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Remembering Muslims Who Saved Jews in the Holocaust

Allan Brownfeld
February 17, 2016

by Allan C. Brownfeld

OrotectorONE OF THE LARGELY UNTOLD stories of the years of the Holocaust is the brave resistance shown by many Muslims and their commitment to helping to save Jews.

The British newspaper The Independent reports about the work being done by the group “I Am Your Protector” (IAYP), who describe themselves as “a community of people who speak up and stand up for each other across religion, race, gender and beliefs.” The group is attempting to highlight the neglected stories of Muslims who helped Jews during the Nazi period.

Among the individuals cited is Iranian diplomat Abdol Hossein Sardari, also known as the “Iranian Schindler.” He saved thousands of Jews by using the Nazis’ own propaganda against them. When the fascists began implementing anti-Jewish laws in occupied France, Mr. Sardari, who was at the time the head of the Iranian consulate in Paris, cited the Reich’s racial purity laws to successfully argue Iranian Jews were actually Aryan and therefore not subject to the restrictions.

According to The Independent, “Issuing Iranian passports to occupied Jews, without the consent of his superiors, Mr. Sardari helped 2,000 Jews escape the Nazi regime. Mr. Sardari is just one of many people who feature in a new campaign honoring Muslims who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

Others cited by IAYP include Selhattin Ulkumen, a Turkish diplomat in Greece while the country was under Nazi occupation, who arranged boats to ferry Jews to safety in Turkey. Si Ali Sakkat, “former mayor in Tunisia and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed”, hid 60 Jews who had escaped from a labor camp on his estate. Sakkat’s countryman, Khaled Abdul Wahab, “is remembered for saving two Jewish families by sheltering them in stables on his farm in [sic.] near Mahdia, Tunisia.”

Of particular interest is the story of the most important Muslim institution in Europe at the time of the Nazis, the Great Mosque of Paris. Its leader was Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a native of Algeria who was both a spiritual leader and well-connected politically. The Mosque provided sanctuary and sustenance to Jews hiding from Vichy and Nazi troops as well as to other fighters in the anti-fascist resistance.

Albert Assouline, a North African Jew who escaped a German prison camp and found refuge in the mosque, wrote an article in 1983 for Almanach du Combattant, a French veterans’ magazine. He noted, “No fewer than 1,732 resistance fighters found refuge in its (the mosque’s) underground caverns. These included Muslim escapees but also Christians and Jews. The latter were by far the most numerous.”

Derri Berkani, a French documentary film-maker of Algerian Berber origin, made the 1991 film Une Resistance Oubliee: La Mosque de Paris (The Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris). The film, widely acclaimed, was shown on French national television.

IN HIS IMPORTANT BOOK, Among The Righteous, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, reports that,

At every stage of the Nazi, Vichy and Fascist persecution of Jews in Arab lands, and in every place that it occurred, Arabs helped Jews. Some Arabs spoke out against the persecution of Jews and took public stands of unity with them. Some Arabs denied the support and assistance that would have made the wheels of the anti-Jewish campaign spin more efficiently. Some Arabs shared the fate of the Jews and, through their experience, forged a unique bond of comradeship. And there were occasions when certain Arabs chose to do more than just offer moral support to Jews. They bravely saved Jewish lives, at times risking their own in the process. Those Arabs were true heroes.

In Algeria, under Vichy law and Nazi occupation, Jewish property owners had to turn over their fixed assets to conservators, who would manage the business affairs in trust. This, in reality, provided a windfall to conservators. Satloff notes that,

To their great credit not a single Arab in Algiers stepped forward to accept Vichy’s offer. One Friday in 1941, religious leaders throughout the city gave sermons warning all good Muslims to refuse all French offers to serve as conservators of Jewish property. They even forbade Muslims from purchasing auctioned Jewish goods at below-market prices. Despite the economic difficulties faced by Arabs during the war, they refused to take advantage of Jewish suffering for personal gain. And true to their imams’ call, not a single Arab took the opportunity of quick financial gain either to serve as a trustee-conservator or to purchase Jewish property at Vichy-mandated fire-sale prices.

In a post-war interview, Jose Aboulker, the hero of the largely Jewish resistance of Algiers, praised the city’s Arab population:

The Arabs do not participate (in the fight against Vichy). It is not their war. But, as regards the Jews, they are perfect. The (Vichy) functionaries (and) the German agents try to push them into demonstrations and pogroms. In vain. When Jewish goods were put up for public auction, an instruction went around the mosques. ‘Our brothers are suffering misfortune. Do not take their goods.’ Not one Arab became an administrator (of property) either. Do you know other examples of such an admirable, collective dignity?

The notion that there has been an ancient enmity between Jews and Moslems is without foundation in history. In her book The Ornament of the World, Professor Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University explores the history of Jews under Muslim rule in medieval Spain:

Throughout most of the invigorated peninsula, Arabic was adopted as the ultimate in... distinction by the communities of the other two faiths. The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive but, following Qur’anic mandate, by and large protected them, and both the Jewish and Christian communities in Al-Andalus became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd al-Rahman’s arrival in Cordoba... In principle, all Islamic polities were (and are) required by Qur’anic injunction... to tolerate Christians and Jews living in their midst. But beyond that fundamental prescribed posture, al-Andalus was, from these beginnings, the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations. Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the 10th century had a Jew as his foreign minister.

When Jews were expelled from Spain by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, they were welcomed by the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Jane S. Gerber, in her book The Jews of Spain, points out that in

the 15th and 16th centuries... it was the Ottoman Empire, then at the zenith of her power, that alone afforded exiles a place where ‘their weary feet could find rest’... Her sultans — Bayezid II, Mehmet II, Suleiman the Magnificent — were dynamic, farsighted rulers who were delighted to receive the talented, skilled Jewish outcasts of Europe... Bayezid II, responding to the expulsion from Spain, reportedly exclaimed, ‘You call Ferdinand a wise King, who impoverishes his country and enriches our own.’ He not only welcomed Sephardic exiles but ordered his provincial government to assist the wanderers by opening the borders. Indeed, the refugees would find the Ottoman state to be powerful, generous and tolerant.

ON A VISIT to Andalusia — Córdoba, Seville, and Granada, among other places — this writer observed the many remaining reminders of this Golden Age of Muslim-Jewish cooperation and amity. They serve to illustrate the lack of historic understanding of those who present the current impasse over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the latest in a long history of strife. The real story is far different, and far more hopeful. A celebration of the many Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust is another important part of this story. It should help provide us with a genuine road map for the future.

Recently, about 300 muftis, theologians and Muslim scholars met in Morocco and issued the Marrakesh Declaration, which calls for Muslim countries to protect religious minorities. They cited the Medina Charter which, said Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a professor of Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia, “established the idea of common citizenship regardless of religious belief. Enough bloodshed. We are heading to annihilation. It is time for cooperation.” The Charter of Medina was established by the Prophet Muhammad after he fled to Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia, in the 7th century.

Those, like ISIS, who promote religious hatred, are rejecting centuries of religious tolerance in the Islamic world. Remembering the Muslims who saved Jews from the Holocaust may help to focus our attention on this historic reality, so different from the divisive rhetoric adopted by those who sow sectarian hatred.

Allan C. Brownfeld is publications editor for the American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942, and a nationally syndicated columnist.