The story of Muslim-Jewish relations is not based solely on conflict. It is also a story of mutual help in the worst of times. Often at the risk of ones’ own lives. Such was the case during the Holocaust.
Whosoever preserves a single soul
Righteous Among the Nations – this term was used in Jewish tradition to describe a person of non-Jewish origin who was a good and devout person.
Judaism teaches that “whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 37a).
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This quotation can be found on the medals given to people who selflessly and at the risk of their lives saved Jews from the Holocaust. Although the largest group thus honored are the Polish, there are also people from other countries, cultures and religions among the Righteous.
Over 70 Muslims have been added to the list of the Righteous Among the Nations. However, their stories are unknown to most of us. This is a pity, because they are a testimony to the fact that Muslims and Jews can live together in peace and harmony.
The Schindler of Iran
Iranian-born Abdol Hossein Sardari was a diplomat in France during World War II. When Adolf Hitler gave the order to occupy Paris, there was a large community of Iranian Jews living in the city.
When the Nazis began to pursue anti-Jewish policies in occupied France, the head of the Iranian consulate – Abdol Sardari – using the Reich’s laws on racial purity, convinced the Germans that Iranians were Aryans. The same assumption was to apply to Iranian Jews as well. The men used their own propaganda against the Nazis.
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In Paris, roundups became a regular practice. No one could leave France without a passport. As a diplomat, Abdol Hossein Sardari, in order to save the Iranian Jews, issued them new passports which did not specify their religion. The man began to issue Iranian passports to Jews outside Iran as well. His goal was to save as many people as possible.
Sardari helped 2,000 Jews to run from the Nazi regime. He did all this without the permission of his superiors, risking not only the loss of his professional position but also his life.
Moreover, the Iranian Jewish merchant Ibrahim Morady, who was one of the people rescued by Sardari, confessed that the diplomat was asked by the Iranian Foreign Ministry to return to the country. However, the man did not comply and he decided to stay in Paris so as not to leave thousands of Jews without help.
That one girl
Mohammed Helmy – an Egyptian born in the Sudanese city of Khartoum – was 21 years old when he arrived in Berlin in 1922 to study medicine. Although it was difficult to live in Germany after World War I, he decided to stay there. With time he settled in and took up a job in a German hospital.
His life changed dramatically when Adolf Hitler came to power. It turned out that the ideology of racial purity also applied to the Arab community. Mohammed was fired from the hospital. He was also forbidden to marry his German fiancée. After criticising Hitler’s rule, the man was arrested twice.
When the extermination of Jews in Berlin began, the Egyptian hid one of his former patients, a 21-year-old Jewish girl Anna Boros, from the Nazis. He also helped her mother, grandmother and stepfather. The whole family managed to survive the war.
“Everything he did for me was rooted in the goodness of his heart and I will be grateful to him for that for all eternity,” wrote Anna Boros years later as a survivor.
In 2013, doctor Mohammed Helmy became the first Arab in history to be awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Hidden in the basement of a mosque
Algerian religious leader Si Kaddour Benghabrit was one of the most charismatic Muslim clerics. For part of his life, he served semi-officially as a diplomat. Among other things, he contributed to the border agreement between French Algeria and Morocco. This made him popular on both sides of the Mediterranean.
In the 1920s, the French government decided to build the Grand Mosque in Paris. It was to commemorate the 100,000 Algerian Muslims who died during World War I fighting on the side of France. Through this institution, immigrants from different countries could also apply for support in acclimating to the new city. The care after the temple was entrusted to Benghabrit, who became its rector.
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The truth about the role of the Grand Mosque during the Holocaust did not come to light until many years after the war. During World War II, Si Kaddour Benghabrit saved the lives of at least 500 Jews, including Algerian singer Salim Halali. For people of Jewish origin, Benghabrit arranged for forged documents to prove that they had Muslim roots. This enabled them to avoid arrest and subsequent deportation to concentration camps.
Moreover, during Nazi roundups, Benghabrit hid Jews in the basement of the mosque. He then helped them to escape from France.
They kept their promise
It is one of the few countries in Europe where there were more Jews after World War II than before the war – Albania. Before the Holocaust, there were about 200 Jewish people living there. When Hitler came to power and began exterminating the Jewish population, thousands of Jewish refugees fled to Albania from Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia and Austria, among other places.
According to tradition, in Albania a guest enjoys the protection of his hosts, who must ensure his safety. Albanians believe that whoever gives his guest his word – besa – must keep it. It is a matter of honour. It was thanks to this custom that Jews from all over Europe found refuge in the Muslim Albania during World War II.
When the German army entered Albania in 1943 and tried to arrest and deport people of Jewish origin, the Albanians and their government did not obey the orders to hand over the Jews who were in the country. Many of the Jewish refugees were hidden by the rural population, and forged documents were provided to Jewish families even by members of the Albanian government.
So far, 75 Albanian men and women have been honoured in the Avenue of the Righteous at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Institute. Many of them were Muslim men and women.
Uncovering history as an opportunity for dialogue
Historical memory is often a reflection of the contemporary political situation in a country and in the world.
“Since childhood we were taught that the Holocaust was a big lie” – this is how Muhammad al-Zurqani, the editor-in-chief of the Egyptian government newspaper Al-Liwaa Al-Islami, spoke about the Holocaust until a dozen years ago. The journalist was also the author of texts in which he argued that the entire history of the Holocaust was invented by Zionists. They invented it in order to gain sympathy and recognition from the world. According to him, Jews wanted to rationalise the harm done to Arabs and justify their policies.
A similar attitude is displayed by a part of the Jewish community which tries to deny or forget that Muslims and Jews can live in friendship and even risk their lives for each other.
The young generation of followers of Islam and Judaism is open to understanding and discovering their common history. The former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau has become a place of understanding for some of them. It is there that meetings of Jewish and Muslim youth from Germany are organised. Their aim is to teach about their common history and fight prejudice. The idea for this trip came from the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
“This effort is paying off. Jews and Muslims must reconcile,” stresses Rabbi Walter Homolka.
Young Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq and Jews living in Germany took part in the initiative. The participants admit that during these few days spent together they have already succeeded in overcoming many prejudices.
“We now see each other simply as human beings. Religion does not play a major role,” says Judith Barneck, a Jewish student from Bielefeld.
Laura Maksimowicz – journalist co-working with non-governmental organisations. She studies international relations, focusing on migration, humanitarian aid and social issues. Co-worker of SalamLab.pl. You can follow Laura on social media – IG: @laura_maksimowicz.
Translation: Anna Babiec – philologist and translator by day, blues dancer by night; passionate about the history and culture of the Middle East. Member of the Salam Lab team.
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Cover photo: from left: Si Kaddour Benghabrit, Abdol Hossein Sardari, and Mohammed Helmy.