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Documentary Examines ‘Righteous’ Arab Actions During Holocaust

April 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, talks to Jeffrey Brown about "Among the Righteous," his eight-year project to document the stories of Arabs helping Jews during the Holocaust and the forthcoming PBS documentary based on his work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, a story of the Holocaust and survival through a different lens.

A new documentary, “Among the Righteous,” explores the efforts of Arabs to save the lives of Jews during World War II. The film is based on the work of Middle East expert Robert Satloff and was produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and narrated by Robert MacNeil.

Here’s a short clip from the beginning of the film.

ROBERT MACNEIL, narrator: On a hill in Jerusalem, a haunting memorial commemorates the thousands of Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust.

The names of Europe’s lost ghettos are engraved in our memories, but the story of what happened to Jewish communities in Arab lands is largely forgotten. Further up the hill, a tree-shaded garden preserves the names of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish lives, people like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. They are known as the righteous among the nations.

But for the writer and historian Robert Satloff, one nation is strangely absent.

ROBERT SATLOFF, executive director, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: More than 20,000 non-Jews here recognized for helping, saving Jews during the Holocaust. There’s about 60 or so Muslims. Here’s Albanians, Bosnians. And there’s a tree planted up on the hill in memory of the one Turk. Strangely, though, out of more than 20,000 names, there’s not a single Arab.

ROBERT MACNEIL: If Arab Schindlers ever existed, it might change how Arabs view the Holocaust and how Arabs and Jews view each other. This is the story of one man’s quest to find an Arab who saved a Jew.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Satloff is director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he joins me now.



JEFFREY BROWN: This has largely been unexplored and unhonored territory, right?

ROBERT SATLOFF: That’s right.

There’s very few histories of this region, of Arab countries during the Holocaust, and none before looked at the stories of Arabs who helped Jews during this period.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of it takes place in North Africa. There’s a lot of stories here, but, as an overview, what did you find?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, first of all, what I found is that the Holocaust is an Arab story, too.

During three years, from 1940 to 1943, Nazi Germany and its allies controlled Arab countries and imparted the persecution of Jews in those countries, half-a-million Jews. And Arabs in these countries played a role very much like European civilians played.

Most were bystanders. Some were collaborators. And a small, but very important number helped Jews facing persecution.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why was the story untold? Why is so little known?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, the story of why rescuers is unknown, I think, has two parts.

One is Jews, historians, Westerners in general, we didn’t look that hard. And, on the other side, Arabs, and especially the Arab rescuers and their families, many didn’t want to be find, after 50 years, 60 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict being an overlay on this entire period.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, why does it matter? I mean, what — what — what different does it make, to you, to tell these stories?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, I set out on a mission nine years ago, trying to find a hopeful, inclusive way to talk with Arabs about the Holocaust, and, in so doing, trying to — to combat ignorance and even denial of the Holocaust in many Arab societies, not to confront Arabs, but to include them in the story, and, hopefully, thereby getting rid of this deep-seated ignorance and, in some places, denial of the Holocaust.

And these stories of rescuers is such a hopeful, positive set of stories that I think that they open a window for Jews and Arabs, Westerners and Muslims in general to talk about this most controversial of topics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we — we’re not going to go into all the individual stories here, but, interestingly enough, a lot of it, this is territory that continues to confound and be controversial on both sides, right, Arab and Israeli.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Yes, this is a very controversial topic. Arabs don’t want to talk about the Holocaust, for fear of validating Israel. There are some in Israel, or Jews in general, who don’t even recognize that survivors from North Africa are survivors, let alone that the Arabs who rescued them deserve to be known as righteous, the title of the film.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a reminder: “Among the Righteous” airs a week from tonight, next Monday evening, on most PBS stations.

Robert Satloff, thank you very much.