Searching for an Arab Oskar Schindler
Holocaust denial is in vogue in the Muslim Middle East. Although the assertion last year by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Hitler's systematic murder of 6 million Jews was a "myth" stunned the West, many in his region share that view.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, whose radical movement the Iranian government helped create in the early 1980s and has financed ever since, has also dismissed the Holocaust as a "legend" invented by Zionists to justify Israel's creation. Syria's British-educated president, Bashar al-Assad, claims he has no idea "how [Jews] were killed or how many were killed" in the Holocaust. In a press release in 2000, Hamas, the radical Islamist party that Palestinian Arabs overwhelmingly endorsed for their parliament, called the Holocaust "an alleged and invented story with no basis."
The denials are not confined to propagandists among Middle Eastern radical secular nationalists and radical Islamists. As Robert Satloff reports in his important new book on the Holocaust's reach into Arab lands, Holocaust "minimization," if not outright denial, is pervasive and officially blessed in Arab press, scholarship, and political discourse. State-run newspapers in Egypt, which has made peace with Israel, repeatedly undermine the reality of the Holocaust by challenging the number of Jews who died in Hitler's genocidal campaign and by equating "Nazism" with "Zionism." The papers often refer to Jews as the "new Nazis" when they denounce Israel's deplorable treatment of the Palestinian Arabs.
So who can blame non-Jewish Middle Easterners if they know little of what they consider a mainly "European" event for which they feel they have suffered? Israel, after all, was not carved out of Germany, but their land, at their expense. Mr. Satloff reports that not a single official textbook or educational program on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country. Meanwhile, Yad Vashem, Israel's national memorial authority for the Holocaust, which has honored 22,310 people throughout the world — including Muslims from Turkey, Bosnia, and Albania — for saving Jews during World War II, has never recognized a single Arab for rescuing Jews, even though, as Mr. Satloff shows, some of them clearly did. Yad Vashem did not publish its first scholarly volume on the wartime persecution of Jews of Libya and Tunisia until 1997. Most Arabs — and many Jews, he notes — are unaware that the Holocaust was not only a European tragedy, or that this largely European event had a huge impact on Jews and Arabs across the Mediterranean. "Virtually no Jew in North Africa was left untouched," he concludes.
Mr. Satloff, a historian and expert on modern Arab affairs whom I have known for many years and who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says he wrote "Among the Righteous" (Public Affairs, 251 pages, $26) to answer a narrower question: "Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust?" Was there, he asks, a Muslim Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews by, among other ruses, providing them with Swedish passports? Or an Arab Oskar Schindler?
Mr. Satloff's slender volume answers the question — convincingly and affirmatively: There were such Arabs. He provides inspiring and heartbreaking personal accounts of survivors of this underexplored aspect of Holocaust history. Acknowledging that his book is not a comprehensive survey of the Holocaust in Arab lands, Mr. Satloff raises critical questions about the Nazi campaign that helped disrupt the centuries-old accommodation between Jewish communities and their Muslim hosts in the Middle East. Why, Mr. Satloff asks, have some of the stories of Arab heroism that he recounts never before been heard even by relatives of the heroes themselves?
Among the important conclusions of his four years of research in eleven countries is that much of the history of this era has been deliberately ignored or suppressed. It now risks being permanently lost as memories fade and witnesses die. For this, Mr. Satloff writes, Arabs are not solely to blame. While many Arabs who rescued Jews "didn't want to be found" because of growing hostility toward Israel, Mr. Satloff writes that "Jews didn't look too hard" to find them. Jewish scholars do not agree on who counts as a Holocaust survivor. If the Jews of the Middle East are included as victims, "the allocation of huge sums in still-to-be-distributed Holocaust-era compensation funds" could be affected. As for the Jews who still live in Arab lands — "an endangered species" down to fewer than 10,000 — they seem determined to downplay their suffering in World War II, Mr. Satloff laments. Cowed by years of second-class status and utterly dependent on the good will of their rulers, they make no complaints, mostly as a "survival strategy."
Despite the many books about the "Final Solution" in Europe, few Jewish or Arab scholars have focused on its impact on the half-million Jews whose communities had existed in Arab lands for 2,000 years. Why is there no Jewish or Arab Robert Paxton, the American historian who infuriated the French by writing what is widely regarded as the definitive account of the collaborationist Vichy rule in France?
Mr. Satloff's book told me much I did not know: For instance, that between 4,000 and 5,000 Jews, or roughly 1% of North Africa's Jews, had died under Axis control of Arab lands. While there were no "death camps" in the Middle East, Germany, Vichy France, and Italy had, in the short time they controlled Europe's North African colonies, established more than 100 labor and "punishment" camps in which Jews suffered and died. America had also allowed the anti-Jewish laws imposed by the Vichy government to stand for more than a year after Allied troops entered North Africa.
Mr. Satloff presents a new Holocaust vocabulary in Arabic — "mellah," for the ghettos in which Arab-speaking Jews had traditionally lived; "consistoires," or North African Judenraete, the Jewish community councils that were forced to respond to Axis demands for Jewish men as slave laborers, along with their property, gold, jewelry, and money. "Goumiers" were local Arab soldiers employed at the brutal camps in Morocco. "Tombeau" was torture in which Jews were forced to lie face up, often in their own feces, throughout freezing desert nights and insufferably hot summer days, in shallow clay graves they had been ordered to dig for themselves.
The most compelling parts of the book are those in which Mr. Satloff seeks remnants of the labor and "punishment" camps in Morocco near the never-completed Trans-Sahara railway, built by slave labor, much of it Jewish, between 1941 and 1942, or searches for relatives of Jewish survivors and their Arab saviors. All too often, Mr. Satloff confesses, he succeeds in piecing together these "lost" stories through sheer luck.
Lacking comprehensive statistics and denied access to official and diplomatic files that Arab governments have sealed for 100 years, Mr. Satloff is careful not to present firm estimates of deaths, internments, injuries, and economic loss. But he discovers valuable information about Arabs helping or resisting efforts by the Third Reich, Italian Fascists, and Vichy bureaucrats to isolate and destroy Jews. For instance, in an interview, the current rector of the Great Mosque of Paris (an ethnic Algerian who is also president of the governing body of all French Muslims, an extraordinarily sensitive post given the strained relations between French Arabs and the government) confirmed that his predecessor in France had rescued up to 100 Jews in World War II. The rector also provided evidence that the Germans had suspected that his predecessor was helping Jews, and had ordered him to stop — or else. Yad Vashem told the Mosque that the memorial only recognized individuals who had rescued Jews, not institutions. Mr. Satloff argues that Yad Vashem should find a way to recognize the "righteous" French Muslims who saved Jews "in the heart of Europe," especially since it might help ease the hostile relationship between France's Jews and Muslims.
Mr. Satloff succeeds in finding at least one Arab Schindler by following the threads of an account from Anny Boukris, a Tunisian Jew who immigrated to America after the war. Ms. Boukris told Mr. Satloff that a Tunisian named Khaled Abdelwahhab, the son of a wealthy landowner and former minister to the court of the bey of Tunis, had rescued her family and her at age 11, along with several other families, by hiding them on his family's olive farm. By tracking down her relatives, Mr. Satloff confirms the account, but does not stop there. He also located the daughter of Mr. Abdelwahhab. "She had never before heard the story of her father's righteous deed," Mr. Satloff writes. Mr. Satloff's effort to unravel the truth came just in time. Mr. Abdelwahhab died in 1997; Anny Boukris died in late 2003, eight weeks after one of Mr. Satloff's researchers interviewed her about the rescue — the first time she had ever discussed her family's survival in detail.
Not all descendants of Arab "rescuers" whom Mr. Satloff located were pleased to learn of their forbears' righteousness. Some challenged the accounts, fearful of being accused of having befriended or helped rescue Jews — a depressing, but not unpredictable reaction given the growing bitterness between Arabs and Jews.
But Mr. Satloff, who is "proud of my connection to my Jewish homeland, Israel," sustains objectivity even in the most delicate interviews. For him, the effort to enlist Arab support in his quest for "righteous" Arabs is clearly personal and political. Mr. Satloff wants Arabs to see their part in rescuing some Jews from the Holocaust "as a source of pride, worthy of remembering, not just something to avoid or deny," so that perhaps Arabs will be able to reclaim part of their history. Though he does not explicitly say it, he clearly hopes the bitterness between these estranged communities will lessen, if not subside. Alas, in this goal he only rarely succeeds, which despite the personal optimism he expresses at the book's end, underscores the growing distance between two peoples who are increasingly unable to empathize with each other's suffering.
Mr. Satloff concludes that the record of Middle Eastern Arabs toward the Jews is not unlike that of Europeans. Some actively helped persecute Jews, pointing out Jewish homes and offices for confiscation. Some were brutal guards at labor camps, relishing their work. Some collaborated because they were ordered to, or because it was a job. A few courageous Arabs hid Jews in their farms and homes, guarded their valuables so the Germans could not seize them, shared their rations with them, and warned them of impending raids.
Most Arabs, like most Europeans, however, were indifferent to the killing at the time, and are indifferent today to this neglected, but important history.
Ms. Miller, a former reporter with the New York Times, is a writer and the author of "One, By One, By One: The Landmark Exploration of the Holocaust and the Uses of Memory" (Touchstone), a book on how memories of the Holocaust are being distorted and preserved in six nations.