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Nissim Zvili

When Nissim Zvili celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13 on a moshav (or cooperative farm) in Israel, his mother finally sat him down to tell him a story that she had waited to tell him until he had come of age.

In 1942, the year Nissim was born, the family was living in the small fishing village of Mahdia, Tunisia. It was also the year that the country would be invaded by Nazis.

Soon after the Germans arrived in Tunis, troops moved into Mahdia and immediately started drafting the town's Jewish men for forced labor. Nissim's father and uncle were among the first group taken by the Germans to a work camp more than 40 miles out of town, all with Jewish stars pinned to their chest, just like the Jews in Europe.

This shocked one of Nissim's father's friends, an Arab man who felt that something was very wrong with what was happening. The Germans were violent, vicious and posed a serious danger to the Jews of Mahdia.

The Arab friend decided to take what was left Nissim's family -- Nissim, his mother and his sister -- to live on a farm he owned outside of town. They spent several months on the farm, living out the rest of the German occupation of Mahdia without incident. Nissim's father returned from the labor camp just before the Germans were evicted from Tunisia and the family was reunited.

Nissim's mother did not tell him the name of their family protector. But she was intent on telling him the central point of the story. Referring to his Arab savior and others like him,

"Of course, they are Righteous," Nissim said. "If the Nazis [remained in Tunisia] for some years or for some months you could be in danger," said Nassim, "and they took the decision to keep my family far away from the danger of the German Army. For me it is exactly like what happened in France or anywhere in the world."

Nissim knows about what happened in France. That 13-year-old on the moshav grew up to be a member of the Israeli Knesset, secretary-general of Israel's Labor Party, and eventually, Israeli's ambassador to France.

--Robert Satloff

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