Khaled Abdul Wahab was not a typical Tunisian. Son of the country's most famous writer, Khaled was struck with wanderlust. He traveled not just to Europe, but also to America, where he learned art and architecture and even worked as a photography model in Manhattan. But there were two Jewish families in Khaled's hometown of Mahdia who were very glad that he returned to live on his family farm by the time German troops arrived. Thanks to him, the Boukhris and Uzzan families were saved from the worst of the Nazi horrors.
What had been a happy, uneventful childhood for 11-year-old Anny Boukhris came to an abrupt end when Germans invaded Tunisia. German troops barged into her home and ransacked their possessions, including Anny's prized stamp collection, giving her family just one hour to pack their suitcases. With nowhere to go, the Boukhrises and their cousins, the Uzzans, sought refuge with friends at an olive press factory outside town.
Late one night, a man came banging at the door of the factory. It was Khaled. A notable member of the community, he had taken it upon himself to wine and dine the German officers in order to learn their intentions and try to prevent some of the worst of the Nazi atrocities. Over dinner that night, he had learned that one of the German officers had his eye on Odette Boukhris, Anny's beautiful mother. Fearing for her safety, Khaled spent the the night ferrying everyone to his farm in the hamlet of Tlelsa, about 20 miles west of Mahdia. There, the two families were safe, living in the stables on the far side of the farm.
Soon after their arrival, a German unit set up camp just outside Khaled's compound. One night, when the men of the two Jewish families were off performing forced labor, Khaled hosted a dinner in the main house for the officers from the nearby unit. One of them, drunkenly wandered around the farm grounds until he came to to the stables where he found the Jewish women and children.
"I know that you are Jews," he screamed at the women, cowering under their blankets and mattresses, "and I am going to kill you tonight." He pointed to a young girl, saying, "I am going to start with you!"
Just at that moment, Khaled arrived. He eased the German out of the stables before he laid a finger on any of the women.
"It was like the coming of the Messiah," said Anny's cousin Edmee.
Neither Khaled nor the Jews he protected at Tlelsa ever spoke much about these events. Thanks to Khaled, the Jewish families passed the rest of the occupation without incident, and as as long as Anny could remember, Khaled was an honored guest at the family table for the Sabbath meal.
Does Khaled Abdul Wahab deserve to be called "Righteous Among the Nations"?
In 2007, Khaled Abdul Wahab was nominated for that distinction at Yad Veshem, the national Holocaust Memorial in Israel. In 2009, it was announced that Khaled's nomination was rejected by the Commission on the Righteous, the official body that decides these matters under Israeli law.
Khaled's nomination provoked debate between people who felt he should be honored, and those who did not. You can read editorials from both perspectives: