the interests of Germans abroad, according to statements of the Foreign Office and the [Egyptian] legation.”
Over time, however, Helmy became more political and began to turn decisively against the regime. The source of the doctor’s discontent was his new, Nazi-appointed medical colleagues who, chosen for their loyalty rather than their expertise, displayed a startling mixture of callousness and incompetence towards their patients. As Moabit’s reputation plunged, ambulance drivers would even recommend patients to avoid the hospital.
Proud of his own academic qualifications and professionally offended, Helmy did not hold back in criticizing the inexperienced Nazi doctors. As one senior consultant angrily put it, Helmy had “no compunction about damaging the reputation of German doctors in front of patients and nursing staff.” Complaints about the Egyptian’s “arrogance and dogmatic, uncomradely manner” and his inability “as an Oriental” to “adapt to the order, discipline, and professional ethos of German doctors” were recorded. A petition demanding that the “Hamite” — a Nazi racial term to describe Arabs — not be allowed to treat German women was circulated. Helmy clung on to his post only by appealing to the German Foreign Office, which urged the hospital to keep him on “for foreign policy reasons.”
Helmy’s colleagues were also aware that the consultant was continuing to treat Jewish patients — even driving out to their homes during work hours. Having been saved the Nazi ax on the basis that, as a Muslim, he would take their side against the Jews, writes Steinke, Helmy “subverted their plan.” Now, he was using the professional privileges the regime had bestowed upon him to assist its worst enemies.
Helmy’s motivations were both humanitarian and, believes the author, a “desire to get even” with the Nazi doctors who were trying to oust him. Nonetheless, when Helmy’s contract finished at the end of June 1937, he was eased out, forcing him into private practice. He would, however, eventually find a more dramatic — if highly dangerous — way to “get even” with the Nazis.
Among the Jewish patients Helmy had visited while still at Moabit was the wealthy family of Anna Boros. Anna lived in a townhouse on the Neue Friedrichstrasse with her mother, Julie — who had come to Berlin from her native Hungary following the breakup of her marriage to factory owner Ladislaus Boros — and her widowed grandmother Cecilie. The two women ran the once-thriving grocery business of Cecilie’s second husband, Moisie “Max” Rudnik, which had been hit by anti-Jewish laws and import restrictions before being “Aryanized” for a pittance in June 1939.
Helmy soon began helping Anna, whose hopes of becoming a pediatric nurse had been frustrated by the Nazis, teaching her how to analyze blood and urine samples under a microscope.
When war came, Helmy and a number of his fellow countrymen were imprisoned by the Nazis in the hope of using them as leverage with the British, who were holding German nationals in Egypt, Palestine and South Africa.
Helmy, who, writes Steinke, had previously taken “astonishing liberties” in his dealings with the Nazis, now began to adopt a new persona. Henceforth, he would “play the ideal pro-Nazi Arab envisioned by Goebbels’ propaganda office… an Egyptian whose homeland had suffered under the detested British.”
From his cell, Helmy wrote to Hitler (whom he addressed as “Your Excellency”) and other Nazi leaders, proclaiming his loyalty to the cause. He claimed to have “campaigned actively” for the Nazis since 1929, been roughed up for his beliefs in 1931, and to have been a member of the party — “the only Egyptian” on the books — for a decade. He also suggested that his Jewish bosses at Moabit had forced him to work without pay until 1933 and prevented him from becoming a doctor because of his antisemitism. And Helmy even persuaded the Foreign Office to release him and another prisoner for 30 days so that he could use his “influence and connections” in Egypt to secure the release of the German captives in Cairo.
Helmy, of course, failed in this mission — he had no “influence and connections” back in Egypt to utilize — and his claims to have been a Nazi member were easily exposed as a lie. However, says Steinke, the Nazis appear to have “gladly turned a blind eye to the fabrications of this pro-German zealot, who was probably just trying too hard.” Indeed, playing along with the regime became the default setting for many other members of Berlin’s Muslim community.
When he was finally released in May 1940, Helmy’s charade appears to have been accepted by the Nazis, who gave him a practice of his own in the upscale district of Charlottenburg.
But Helmy’s skill as, in Steinke’s words, “a talented con man” was now to save the life of Anna and her grandmother. When Cecilie received a letter in March 1942 telling her to report to a Moabit synagogue where a camp had been established to assist the deportation of Berlin’s Jews, she turned to the doctor for advice. Helmy urged her to flee and then arranged a hiding place with a trusted former patient.
But Cecilie’s decision terrified Anna’s stepfather, Georg Wehr, who wasn’t Jewish and believed the family should stick to the rules and avoid attracting the Nazis’ attention. Wehr threatened to leave, but Helmy calmed him down and eventually brought him around. As Anna later recalled: “The doctor was now risking life and limb for everyone. Whether it was treating diseases, seeking new quarters or getting around the latest regulations, he had to keep on finding new solutions. My stepfather simply wasn’t capable of doing it himself.”
Unlike her mother and grandmother, who had taken on the German citizenship of their second husbands, Anna, who was born in the city of Arad on the border with Hungary, continued to hold a Romanian passport. For a time, this shielded her from the Nazis’ worst excesses. But in March 1942, foreign Jews were ordered out of Germany and Anna was given three days to return to Romania — which, given the pro-Axis government’s active participation in the Final Solution, was a likely death sentence.
Recognizing her own family’s inability to help her, Anna turned to Helmy. As the Gestapo was informed that Anna had left the Reich as instructed, “Nadia” — Helmy suggested the name — began work as the doctor’s receptionist. The young woman, who found that her headscarf helpfully diverted attention from her face, was, Helmy informed his state-appointed minders in Charlottenburg, his Muslim niece from Dresden. Anna, Steinke believes, viewed Helmy as a “substitute father” or “uncle figure”; Boros had long ago reneged on his pledge to visit his daughter twice a year.
The teenager remained with Helmy throughout the day, driving with him to and from his practice. When the doctor’s car was stopped and their papers demanded, he affected an arrogant air, complaining loudly that he was a friend of the Foreign Office who had medical duties to attend to. At the surgery, Helmy would make a point of addressing Anna in Arabic, which she pretended to understand.
Anna moved in with Helmy and his fiancé, 26-year-old nurse Emmy Ernst, and helped out in the kitchen and with household chores. Emmy, indeed, also proved a skilled supporting member of the loyalty show which the doctor staged for the Gestapo. “As long as they could keep up the pretense that Helmy was among those Arabs sympathetic to the regime, he had a chance to save himself and protect Anna,” writes Steinke.
Despite the perilous situation in which they found themselves, Helmy and Anna nonetheless did their best to help others, using medical certificates to assist forced laborers and Germans threatened with hard physical labor. They also secretly and illegally treated Jews — an activity which led to visits from the Gestapo.
“Not only must they have been incredibly talented and creative as actors… [but] they must have been very skilled in defeating their fear,” says Steinke. “People’s reaction to fear is to freeze. Somehow they were able to overcome their fear and function in these situations.”
Helmy went to extraordinary lengths in order to buttress Anna’s cover story. In June 1943, for instance, he arranged her conversion to Islam and thus helped Nadia acquire her first official piece of documentation. Incredibly, it was signed by Kamal el-Din Galal, an old friend of Helmy who, despite working for the Grand Mufti, was not antisemitic and happy to assist in the deception.
A week later, Helmy tapped another Egyptian friend, Abdel Aziz Helmy Hammad, who he had met in prison and trusted as a staunch anti-Nazi, to marry Nadia. To ensure the marriage was valid under Sharia law, Helmy also arranged for two other friends to act as witnesses. Helmy’s hope was that the “paper marriage” would enable Nadia, as Hammad’s wife, to obtain an Egyptian passport, thus allowing her to leave Germany legally and then travel to Palestine.
Ultimately, however, the plan fell apart. The local registry office rejected the marriage application when Helmy submitted it for approval and — suspecting something was awry — the Gestapo twice searched the doctor’s apartment, repeatedly asking the building’s caretaker if he knew about a hidden Jewish girl. For a time, Helmy moved Anna around other locations, before settling her in a garden hut he had access to on the northern edge of the Pankow district. Anna’s presence at the garden colony was helped by the chaos of the war’s final months, as thousands of Berliners fled to cabins away from the city center to escape constant Allied air raids.
Helmy performed what Steinke describes as one “final tour de force” when the Gestapo discovered Anna’s new whereabouts. Thinking ahead to just such an eventuality, the doctor had dictated a letter to Anna which he placed in a self-addressed envelope. Now the moment had arrived to use it.
He tracked down the Gestapo officers who were searching for Anna and — adopting the act of a wronged party — told them he was the victim of a terrible deception by the girl they were seeking. “Nadia,” he said, had disappeared from his home leaving only a letter. In the letter, which he handed over, Anna confessed to Helmy that she had “lied to him about her ancestry” and that she was, in fact, not a Muslim, but Jewish. She also revealed that she was leaving for an aunt’s in Dessau. Helmy now demanded that the officers find the girl who had so cruelly deceived him.
It was, as Steinke writes, an improbable tale but — perhaps thanks to the fog of the war’s closing days — one that seemed to throw the Gestapo off Anna’s trail for long enough until the Red Army reached her Pankow hideout.
By pulling off the audacious, carefully-planned bluff, he almost certainly saved Anna’s life — and his own.
Steinke says that, on learning of the story, he was surprised to find that Germany’s Muslim community, usually perceived as having arrived in the country since the war, predated the Nazis.
“The old Arabic Berlin of the Weimar period,” he also discovered, was “cultured, progressive, and, for the most part, anything but antisemitic,” with Muslims and Jews enjoying a “close relationship.” Moreover, the story of Anna and Helmy shows that, contrary to the perceptions of many, some Muslims played a “special role” in assisting German Jews at their moment of maximum danger.
In 1960, Anna, who emigrated to the United States after the war, swore an affidavit requesting Berlin’s mayor honor Helmy. He was, she said, a “wonderful human being” who had never sought gratitude for his wartime bravery. While Helmy had still not been recognized at the time of his death in 1982, 30 years later, in 2013, Yad Vashem decided to honor the doctor, making him the first Arab to join the list of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” Helmy’s relatives in Cairo, however, refused to accept an award issued by Israel.
When he visited them, Steinke was warmly received but found the family’s attitude unchanged. “We would be delighted if another country honored him. Helmy helped all people, no matter what their religion,” one relative explains. “Now Israel wants to honor him specifically because he helped Jews. But this doesn’t do justice to what he did.” Steinke suggests that the family’s reaction appears to be one of fear in a society where “the word ‘Jew’ is a toxic word.”
Nonetheless, Steinke believes that Helmy’s story “should be a point of pride.”
“It’s puzzling why the Arab world doesn’t jump at the opportunity to put this person on a pedestal; to show that there was this very moral role that some Arabs… played,” he says.
In New York, Steinke also met with Anna’s descendants. “If Dr. Helmy hadn’t existed, this room, filled with 25 people, would simply be empty,” says Anna’s daughter, Carla Gutman Greenspan.
“It is almost poetic how similar these families are,” Steinke says of the descendants of Anna and Helmy. “The apartments, the style of the furniture, the social status. They’re both pretty well-off, well-to-do families. Big families. They have so much in common.”
But, he adds, reflecting the wider Muslim and Jewish communities, “there is suspicion on both sides and lack of knowledge on both sides… They have strong opinions about the other side [but] very little contact with the other side.”
However, at the close of the book, Anna’s daughter reaches out with a simple message contained in a letter she asks Steinke to deliver to Helmy’s descendants in Cairo: “All I really want is for you to know that there is a family at the other end of the world that feels gratitude and love for Dr. Helmy. We will never cease to be amazed by what he did, and we hope that his heroism will be an inspiration to others.”
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