Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian-born medical doctor who lived in Berlin, will be officially recognized by the Israeli Holocaust museum and memorial for risking his life to shelter four Jews during World War II.
Helmy's family will accept the award on his behalf at a ceremony to take place at the German Foreign Ministry on Thursday.
Helmy will be the first Arab to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations—a title given to non-Jews by the Israeli Holocaust Museum who risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
To date, more than 26,000 individuals from 44 countries have received the honor.
Helmy, who died in 1982, was first nominated as Righteous Among the Nations in 2013 but his family at the time refused to accept the honor since it came from an Israeli institution.
Four years later, a relative of Helmy has agreed to accept the honor on his behalf.
Ana Boros Gutman during her visit with her daughter Carla, Dr. Helmy and his wife Emmy, 1969
Nasser Kutbi, an 81-year-old professor of medicine from Cairo whose father was Helmy’s nephew and who knew him personally, will travel to Berlin to accept the award, which will be presented to him by Israel's Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff.
Helmy was born in Khartoum in 1901 and settled in Berlin in 1922 where he studied medicine and eventually became the head of urology at the city's Robert Koch Institute.
Helmy was fired from his position in 1937 after the Nazis came to power, and as a "non-Aryan", was barred from working in the public health sector. Helmy was arrested by the Nazis in 1939 along with other Egyptians and was released a year later account of poor health.
When the Nazis began deporting Jews from the city, Helmy hid a Jewish family friend, Anna Boros, 21, as well as her mother Julie, stepfather Georg Wehr, and grandmother Cecilie Rudnik, in a cabin he owned in the city for the duration of the war.
Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations certificate of honor to be presented to Dr. Helmy.
"A good friend of our family, Dr. Helmy ... hid me in his cabin in Berlin-Buch from 10 March until the end of the war," Boros, who latter married and took the last name Gutman, wrote in letter to the Berlin Senate after the war.
"He managed to evade all their interrogations. In such cases he would bring me to friends where I would stay for several days, introducing me as his cousin from Dresden. When the danger would pass, I would return to his cabin. ... Dr. Helmy did everything for me out of the generosity of his heart and I will be grateful to him for eternity," she wrote.
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Why have more Arabs not been named as 'Righteous Gentiles', Haaretz asks. Ofer Aderet interviewed Robert Satloff, author of Among the Righteous:
Significant developments that occurred following World War II, the founding of the State of Israel in particular, overshadowed this legacy of rescue. “As an Arab, there wasn’t much to gain – but there was a lot to lose – by being identified as a protector of the Jews and their rights,” Satloff noted.
At the same time, Jews, including those who were saved by Arabs, weren’t eager to tell about their Arab rescuers. “To many of those remaining in North Africa, memories of their horrible wartime experience were swiftly overtaken by the less systematic but often more violent anti-Zionism that compelled hundreds of thousands to quit their homes for Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s,” Satloff writes.
For decades, the focus of study was the Holocaust of European Jewry, and historians, scholars and institutions paid much less attention to the legacy of the Holocaust among Mizrahi Jewry. The Jews themselves also did not discuss or study the subject very much.
So there are several reasons for the absence of Arabs being named Righteous Among the Nations: Arabs didn’t volunteer to tell people about how they had saved Jews; Jews didn’t provide information about their Arab saviors; and at the same time, the establishment did not go to great lengths to find those Arab rescuers. Add to all of this the strong trend of Holocaust denial in the Arab world and the result is not very surprising.
Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, the state archivist and former director of the Yad Vashem archives, once wrote in Haaretz, “that if there were an Arab Righteous Gentile, his descendants apparently don’t want to know about it, and this naturally makes it hard to find out about him, since the tales of Jews who were saved are usually discovered through personal testimonies, and not through archival records.”
Nonetheless, over the years there have been several cases in which researchers or others provided information that could have convinced Yad Vashem to confer the title of Righteous Among the Nations on Arabs. One of the most famous cases is that of Khaled Abdel-Wahab, a Muslim Arab from Tunisia, whom various testimonies credit with saving dozens of Jews. Yad Vashem twice declined to name Abdel-Wahab as Righteous Among the Nations on the grounds that he did not risk his life to save the Jews that he saved. Risking one’s life is a prerequisite for receiving the honor.
Another well-known case is that of Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder and rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who, according to different testimonies, hid Jews inside the mosque, including a rising star at the time, singer Salim Halali. When previously questioned about this case, Yad Vashem replied, “Yad Vashem made a supreme effort to locate survivors whom Benghabrit saved during the Holocaust and also worked very hard to collect archival material related to the rescue activity in the Paris mosque, and also contacted the mosque archives for assistance – but all of these efforts came to naught. No testimonies of survivors or relevant documents were found.”
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My comment: Historians have cast doubt on the role played by the rector of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit. Far from being a Righteous Gentile, he seems to have collaborated with the Vichy regime and when consulted in at least four cases denied the individuals were Muslim (G Bensoussan, Les juifs du monde arabe, p101).