Khaled Abdelwahab, a prominent and well-connected man from Mahdia, Tunisia who died in 1997, recently became the first Arab nominee for Jerusalem Righteous Among the Nations award--Israel's version of the Nobel Prize--for rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.
Abdelwahhab was in his early thirties during WWII, when France’s possessions of Morocco, Tunisia and Algiers, along with their Jewish population, fell under German occupation. He made it his business to fraternize with German officers so that he would be informed of their plans.
On one such occasion, he found out that a German soldier planned to kidnap a Jewish acquaintance of his “for his own pleasure,” according to The Times. The fate of the woman, Odette Boukris, like many other Jewish women under Nazi occupation, would have been a short life of repeated rape and most likely death at the hands of the soldier.
However, Abdelwahhab set out to save Odette and her family, despite the certain risk of his own death involved. Plying the soldier with alcohol, he later drove directly to the farm where Boukris lived and led them to safety.
“We left like that,” said Odette's daughter, Anny.
Abdelwahhab instantly became a lifelong friend and honored guest of the Boukris family. He later went on to marry and have a daughter, all the while sharing the common experience of Nazi occupation in Tunisia with his Jewish compatriots and the entire family whose life he saved.
“He could so easily have been killed if the German officer had found out that he had tricked him to save a Jewish woman,” said Dr. Robert Satloff, who requested that the award be given to Abdelwahab after undertaking research on Arabs who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
He would have been executed swiftly, or perhaps, added Satloff, tortured to death in any of the 104 “punishment” camps then being built across the Sahara.
Satloff embarked on his project since, in his words, “Persecution was not just a European story. I wanted to investigate what happened to Jews living among Arabs when the Nazis arrived. Their stories have been overlooked for far too long.”
Satloff pointed out that had allied troops not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, then the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and maybe Egypt and Palestine may have met the same fate as those in Europe.
In an interview with Haaretz, Satloff said that he hoped that his research project would succeed in breaking the silence amongst Arabs about saving Jews during the Holocaust.
Satloff, an expert in Arabic, Islam and the Middle East, explained that he began his research after the attacks of September 11, 2001, since, in his opinion, the Holocaust is a central cause of friction between the Muslim and the Western world.
"If there are Arabs who helped save Jews during the war," said Satloff, "it would be the most positive response to Holocaust deniers."
There are currently more than 21,000 people who have received the Righteous Among the Nations award, including some 60 Muslims, most of whom from Bosnia or Albania. Until now no nominee has been Arab.
Other heroes such as Abdelwahab include those like Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris and one of the most influential Muslims in Europe. Benghabrit saved as many as 100 Jews by granting them certificates of Muslim identity so that they could avoid arrest by Nazi forces.
These men were indeed true heroes, living out the Koran saying: "Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world."
© 2007 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )