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Author Uncovers Stories of Arabs Helping Jews During Holocaust

December 26, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: During World War II, as Germany and Italy stepped up their persecution of Jews in Europe, what was the fate of the half-million Jews living in regions the Axis powers controlled in North Africa and the Middle East?

That question intrigued Robert Satloff, an historian and Arabic-speaking Washington policy analyst. He took leave from his job as head of the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy and moved to Morocco for his research. The result is his new book, “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.”

And, Robert Satloff, welcome.

ROBERT SATLOFF, Author, “Among the Righteous”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: So what attracted you to this story and inspired you to write this book?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, I was drawn to the story because of my sense that denial of the Holocaust in many parts of the Arab world is the tip of the iceberg of what divides Arab societies from Western societies.

And I tried to find a way to provide Arabs of goodwill a new approach to access and understand the Holocaust, to make it an Arab story. And I came up with the idea of asking the question: Did any Arabs ever save any Jews during the Holocaust?

Because, if you are proud of that story, then you have to accept the context that there was something to save Jews from, and, hence, my search for the Arab “righteous” of the title.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, give us some context geographically. Which Arab lands were most involved?

ROBERT SATLOFF: The part of the Arab world that is most under Axis control for the longest period of time is in North Africa, in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.

Other parts of the Arab world had some domination by Axis countries, Vichy France, for example, and Syria and Lebanon, but that was brief.

And for the three years, though, from spring of 1940 until the spring of 1943, North Africa, Morocco to Libya, was under the control, first of Vichy France in Morocco and Algeria and Tunisia, under Italian fascism in Libya. And then, for six months, the only Arab country to have a full-fledged Nazi occupation was Tunisia.

Researching the book

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what did you find, first of all, on the negative side of the ledger? To what degree were Jews persecuted in these countries? And to what degree did the Arabs living there take part in that?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, to an extent, far greater than I ever knew. And I'm not an historian of the Holocaust, but this is a story that most people tend to know what happened during World War II.

To a greater extent than I ever knew, the Jews of Arab lands suffered many of the same elements of Holocaust persecution that the Jews of Europe suffered.

Everything except death camps was applied in Arab lands, so they lost citizenship. Only in Germany and Algeria, the only two places where Jews lost citizenship. Laws governing what they could do, where they could live, what they could eat, the yellow star, more than 100 labor camps were set up in these countries. So it was a deep amount of persecution.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you went out looking for the Arab heroes. How did you go about your research?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, in a dozen different ways. Thankfully, in the 21st century, there's an Internet, so I could post listings on list serves all over the world.

And people in some places tracked me down, like a 71-year-old Tunisian woman in Los Angeles tracked me down in Morocco to tell me her story of an Arab hero.

At other times, I had to rely on the testimonies of Jewish survivors from labor camps who had given their record of their internment to Allied investigators after they were freed.

In one case, I and my family went out to look for the remains of a labor camp deep in the desert along the Morocco-Algeria border, with nothing in our hands except 60-year-old testimony from a Polish-Jewish internee at that labor camp. So it's really quite a mix of human and documentary evidence.

Examples of Arab 'heroes'

MARGARET WARNER: And tell us a couple of these stories. First of all, there were heroes even among the rulers, the elites in some of these societies.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Yes, I found these helpers, rescuers of Jews at all levels of society. At the top of society, you had the sultan of Morocco and the ruler of Tunis -- Tunis was also like a monarchy at the time -- giving important moral support to their subjects.

And then, in a place like Algiers, there's a fantastic story of all the mosque preachers at Algiers forbidding any believer from accepting a bribe offer from the Vichy French, asking any Arab to serve as a custodian of confiscated Jewish property.

And, amazingly, not a single Arab accepted the bribe. So it's a remarkable story of comradeship in time of war.

MARGARET WARNER: And quite different from Europe.

ROBERT SATLOFF: And very different, in many respects, from what happened in Europe, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: But the most riveting stories in here concerned ordinary Arabs. What are a couple of your -- I hate to say favorites -- but your nominees for an Arab Oskar Schindler?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, I suppose my top nominee is a Tunisian gentleman named Khaled Abdelwahhab, who was in a small seaside town named Mahdia in Tunisia. And he learned one evening that a German officer was going to rape a blonde, beautiful, blue-eyed Jewish woman.

And he knew that family of the Jewish woman, and he got there first. And he knocked on the door where she and her family were seeking refuge. And he said, "You have to come with me."

And he ferried all of them in his car for the rest of the evening back and forth, because there were several families in the same place, ferried them to a farm that he and his family had outside town. And he kept them there for six weeks until the end of the war. And that, to me, is true heroism.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Give us another.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Then, even in the heart of Europe, right under the eyes of the Nazis, in Paris, there's a fantastic story about a man named Si Kaddour Benghabrit, who was the rector of the mosque of Paris, the imam of the largest mosque of Paris.

And there's compelling evidence that he saved up to 100 Jews in a very clever way. He gave them certificates of Muslim identity, birth certificates, marriage certificates, so they could pass as Muslims and thereby avoid arrest and deportation.

Descendants react to deeds

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did the descendents of these people react when you tracked them down?

ROBERT SATLOFF: The response to these wonderful stories of humanitarianism itself was very complex. Many times, I would come to the homes of the sons and daughters or grandchildren, and they were not delighted to learn about the heroic deeds of their grandparents.

And as one of them told me with great candor, "Look, what my father or grandfather did half a century ago was one thing, but politics has intruded, and I'm not too excited to hear about this stuff these days."

And to me, that's very sad that it's become almost toxic in many parts of the Middle East to remember that there was a moment when some Arabs saved some Jews. And I'm hoping that giving these stories an airing helps to detoxify that terrible sense that history can be suppressed because of politics.

Arabs absent in memorials

MARGARET WARNER: You came up with an amazing statistic, which is -- at Yadvashem, which is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, which has honored more than 22,000 of the righteous, people who saved Jews, there's not one Arab Muslim. And why? Why have these stories not been told? Why have these people not been recognized?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, that's right. There are Muslims, I should point out. There are Bosnians, Albanians and Turks, but there's never been an Arab. And this didn't quite make sense to me, given that the persecution happened in Arab lands, and Arabs, on a human basis, certainly are no different than anybody else trying to help other people.

So, why? There's really two reasons why we haven't heard these stories before. One is Jews, and Holocaust historians in general, haven't looked too hard. And, two, most Arabs didn't want to be found. And it was really the combination of the both is the reason why we don't know these.

MARGARET WARNER: But why have Jewish investigators not looked too hard?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, this is a very complex story. One level is that the Holocaust became very much associated with the European-Jewish narrative.

And when hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands came to Israel, they found that their Holocaust saga, their experience, which to them may have been very painful, was very different and certainly nothing even approaching the enormity of the Holocaust persecution in Europe.

And so it was actually a point of division, a point of separation between Sephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. And that made it less attractive to historians to focus on this enormous chapter that still we haven't heard much about.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Satloff, author of "Among the Righteous," thank you.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Thank you very much.