Muslim Heroes of the Holocaust

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SHAFAQNA – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a lot of heat in the wake of the recent speech in which he suggested that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, had given Adolf Hitler the idea of murdering Europe’s Jews when the two met in 1941.

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time,” Netanyahu told the World Zionist Congress, “he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.'”

Netanyahu’s anecdote was not true: Hitler hardly needed al-Husseini’s suggestions on murdering Jews, and anyway by the time Hitler and al-Husseini met that November, the murder of Jews was underway. The prime minister was quickly criticized by historians in Israel and elsewhere, and subjected to harsh ridicule and parody on Facebook andTwitter. Even the Mufti’s granddaughter weighed in. Netanyahu at first claimed that he had been misunderstood, but he eventually attempted to “clarify” his remarks away.

One of the more interesting reactions to Netanyahu’s speech appeared on the Middle Eastern website, stepfeed.com, where Beirut-based journalist Jason Lemon assembled a list headlined, “5 times Muslims saved Jews during the Holocaust.” Lemon wrote that Netanyahu’s remarks “were intended to demonize Palestinians and Muslims,” so in response he would “highlight stories of Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust.”

Netanyahu was probably less interested in demonizing all Palestinians and Muslims than he was in demonstrating the depth of Judeophobia in the region, though whatever his motives were he blundered. In fact, some Muslims did play a role in Hitler’s genocide, especially al-Husseini. According to Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Wolfgang G. Schwanitz and the late Barry Rubin, there were Muslims from the Balkans and the then-Soviet republics, some 53,000 of them (equal to four divisions), who served the Nazis in the German Army, including the SS. They were recruited with the help of the Mufti. Muslim chaplains trained in Dresden and Goben emerged as captains in the SS. The Mufti propagandized among Arabs on behalf of Hitler while fomenting bloody anti-Jewish riots in the Middle East. One of the consequences of Netanyahu’s blunder has been to remind people of the largely forgotten (in the West) Mufti even as he obscured the extent of al-Husseini’s villainy.

Nevertheless, highlighting the courage and heroism of those Muslims who risked their own well-being to save the lives of Jews, and rescuing the names of these people from obscurity, is a valuable idea on its own terms, as well as a useful response to the Netanyahu uproar. This is a story that has received remarkably little attention, especially among Muslims themselves. Much of the attention it has received is due to the efforts of one man: Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Satloff spent years investigating the efforts by Muslims of Arab countries to aid their Jewish neighbors during WWII, publishing his findings in his 2007 book, Among the Righteous. (In 2010, PBS produced a documentary based on Satloff’s work; the preview is here.) Here’s an annotated version of Lemon’s list, which includes both Arab and non-Arab Muslims:

Selahattin Ulkumen. “While serving as the Turkish consul of Rhodes under German occupation,” Lemon writes, “Ulkumen was able to save approximately 50 Jews. One of the individuals was even on a train bound for the Auschwitz death camp when Ulkumen intervened and was able to remove him from the train due to the man’s wife’s Turkish citizenship.”

Ulkumen is honored at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims which also pays tribute to non-Jews who aided Jews in danger. Its Website points out how determined Ulkumen was to save anyone he could. For example, he demanded that the Gestapo release the detained Jewish husbands and wives of Turkish citizens, “insisting that according to Turkish law, spouses of Turkish citizens were considered to be citizens themselves.” The Germans complied with this supposed Turkish law, though Ulkumen had in fact made it up.

Si Kaddour Benghabrit. “Born in Algeria, Benghabrit was in charge of the Grand Mosque of Paris when the Nazis invaded,” Lemon says. “He is credited with helping to save between 500 and 1,600 Jews by sheltering them in the mosque until they could obtain certificates of Muslim identity, allowing them to escape safely.”

There’s actually a good deal more to this dramatic story. Paris’ Grand Mosque sheltered both Jews and Christian resistance fighters during WWII. It not only helped hide fugitive Jews, it supplied them with the false papers identifying them as Muslims. (The fact that both Jews and Muslims circumcise was a helpful factor in this masquerade.) The Germans learned that the mosque was hiding Jews, and even threatened its leaders, but under Benghabrit the mosque persisted. In one case involving a Jewish refugee, Benghabrit even had the refugee’s grandfather’s name engraved on an abandoned Muslim tomb, in support of the man’s assumed Muslim identity; he sheltered at least one Jewish orphan in his own home. Benghabrit, a true anti-al-Husseini, was instrumental in making Paris’ mosque, in Robert Satloff’s words, “a virtual Grand Central Station for the Underground Railroad of Jews in France….”

Khaled Abdul-Wahab. “Serving as an interlocutor between the Nazi occupiers and the local residents of a Tunisian town, Abdul-Wahab overheard Nazi soldiers discussing their plans to rape a certain Jewish woman,” according to Lemon. “Acting quickly, he hid the woman, her family, and approximately two dozen other Jewish families at his farm outside of town where they remained safe for four months until the end of the occupation.”

Tunisian Jews were saved from extermination only because time ran out on the Nazis. They had occupied the country, instituted forced labor on the men, and were in control of the lives of the community. Abdul-Wahab hid families on his land to save them from harm, though in fact the Germans knew where these families were.

He was nominated for recognition by Yad Vashem a few years ago, but the nomination proved controversial. The institution recognized Abdul-Wahab’s merit and courage, but noted that what he did was not illegal in Tunisia and that own his life was not in danger, long-standing parameters for Yad Vashem’s recognition. Abdul-Wahab’s supporters dismissed such reasoning, while noting that they had not always been strictly applied anyway. As one supporter arguedin the Jerusalem Post, “Did Abdul-Wahhab not risk his personal safety and welfare? Did he not risk questioning and possible interrogation or arrest by the Germans who controlled Tunisia?” Abdul-Wahhab is honored in other “Gardens of the Righteous,” one in Washington, D.C. and another in Milan, Italy.

Si Ali Sakkat. “The retired mayor of Tunis and a former government minister lived in retirement near to a forced labor camp for Jews in Tunisia,” writes Lemon. “During an allied bombing, around 60 Jews were able to escape the camp and sought refugee [sic] at Sakkat’s compound. He cared for them until Tunisia was liberated by the allied forces.”

As Robert Satloff points out, Si Ali Sakkat acted without knowing what consequences his decision might carry. He “had no idea which way the tide of war was turning: Would the German hold their ground? Would the Allies take Tunis? But he had to make a quick decision. He ordered his farmhands to open the gate and find food and shelter for all sixty Jews. The Jewish laborers of Zaghouan [the labor camp] found safety and comfort under Si Ali’s watchful care.”

Albania. “The predominantly Muslim country of Albania was occupied by Hitler’s ally, Italy, during World War II,” notes Lemon. “Nonetheless, it managed to protect all of its Jews and even accepted and protected 600 to 1,800 additional Jewish refugees. When national leaders were asked by Nazi officials to provide lists of Jews residing in the country, they refused to do so.”

Albanians certainly deserve great credit for saving their tiny Jewish population (usually estimated at only 200 at the start of the war, a number soon swollen by refugees), but Lemon’s reference to Italy is somewhat misleading. The Italian fascists may have been making the lives of Italian Jews miserable with their restrictive racial laws, but they consistently resisted turning over Jews in their occupied areas to the Germans. In Croatia, in southern France, and elsewhere, Italian authorities successfully stalled their increasingly frustrated Nazi colleagues. Italy’s unlikely protection was to end in the occupied areas, as well as in Italy itself, with the fall of the Mussolini regime in 1943. After that, Germans assumed control. Though there were to be round-ups by the Nazis even in Rome, the Albanians continued to protect their own Jews, and those who had taken refuge in the country.

Albanian Muslims were acting in accordance with Besa, a code of honor that, among other things, demands that one act compassionately on behalf of others when they are in need. Indeed, in some villages Muslim families competed to provide sanctuary, considering it an ethical imperative and an honor. Photographer Norman Gershman chronicled the efforts of the Muslims of Albania and Kosovo in his 2008 book, Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in WWII.

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