The Nazis had their eye on a beautiful young Jewish woman, a prominent Arab member of society learned while winning the German officers’ confidences through charm, fine food and wine. It was December 1942 and the woman’s husband and other male relatives had been sent to a forced labor camp, leaving the extended family’s women and children unprotected.
After his chilling dinner conversation, Khaled Abdul Wahab, born to an aristocratic Tunisian family, attempted to save the women and children and spent the night ferrying them to a country farm 20 miles away.
One of the rescued girls, Eva Weisel, recounts an additional act of bravery in a December 2011 op-ed in The New York Times.
German officers arrived suddenly at Abdul Wahab’s country refuge, where the Jewish women and children were hidden in horse stables.
“My grandmother started screaming ‘Cachez les filles!’ — ‘Hide the girls!’ I remember being shoved under the bed, trembling and sobbing as I tried to hide under a blanket.
“At that moment of unspeakable fear, as our hearts pounded and tears poured from our eyes, a guardian angel came to the rescue. Out of nowhere, our host appeared. A strong, powerful man who projected authority and commanded respect, he stopped the Germans and managed to lead them away,” wrote Weisel.
The women’s terror was real. As was Abdul Wahab’s bravery, according to Weisel.
In the New York Times oped, she asked — and answered — why Abdul Wahab is not among the 23,000 recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Righteous Among the Nations. “That is because my hometown is Mahdia, on the eastern shore of Tunisia, and our rescuer, Khaled Abdul Wahab, was an Arab Muslim.”
Although dozens of European Muslims have been awarded the honor from Yad Vashem, the first and to date only Arab Muslim to receive it — posthumously and against his family’s wishes — was Egyptian Dr. Mohamed Helmy, who saved the Gutman family in Berlin.
Why there aren’t more Arab Muslims recognized by Yad Vashem is a matter of differing opinions. Yad Vashem director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department Irena Steinfeldt told The Times of Israel this week that they simply haven’t fit the criteria.
Abdul Wahab was twice nominated to Yad Vashem for the honor, in 2007 and 2010, and twice rejected.
According to Robert Satloff, author of the landmark 2006 book, “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands,” it is a “sordid story of Yad Vashem applying criteria to this case that it has failed to apply in other cases. Regrettably this is not Yad Vashem’s finest hour.”
A question of semantics?
“Among the Righteous” opens with the simple question, “Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust?” The book and a follow-up 2010 PBS documentary reflect Satloff’s scholarly and personal journey in searching for Arab involvement in the Holocaust — Arab villains, heroes, and those in between.
“In the course of research for this book, I came to the sad conclusion that there are two main reasons that no Arabs have been included among the list of the ‘righteous’ — first, many Arabs (or their heirs) didn’t want to be found, and second, Jews didn’t look too hard,” wrote Satloff.
Abdul Wahab’s wartime deeds are recounted in “Among the Righteous” by the Jewish Middle East historian after he heard testimony from Weisel’s sister, Anny Boukris, who was also hidden by Abdul Wahab at age 11.
In conversation with The Times of Israel Tuesday, Satloff said he is “always impressed by how many Arabs ask me about” Abdul Wahab. Many have difficulty understanding why he has been honored by other Jewish organizations, but not by Israel.
Abdul Wahab’s daughter Faiza, who only heard of her father’s wartime experiences after the publication of Satloff’s book, said in a 2010 Ynet interview, “My father opened his home to Jews and Yad Vashem did not open their home to us.”
Head of the Righteous Among the Nations department Steinfeldt explained that part of the criteria for deciding who is eligible for the title relates to the question of whether the nominee saved a Jew from deportation or threat of death under risk of death or imprisonment, with altruistic motivations. All this must be affirmed through detailed Jewish witness testimony or, in rare cases, other documentation, such as police records of arrests.
Most are nominated by those rescued or their children, and Steinfeldt’s multi-lingual staff of 10 begin the process of verifying their eligibility. The file is prepared, which takes on average a year, and given to the Yad Vashem commission, which is headed by a Supreme Court judge, for debate.
In the case of the North African countries, said Steinfeldt, during the “German conquest, the occupation was so short there wasn’t time to implement the Final Solution.”
Therefore, she explained, there is a smaller likelihood that there would be Righteous Arabs from these parts, “not because the people were different, but because the circumstances were different.”
Families didn’t have to hide, said Steinfeldt, and though some Jews stayed with Muslim countrymen, it was done in full knowledge of the Nazis.
“Jewish families were thrown out of their homes and hosted by local Arabs. They were not hiding, but hosted,” she said. “The hosts didn’t do anything illegal.”
In the case of Abdul Wahab, Yad Vashem’s Steinfeldt said, “as much as his deeds were admirable” in hosting Jews at his farm, he broke no law and the Germans knew of their stay.
Additionally, according to testimony Yad Vashem received from Satloff’s source Boukris, “the men continued their forced labor service under German supervision, and on Thursdays, to prepare for Shabbat, the family would join the other Jews of Mahdia who had been evicted from the town and concentrated on a Jewish-owned farm in Sidi Alouan,” close to Abdul Wahab’s estate.
As explained by a Yad Vashem spokesperson, the element of personal risk is a clear criteria for the Righteous Among the Nations status.
“If the Germans knew about – and checked on – the Jews who were staying with him, the element of extraordinary risk is clearly lacking,” she said.
The Muslims in Europe were a different case, said Steinfeldt. For example, Yad Vashem has granted the title of Righteous Among the Nations to many Muslims from Albania, the only European country that ended WWII with more Jews than it began with due to its famous protection of the up to 1,800 Jewish refugees who joined the country’s indigenous Jewish population of 200.
A changing Arab approach to the Holocaust
In the almost decade since his book was published, said Satloff, a lot has happened in the Middle East. He has also seen change in the way the Arab world approaches the Holocaust.
“Like most things in the Middle East, there’s a mixed story here,” he said. The “most vivid” positive developments are statements by Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who in 2009 called the Nazi destruction of the Jews “one of the most tragic chapters of modern history” in a speech endorsing the Aladdin Project, a Paris-based Holocaust education program that targets Muslims. Several Holocaust histories have also been recently written by Moroccan scholars, said Satloff.
The king’s statement “validates the idea that this is part of the mosaic of Moroccan history and shows a larger effort to maintain the Jewish thread in Moroccan culture and society,” said Satloff. In addition to the obvious tourism dollars a religiously tolerant society can net, Satloff said the statement reflects a Morocco that is distancing itself from other Middle East countries and aligning itself with more Western thinking.
“The palace in Morocco sees itself as an actor in the broader Muslim world differently than a king of Saudia Arabia, who would never spread his umbrella over the Jews,” said Satloff.
In Tunisia, he said, Holocaust studies has somewhat “come out” with help from the political rise of prominent historian of Jews, Habib Kazdaghli, who “helped legitimize an entire vein of discussion.”
The dean of the faculty of letters, arts, and humanities at the University of Manouba, Kazdaghli became a national hero in the aftermath of Tunisia’s “Arab Spring” revolution in upholding Tunisia’s secular constitutional democracy at his school in the face of increasing Islamist threats.
“There is a certain greater acceptance of the entire line of inquiry of what happened during the Holocaust and what role — black, white, and gray — Arabs played in it,” said Satloff.
A shared Holocaust history?
In “Among the Righteous,” Satloff wrote he wanted “to make the Holocaust an Arab story.” Asked this week if he succeeded, he laughed and said no.
The paucity of Holocaust education in Arab countries is visibly felt in their emigrants to Europe, where “it is a part of the sad story of lack of assimilation and integration,” said Satloff.
The shared history is already fact, however. North African Muslim nations experienced a common fate with war-torn Europe from the fall of France in June 1940 to the expulsion of German troops in 1943. According to the plan laid out at the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin, the half-million Jews in these areas were fated to encounter the same Final Solution as their Vichy French Jewish brethren.
Some 4,000-5,000 perished as a result of Fascist rule, wrote Satloff, although “the Mediterranean complicated the logistics of transport; Germany and its partners could not just stuff North African Jews into trains and send them to death camps in Central and Eastern Europe.”
Most scholars consider the short German occupation of North Africa the main factor in saving its Jewry. But with over 110 concentration camps already in operation and deportations beginning, had the Germans not been expelled by the Allies, North African Jewry would have likely suffered the same end as Europe’s.
Satloff is “quite convinced that there are numerous stories out there yet to be told”: stories of the experience of living through the Holocaust in Arab countries, of Arabs saving Jews, or even the opposite.
He emphasized that time is quickly running out and implored any who have not yet done so to be in touch with Holocaust research institutions.
The lives of Jews, such as Eva Weisel, who were in North Africa during WWII could clearly have ended up differently had it not been for acts of kindness by Arab neighbors.
“Sixty-nine years after pinning a yellow star to my chest in my native land, I know that I was able to enjoy a long, full life because Abdul Wahab confronted evil and saved me, as he saved other fortunate members of my family. I hope that Yad Vashem reconsiders his case before no one is left to tell his story,” Weisel wrote.