There was an interesting article in WaPo's "Lost History Department" Sunday regarding the Arab heroes of the Jewish Holocaust during WW2. The article starts off with a review of how some Arab countries and leaders currently deny the Holocaust, but the bulk of the article states that, while there were large numbers of Arabs who did nothing while the Germans rounded up the Jews of North Africa or, worse, collaborated with the Germans in rounding up and guarding the Jews in various labor camps, there are a number of noteworthy stories about Arabs in North Africa and Europe who helped to save some Jews from the Germans. What follows are some excerpts from the article that I think deserves greater exposure:
Neither Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Holocaust victims, nor any other Holocaust memorial has ever recognized an Arab rescuer. It is time for that to change. It is also time for Arabs to recall and embrace these episodes in their history. That may not change the minds of the most radical Arab leaders or populations, but for some it could make the Holocaust a source of pride, worthy of remembrance -- rather than avoidance or denial.
The Holocaust was an Arab story, too. From the beginning of World War II, Nazi plans to persecute and eventually exterminate Jews extended throughout the area that Germany and its allies hoped to conquer. That included a great Arab expanse, from Casablanca to Tripoli and on to Cairo, home to more than half a million Jews.
Though Germany and its allies controlled this region only briefly, they made substantial headway toward their 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, residence and free movement, but also torture, slave labor, deportation and execution.
There were no death camps, but many thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labor camps, many solely for Jews. Recall Maj. Strasser's warning to Ilsa, the wife of the Czech underground leader, in the 1942 film "Casablanca": "It is possible the French authorities will find a reason to put him in the concentration camp here." Indeed, the Arab lands of Algeria and Morocco were the site of the first concentration camps ever liberated by Allied troops.
About 1 percent of Jews in North Africa (4,000 to 5,000) perished under Axis control in Arab lands, compared with more than half of European Jews. These Jews were lucky to be on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, where the fighting ended relatively early and where boats -- not just cattle cars -- would have been needed to take them to the ovens in Europe. But if U.S. and British troops had not pushed Axis forces from the African continent by May 1943, the Jews of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and perhaps even Egypt and Palestine almost certainly would have met the same fate as those in Europe.
The Arabs in these lands were not too different from Europeans: With war waging around them, most stood by and did nothing; many participated fully and willingly in the persecution of Jews; and a brave few even helped save Jews.
Arabs welcomed Jews into their homes, guarded Jews' valuables so Germans could not confiscate them, shared with Jews their meager rations and warned Jewish leaders of coming SS raids. The sultan of Morocco and the bey of Tunis provided moral support and, at times, practical help to Jewish subjects. In Vichy-controlled Algiers, mosque preachers gave Friday sermons forbidding believers from serving as conservators of confiscated Jewish property. In the words of Yaacov Zrivy, from a small town near Sfax, Tunisia, "The Arabs watched over the Jews."
I found remarkable stories of rescue, too. In the rolling hills west of Tunis, 60 Jewish internees escaped from an Axis labor camp and banged on the farm door of a man named Si Ali Sakkat, who courageously hid them until liberation by the Allies. In the Tunisian coastal town of Mahdia, a dashing local notable named Khaled Abdelwahhab scooped up several families in the middle of the night and whisked them to his countryside estate to protect one of the women from the predations of a German officer bent on rape.
And there is strong evidence that the most influential Arab in Europe -- Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris -- saved as many as 100 Jews by having the mosque's administrative personnel give them certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could evade arrest and deportation. These men, and others, were true heroes.
According to the Koran: "Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world." This passage echoes the Talmud's injunction, "If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world."
Arabs need to hear these stories -- both of heroes and of villains. They especially need to hear them from their own teachers, preachers and leaders. If they do, they may respond as did that one Arab prince who visited the Holocaust museum. "What we saw today," he commented after his tour, "must help us change evil into good and hate into love and war into peace."