Sunday, December 03, 2006

Saviours in a strange world - Sunday Times - Times Online

Saviours in a strange world - Sunday Times - Times Online:

This really made my day. I'm really getting in the holiday spirit this year, and so hope that this will bring some light and warmth into y'alls' world-views. Happy Life Day!

Then another, larger question began to bother Satloff. Could there ever have been an Arab Schindler? An Arab Wallenberg? As the world remembers, Oskar Schindler, whose story was told by Thomas Keneally in the award-winning Schindler’s Ark, was the German factory owner who defied the SS to rescue as many as 1,300 Jews. Wallenberg,
a Swedish diplomat working in wartime Budapest, is credited with saving as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews.
In pursuit of his Arab Schindler, Satloff, who is fluent in Arabic, French and Hebrew, moved with his wife, an economist at the World Bank, and two young sons to Morocco in 2002 and began his research in earnest. He turned himself into a Simon Wiesenthal in reverse: where the legendary Nazi hunter, who died last year, sought criminals to bring them to justice, Satloff sought champions. Over steaming cups of sweet mint tea in houses and cafes, he listened to tales from the past. Some people were eager to speak of their wartime tribulations, as if they had been waiting all their lives to unburden themselves; others were more guarded. Acceptance and suspicion of him went hand in hand.
In the event, he found not one saviour but many. Wherever he went he collected stories about Arabs welcoming Jews into their homes, sharing their meagre rations, guarding their valuables so Germans could not confiscate them, and warning leaders about SS raids. Abdelwahhab, who died in 1997 aged 86, features prominently in his gallery of heroes, along with Si Ali Sakkat, a former mayor of Tunis who hid 60 Jewish workers who had fled a labour camp, and Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of a Paris mosque, who helped 100 Jews evade persecution in 1940. Similarly, the Bey of Tunis, Tunisia’s wartime ruler under the Germans, is reported as having told members of his government: “The Jews… are under our patronage and we are responsible for their lives. If I find out that an Arab informer caused even one hair of a Jew to fall, this Arab will pay with his life.” As one old gentleman from a small town in Tunisia remarked, “The Arabs watched over the Jews.”
Satloff is prepared for such tales of Arab derring-do to stir controversy. Denial of the Holocaust in Arab lands is not uncommon. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has declared to his supporters that Jews invented the “legend” of the Holocaust. Hamas’s official website has labelled the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews “an alleged and invented story with no basis”. And recently, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria told an interviewer he doesn’t “have any clue how [Jews] were killed or how many were killed”. So if the Shoah never happened, or has been exaggerated, how can Arabs such as Si Kaddour Benghabrit or the Bey of Tunis have played any part in it – noble or otherwise?
It was witnessing the 9/11 attacks that prompted Satloff to embark upon his book. Watching the twin towers collapse, an event he saw from the relative safety of a Midtown office building in Manhattan, he wondered what he, as a Jew, an American and an Islamic scholar, could do to bring together warring ideologies. In his mind, the plume of smoke rising from the towers conjured up the chimneys of the death camps. “I decided that the best thing I could do would be to combat Arab ignorance about the Holocaust,” he says. “And the most effective way of doing that was to tell a positive story. Any history that I wrote had to involve the Islamic world and its Arab heroes.” As he points out, in a fractured, fragmenting world, dialogue is both desirable and essential.
Today, Schindler and Wallenberg are perhaps the most famous men to have been officially recognised by Yad Vashem as “righteous among the nations”. They are just two of the 21,310 Gentiles honoured for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Individuals come from Chile and Croatia, Lithuania and Latvia, but there is no representative on that list from Tunisia, Morocco or Algiers. “There are Turkish and Bosnian Muslims cited,” says Satloff, “but nearly 60 years after the war, no Arab has ever been officially recognised.”

Robert Satloff's book on Arab benefactors of Jews during the Holocaust is Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands.

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