JERUSALEM: At the height of the Second World War, Khaled Abdelwahhab hid a group of Jews on his farm in a small Tunisian town, saving them from the Nazi troops occupying the north African nation.
More than six decades later, Abdelwahhab has become the first Arab nominated for recognition as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel s official Holocaust memorial. The honor is bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi persecution.
The nomination of Abdelwahhab, who died in 1997, has reopened a little-known chapter of the Holocaust, one that unfolded in the Arab countries of north Africa.
Abdelwahhab was nominated by Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think tank.
I asked did any Arabs save Jews in the Holocaust? Satloff said. If they did, these are stories about which Arabs could be proud. It would also entail accepting the context, because it would mean there was something to save Jews from. That search led Satloff to Abdelwahhab, the cosmopolitan son of an aristocratic family who was 32 when German troops arrived in Tunisia in November 1942. The north African nation was home to some 100,000 Jews at the time.
Abdelwahhab served as an interlocutor between the population of the coastal town of Mahdia and the German occupation forces, Satloff said. He was also a country farmer, a sometime Tunisian civil servant and an avid traveler.
When he heard one evening that German officers were planning to rape Odette Boukris, a local Jewish woman, he gathered her family and several other Jewish families in Mahdia – a total of around two dozen people – and took them to his farm outside town. He hid them for four months, until the German occupation ended.
Khaled is the finest example, though not the only one, of an Arab who saved Jews from persecution during the German occupation, Satloff said.
Tunisia was the only north African country to come under direct German rule. Nearby Morocco and Algeria were governed by the pro-German collaborators of Vichy France.
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a north Africa expert at Tel Aviv University, said that Morocco s king at the time, Mohammed V, intervened to protect Jews in his country. But the story in Tunisia was quite different, because there was a direct occupation by the German army, he said.