November 15, 2010

Righteous among the Arabs

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Khaled Abdul Wahab sheltered 25 Jews after the Nazis invaded Tunisia, but was never found worthy for the title of first Arab Righteous among the Nations. ‘My father opened his home to Jews, but Yad Vashem did not open their home to us,’ his daughter Faiza says

Quite by accident Faiza Abdul Wahab discovered her father Khaled’s Jewish connection three years ago. “I rediscovered my father,” she says excitedly sitting in a Paris café. “It’s a shame I can’t listen to him relate the whole story.”

Dr. Robert Satloff, a historian specializing in the Middle East is the man through which Faiza, 45, discovered her father’s unknown efforts to save Tunisian Jews during World War II.

In his book “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands” Satloff documented his search for Arabs who saved Jews in North Africa during the Holocaust. In 2007, Faiza read a Sunday Times interview with him and was first exposed to things her father never told her.

Faiza is Khaled’s daughter from his second wide, a Venezuelan theatre actress whom he married in Spain. She was raised her by her mother in Madrid and Paris after her parents broke up. A long time resident of Paris Faiza has a witty sense of humor and does not appear loath to asking hard questions. And yet, she had virtually no knowledge of her father’s past life.

“I opened the magazine,” she remembers. “And I read about the amazing affair. I asked myself how was it that the historian never contacted me. I searched his e-mail and wrote to him: ‘Reading your book was an amazing revelation for me. My father never spoke about what he did during the war. Your wonderful work allowed me to learn who he really was and understand why relations between Jews and Arabs were always so important to me.’

Robert phoned me immediately after. He said he questioned my family in Tunisia but none of them knew how to contact me.”

The relationship between the two has since tightened and Satloff has informed her of every new detail he found about her father, particularly regarding his efforts to declare him a Righteous Among the Nations.

Courage to Care award

Weeks after their first encounter, Faiza attended the Holocaust memorial ceremony at the Weisenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles as Satloff received the Daniel Pearl award for his contribution to the promotion of tolerance between Muslims and Jews.

The heads of the Anti-Defamation League, who presented Satloff with the award, asked the historian whether he could assist them in granting the “Courage to Care” award, their version of the Righteous among the Nations title, to an Arab individual. Satloff immediately contacted Faiza asking whether she would be willing to accept the notation on behalf of her father. She naturally agreed. Several weeks later Faiza accepted a Menorah with her father’s name engraved on it at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“Suddenly I remembered something my father once told me,” she relates. “One day we were studying about World War II at school. When I cam back home I asked him: ‘Where were you during the war?’ His answer was: ‘I was here.’ I asked: ‘Was there soemting to do with the Jews?’ and dad said: ‘I hid Jews in the farm.’ I answered: ‘That’s nice’ but never asked about the details. Over the years I forgot about the story until that newspaper article brought it back home to me.”

Shortly after the September 11 attacks Satloff, a Jew, decided to investigate whether there were Arabs who helped Jews during the Holocaust. He believed that by telling one such story he might be able to make Arabs perceive the Holocaust differently. After a year of research he received an e-mail from 71-year-old Annie Buchris from Los Angeles.

She told him she grew up in Mahdia, Tunisia and that during the war an Arab man welcomed her and her family into his home and hid them in his farm away from a German officer who lusted after her mother.

Satloff was living in Morocco with his wife and two children at the time where he could conduct his research. He hired an interviewer who taped Annie’s testimony. For an entire day on 2003 Buchris told her story. She died two months later.

Yad Vashem's Hall of Names

Buchris told the story of her happy childhood in Mahdia with her parents and two brothers until the Germans invaded the city in 1942. Jews’ homes were taken and her family’s house was turned into residence for German soldiers. Annie’s father managed to house the family in an olive oil factory. The men were forced to work in labor camps. The women and children were not allowed to leave the factory.

One night, there was a knock at the door. Standing there was Khaled, the son of Hassan Hosni Abdul Wahab, a rich landowner and former state official. Hassan Hosni and Annie’s father Jacob were close friends, and Khaled informed them they were in great danger. He then made arrangements to transfer them to a safe place.

Years later Buchris learned that Khaled used to meet with the German soldiers and get information from them. That’s how he found out they had created a brothel housing Jewish girls. One of the German officers also told him that one particularly attractive woman had caught his eye. Khaled realized the woman was Buchris’s wife. He got the German soldier intoxicated with wine and drove to the oil factory.

The Buchris family and their neighbors – some 25 people – quickly packed their belongings and were taken to Khaled’s family’s farm, where they stayed for four months. Each family got a small room. Near the farm was a Red Cross camp tending to injured German soldiers and many of farm’s employees knew about the Jews but never spoke of it. In April 1943, when the British entered Mahdia the all the families returned to their homes.

Khaled Abdul Wahab was born in 1911 and died at the age of 86. As a member of a wealth family he often traveled overseas as a young man, most frequently to France. In the early 1930s he studied art and architecture in New York and later worked on preserving Tunisia’s archeological heritage.

Satloff met Khaled’s oldest daughter from his first wife, Papo, in Tunisia. Papo, like Faiza, knew nothing of her father’s legacy.

“I’m not angry with my father,” Faiza says. “He didn’t like to talk. He never said anything about the Jews because he probably thought he did what he should have done. He saw that the Jews in Mahdia were suffering at the Germans’ hands and took responsibility. It was a different generation. People didn’t use to talk about what they did. ”

Yad Vashem criteria

Meanwhile, Satloff has not given up his efforts to convince Yad Vashem to grant Khaled the Righteous among the Nations title, but to no avail. “I reached the sad conclusion that there are no Arabs in the list of Righteous among the Nations,” he says. “Firstly, many Arabs or their heirs didn’t want or were afraid of their stories being published. And secondly, the Jews did not put enough efforts into it.”

Irina Steinfeld, director of the Righteous among the Nations section in Yad Vashem does not accept any claim of discrimination. “According to the Yad Vashem Law a Righteous among the Nations is a person who risked his life to save Jews. There are currently 23,000 Righteous among the Nations listed, among them 60 Muslims: Tatars, Albanians, Bosnians and Turks. There has never been an attempt to deny anyone’s title for being Muslim. And incidentally, Yad Vashem partly sponsored Satloff’s book.

“There are three committees in Yad Vashem who review applications for the title of Righteous Among the Nations and each is comprised of 10 individuals. The plenum chairman is retired Supreme Court Judge Jacob Turkel. The decision is made with a majority of at least two thirds of the votes.

“Three years ago after a long correspondence with Satloff I did a little research of my own of the events in Mahdia and learned that Wahab did not risk his own life doing the noble deed he did. Even Judge Turkel reviewed the testimonies and confirmed the committee’s conclusions. No one is doubting the noble nature of Abdul Wahab but clearly the Germans knew Jews were staying at the farm and did not try to hurt them. Meaning, he did not hide the Jewish families but hosted them.”

Faiza is familiar with these arguments. “Yad Vashem is an honorable institution,” she says. “The term Righteous among the Nations was coined by them and they use their own criteria. It’s a pity. To me it’s far more important that Rabbi Walberg put up a memorial plate with my father’s name on it in his righteous garden, ‘Edat Yisrael,’ in Washington. And when I come to shake his hand he hugs me. He didn’t wait for Yad Vashem to confirm my father’s wonderful actions.

“My father opened his home to Jews and Yad Vashem did not open their home to us. When Robert first spoke to me I thought it would be great if they acknowledged the first Arab Righteous among the Nations, but life goes and I’ve stopped dealing with it. If my father had been alive he would have said: ‘Leave me. Stop this publicity.’ On the other hand, had there been a ceremony honoring my father with the title I know what I would have said: ‘We’re more alike than different.’”

On the 10-year anniversary to her father’s death Faiza lit a memorial candle at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “It was by accident and there something wonderfully symbolic about it rediscovering my father in those days. He was endlessly faithful to his Jewish friends.

“I arrived in Tunisia from Paris when I was 13 after losing my mother. I didn’t speak any Arabic, could not communicate and the ones who welcomed me the most were the Jews. Last year on Yom Kippur I went to the Sephardic synagogue because I wanted to hear the prayers again. And on Facebook, for instance, 80% of my friends are Jews.”

Did meeting Satloff change your life?

“Yes. The book changed my life because it changed the way I see my father. His actions during the Holocaust validated my attempts to defend ideas that are extremely important to me such as tolerance. Annie Buchris’s daughter and I met in Los Angeles and had out arms around each other within the first five minutes. Each conversation I have with her starts with ‘my sister.’ The same thing happened to me with Annie’s cousin who hid in my father’s farm and now lives in France. She invites me for Shabbat and I attended her granddaughter’s Bat Mitzva. All the members of my family in Venezuela died, my relations with my Tunisian family aren’t close, and suddenly I got a Jewish family. It’s fantastic. ”

Lior Zilberstein contributed to this report