The Arab Righteous of the Maghreb

The Arab Righteous of the Maghreb

Götz Nordbruch

Was there an Arab Raoul Wallenberg? This question was the inspiration for Robert Satloff’s five-year research into the “lost stories of the Holocaust’s long reach into the Arab lands”. Götz Nordbruch takes a look at Satloff’s findings

The Swedish diplomat Wallenberg is one of more than 20,000 non-Jewish people honoured by the Holocaust Memorial Centre Yad Vashem for their attempts to save Jews from Nazi persecution. These “Righteous among the Nations” include Chinese, Brazilians, Japanese, Turks, Albanians and Bosnians – but not a single Arab.

Robert Satloff’s book “Among the Righteous” aims to right this imbalance. Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spent three years in North Africa reconstructing the history of Jewish persecution in the region under Vichy and German occupation.

To reveal the unsurprising result of his quest: they did exist, the Arab “Righteous”, who hid Jews or helped them escape despite the danger to their own lives.

Anti-Jewish laws implemented in the Maghreb

Satloff has succeeded in tracing many details of their stories. But more surprising than the fact that Jews were hidden from their neighbours in Morocco, Algeria and Tunesia, is Satloff’s answer to the question of why so few of these people are known, even sixty years since the end of the war: “Firstly because many Arabs (or their descendants) did not want to be found, and secondly because Jews did not look too hard to find them.”

On the basis of numerous interviews and dialogues, Satloff described the intensifying persecution of Jews, the torture and abuse in the more than 100 punishment and concentration camps, the forced labour used to build the French Trans-Saharan Railway. He describes the effects of the anti-Jewish laws passed under the Vichy regime, which were willingly exercised by the French authorities even without German pressure, and the consequences of the German occupation of Tunisia in the autumn of 1942.

It was only the arrival of the Allies in North Africa and the capture of Tunis in May 1943 that put an end to the German plans, which had already been initiated by the dispatch of an SS commando led by SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff. Rauff had previously been responsible for equipping the task forces in Eastern Europe for the task of exterminating the Jews.

Indifferent reactions of many Arab Muslims

The mistreatment and persecution of Jews was no secret in North Africa. The North African Jews interviewed by Satloff who lived through this time repeatedly describe the indifferent reactions of many Arab Muslims. And cases of collaboration, as informers to the authorities and German troops or as guards in the numerous camps.

Which makes the stories of other experiences all the more moving. The express refusal of the Algerian religious and political establishment to become an accomplice in the French policy of Jewish expropriation is one example.

The Imams’ resistance foiled the French authorities’ attempts to buy the sympathies of Algeria’s Muslim population with anti-Jewish laws. And even Messali Haj, the leader of the nationalist Parti Populaire Algérien, contradicted the French: “Restricting the rights of Jews will not bring new rights for Muslims.”

The story of a Jewish woman from Tunis, who was hidden along with her family by a Muslim acquaintance for several months as a child, is a moving testament. When a German officer told this acquaintance that he intended to rape the child’s mother, the family was spirited away by night to hide in a house in the country.

The embarrassment of being a helper

But these stories seem to be forgotten – or repressed. As Satloff describes his research, it becomes obvious how little interest even the Muslims involved have in recalling their help for persecuted Jews. In the atmosphere of the post-war era and the Arab-Israeli conflict, remembering the rescue of Jews was seen not as a sign of integrity but of weakness and collaboration. With outrageous consequences, in some cases.

Satloff reports on his meetings with the descendents of another landowner, who hid a group of sixty escaped Jewish forced labourers on his farm in the spring of 1943. He gave them food and a hiding place from the German troops until the arrival of the Allies.

But the man did not tell his family anything about them, and his two sons told a very different story: their father really did hide a group of escapees on his land, they said. But they were not Jews, they claimed, but German soldiers on the run from the approaching Allies. There is evidence backing up the first version, but not the second. Satloff leaves it open for the reader to decide whether there were two different incidents or the story was later re-interpreted.

Nevertheless, he is confident of having come a little closer to his goal. Honouring “Righteous” Arabs, he hopes, will help prompt a broader debate on the Holocaust in Arab societies.

The initial reactions to his book confirm this hope. In a comment in the al-Hayat newspaper, Jihad al-Khazin expressed his great surprise on reading the book. The account was unusually objective, he found. Greater praise is almost inconceivable, as Satloff, who he describes as a “pro-Israeli extremist”, has always been a red rag to a bull for Khazin.

Götz Nordbruch

© Qantara.de 2007

Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous. Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands. New York: Public Affairs, 2006.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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