Robert Satlof: The Holocaust's Arab Heroes

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is author of "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands" (PublicAffairs).]

Virtually alone among peoples of the world, Arabs appear to have won a free pass when it comes to denying or minimizing the Holocaust. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has declared to his supporters that "Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust." Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently told an interviewer that he doesn't have "any clue how [Jews] were killed or how many were killed." And Hamas's official Web site labels the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews "an alleged and invented story with no basis."

Such Arab viewpoints are not exceptional. A respected Holocaust research institution recently reported that Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all promote Holocaust denial and protect Holocaust deniers. The records of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum show that only one Arab leader at or near the highest level of government -- a young prince from a Persian Gulf state -- has ever made an official visit to the museum in its 13-year history. Not a single official textbook or educational program on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country. In Arab media, literature and popular culture, Holocaust denial is pervasive and legitimized.

Yet when Arab leaders and their people deny the Holocaust, they deny their own history as well -- the lost history of the Holocaust in Arab lands. It took me four years of research -- scouring dozens of archives and conducting scores of interviews in 11 countries -- to unearth this history, one that reveals complicity and indifference on the part of some Arabs during the Holocaust, but also heroism on the part of others who took great risks to save Jewish lives.

Neither Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Holocaust victims, nor any other Holocaust memorial has ever recognized an Arab rescuer. It is time for that to change. It is also time for Arabs to recall and embrace these episodes in their history. That may not change the minds of the most radical Arab leaders or populations, but for some it could make the Holocaust a source of pride, worthy of remembrance -- rather than avoidance or denial.

The Holocaust was an Arab story, too. From the beginning of World War II, Nazi plans to persecute and eventually exterminate Jews extended throughout the area that Germany and its allies hoped to conquer. That included a great Arab expanse, from Casablanca to Tripoli and on to Cairo, home to more than half a million Jews.

Though Germany and its allies controlled this region only briefly, they made substantial headway toward their goal. From June 1940 to May 1943, the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators and their Italian fascist allies applied in Arab lands many of the precursors to the Final Solution. These included not only laws depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence and free movement, but also torture, slave labor, deportation and execution.

There were no death camps, but many thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labor camps, many solely for Jews. Recall Maj. Strasser's warning to Ilsa, the wife of the Czech underground leader, in the 1942 film "Casablanca": "It is possible the French authorities will find a reason to put him in the concentration camp here." Indeed, the Arab lands of Algeria and Morocco were the site of the first concentration camps ever liberated by Allied troops.

About 1 percent of Jews in North Africa (4,000 to 5,000) perished under Axis control in Arab lands, compared with more than half of European Jews. These Jews were lucky to be on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, where the fighting ended relatively early and where boats -- not just cattle cars -- would have been needed to take them to the ovens in Europe. But if U.S. and British troops had not pushed Axis forces from the African continent by May 1943, the Jews of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and perhaps even Egypt and Palestine almost certainly would have met the same fate as those in Europe....

Read entire article at Wa Po

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rami hamodah - 12/4/2006

As a Palestinian, I agree that denying the Holocaust is very common in the Middle East, and while this research shows that we actually helped Jews survive the ethnic cleansing undertaken by Germany, we must understand that:

1) It is normal for any human, Arab or not, to help other humans like that, Jewish or not. After all killing one person is a holocaust on it's own, never mind killing millions.

2) The Average Palestinian has been suffering from ethnic cleansing by Israel, which makes it hard for him/her to easily acknowledge what happened to the Jews (the Holocaust), I attribute this to both human nature, and rage caused by constant suffering by Palestinians. It is a lot easier to be in rage when you are being shot at, than to acknowledge the atrocities suffered by the shooter. And remember, Even Israel never recognized that Arabs even in Palestine opened their homes for the holocaust survivals. Also most of the Jewish immigration to Palestine prior to 1940s, was most welcomed by Palestinians, some even shared their homes, farms and lands with the Jewish new comers, even before the holocaust was in the board room.

3) Being Jewish is a religion not a blood line or race type. Being Arab is. You can be an Arab Jew, Christian, Muslim or Atheist. Hence, Jews who lived in the Middle East before the holocaust and had roots their for years, are Arabs, Arab Jews..

So, As a Palestinian that has roots in Palestine for 3000 years or so, My grand Parents in the year 300 AD were Christiansen, but in 12 BC they were Jewish. Now they are Muslims....

We must focus on making Palestine, and all of it a land for its people, Jews, christens, Muslims and others.

Well, maybe not yet, I think both are stupid enough to shed more blood before they eventually realize that, they must live together in peace like we always did before the holocaust and before the conflict.


Jonathan Dresner - 10/15/2006

Obviously, because that's not a "lost story."

This is a copy of a review published in the NYTimes: if you have a problem with the review, take it up with them. If you have a problem with the book, read it first.

Robert Elliot Solot - 10/15/2006

Your story is fine as far as it goes, but why do you omit the story of the Mufti of Jeruselem (I can't remember his full name right now) during the war years who was in charge of broadcasting Nazi hate-speech to the Arab world and who later was in charge of organizing Muslim death squads to hunt down Jews in the Balkans? He was convicted at Nuremberg for this, "escaped" to France and then was given sancturary in Egypt. Plus, Nazi operatives were active throughout the Middle East during the war and found eager recruits to their ideology--Michel Aflaq, founder of the Baath party, is one famous example.