Arabs Who Saved the Jews
Since 1963, Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial, has honored more than 21,000 people for rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. None have been Arab, and little has been written about the persecution of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II. It is a gap Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tackles in his new book, Among the Righteous, where he looks for hope in a region rife with Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
What inspired you to write the book?
The emotional trigger was being in Manhattan on 9/11 and having the image of a puff of smoke emerging from the north tower [of the World Trade Center] morph in my mind into the chimneys of Auschwitz. That got me on the trail of thinking about Holocaust denial throughout the world. The political rationale was to try to find a single Arab who saved a single Jew, which I thought would be a twist that might help lance the boil of Holocaust denial.
How did you find these stories?
Without the Internet, I don't think this book could have been written. I had, for example, a posting on a website that serves the Jewish community of Tunisia. I'm living in Morocco, and I received an E-mail from a 71-year-old Tunisian Jewish woman living in California who tells her story of how when she was 11 years old, an Arab in her hometown in Tunisia saved her and her family.
How does the experience of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa compare with those in Europe during World War II?
The Holocaust is overwhelmingly a European story, and I think that's important for me to say. But for the people in Arab lands who suffered, their suffering was real and powerful and gripping and painful. When you look at the total experience, there were no death camps set up in Arab lands. There were over 100 sites of forced labor that have been recognized by the German government. In one Italian camp in North Africa alone, where 2,500 people were interned, more than a quarter of them died from the terrible conditions.
How common were Arabs who saved Jews?
First, one should not make the yardstick too high. I myself found a handful of stories. You had examples of government officials warning Jews that the SS was going to come and arrest them. You had examples of government officials providing protection. I also tell stories of Arabs whose unusual kindness for Jews probably saved Jewish lives. It could be Arabs who took Jews into their homes after they'd escaped from bombed-out villages or Arab wet nurses who took in Jewish babies because Jews were at the bottom rung of the ration ladder.
Why have Jewish groups like Yad Vashem not pursued these stories more aggressively?
It's not Yad Vashem's job to track down rescuers. Their function is to vet the people who are proposed to them by others. However, at the same time, because of the powerful symbolic value and the importance of including a story of the Holocaust in Arab lands, I would have hoped that other institutions and other scholars would have done this before me.