10 October 2006

The Holocaust's Arab Heroes

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Sunday’s issue of the Washington Post. A hat tip is due to panchromatica where I saw this article first.

Virtually alone among peoples of the world, Arabs appear to have won a free pass when it comes to denying or minimizing the Holocaust. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has declared to his supporters that "Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust." Hamas's official Web site labels the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews "an alleged and invented story with no basis."

Such Arab viewpoints are not exceptional. Not a single official textbook or educational program on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country. In Arab media, literature and popular culture, Holocaust denial is pervasive and legitimized. Yet when Arab leaders and their people deny the Holocaust, they deny their own history as well -- the lost history of the Holocaust in Arab lands, one that reveals complicity and indifference on the part of some Arabs during the Holocaust, but also heroism on the part of others who took great risks to save Jewish lives.

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. The Holocaust was an Arab story, too.

There were no death camps, but many thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labor camps, many solely for Jews. 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. 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 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. Arab collaborators were everywhere. These included overseers of Jewish work gangs, sadistic guards at Jewish labor camps and interpreters who went house to house with SS officers pointing out where Jews lived. Without the help of local Arabs, the persecution of Jews would have been virtually impossible.

But not all Arabs joined with the European-spawned campaign against the Jews. The few who risked their lives to save Jews provide inspiration beyond their numbers. 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 the words of Yaacov Zrivy, from a small town near Sfax, Tunisia, "The Arabs watched over the Jews."

In the 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 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.

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.

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."


CC said...

I hate it when people have nothing productive to say, but as often is the case with me, I have to thank you for this interesting piece, jams.

I just recently found out about the complicit relationship between Nazi's and some Islamic leaders during WWII, and it shocked me. Given that there always seems to be two sides to every story, I felt secure that there must have been good Mulsims during this time too. Your story shone a light on it.

How tragic that these stories are hidden from the mainstream at a time when we are more divisive than ever. How healing would this be for people to hear that in a time of trouble people laid aside their age old battles and helped each other just under the basis of being in the brotherhood of man?

Do you think this could ever happen again?

jams o donnell said...

Thanks Ewbl.. I hope nothing of its sort will ever happen again but I am not optimistic. Whatever race colour or creed we humans seem to have almost infinite capacity for hatred.

I really wish it want the case. I love the backwaters of history as you will have seen on the Poor Mouth. While you had the likes of the Mufti of Jerusalem who helped set up teh Bosnian and Albanian muslim SS divisions (the Handschar and the Skanderborg) you have ordianry decent people in North Africa who did the right thing at great personal risk.

History is full of these acts but they tend to be obscured by the evil ones.

CC said...

Bad news sells. You should have seen the sales spikes after 9/11 in the paper business around here.

Agnes said...

"Do you think this could ever happen again?" - ewb, ys, it could happen. Also, the rethoric used re Muslims in Europe is very similar to the anti-Semitic rethoric of the 30's and 20's. Some never learn, some never want to...

Great post Jams, though why only "Arabs" would need to hear these stories? In order to hate, one needs an audience....These were not lonely serial killers. The serial rescuers were alone....

jams o donnell said...

That is true.. they say no news is good news, eh?

I am glad you like it Red.. it is just an edited version of what was in Sunday's Washington Post. It is a story that needs to be told. Like any "uncomfortable truth" the arab and the jewish world need to konw.. not to mention the world at large