April 5, 2007

A Righteous Reunion

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The daughter of the first Arab Muslim honored by Yad Vashem meets the daughter of the woman he saved.

There was a good chance Faiza Abdelwahhab and Nadia Bijaoui would have never met. A Muslim living in Paris and a Jew in Palm Desert, Calif?

But there they were in Manhattan last week sitting side by side — at moments smiling at each other, at moments crying — during a conference held in honor of Abdelwahhab’s father, a Tunisian Muslim, who saved Bijaoui’s mother, a Tunisian Jew, during the Nazi occupation of North Africa.

The meeting was the result of the recent announcement by Yad Vashem officials in Israel that Adelwahhab’s father, Khaled Abdelwahhab, was pending recognition as a ”righteous gentile,” which would make him the first Arab Muslim among the over 21,000 non-Jews who have received this honor.

And yet, his story is the one that almost got away.

Not long after Robert Satloff, author of ”Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands” (PublicAffairs, 2006), posted an e-mail message in 2002 on an online forum for Tunisian Jewry asking if anyone knew of Jews who were saved by Arabs during the Holocaust, a 71-year-old Tunisian Jew named Anny Boukris replied.

”The Arabs saved many Jews, hurt also other Jews,” she posted on the Web site, harissa.com. ”I don’t know very well these stories. I remember well only our story.”

Up until then, it had rarely ever been told — not even to her own children, one of whom was Bijaoui.

”Dr. Satloff’s book was a surprise,” Bijaoui told a group of reporters before the conference. ”Because, yes, my mother used to tell me a lot of stories about Tunisia, but not details.” It was only after she read Satloff’s book that she discovered it.

Abdelwahhab’s experience was similar. ”I hadn’t known more than Nadia,” she said, in halting English. ”My father was a very secretive person. He only talked about the weather.”

What’s more, Satloff doubted Anny Boukris’ reliability. One historian of North African Jewry during the Second World War told Satloff that Boukris’ story was ”totally without foundation.” Another noted it was ”too far-fetched, too fantastic, to be true.”

But Boukris persisted. Satloff acquiesced. And the story, as now established, goes as follows:

Khaled Abdelwahhab, a well-born Muslim from the Tunisian city of Mahdia, had apparently learned that Boukris’ mother and Bijaoui’s grandmother, Odette, was sought after by a ”depraved German officer” who had planned on raping her not long after the Nazis arrived.

Upon hearing this, Abdelwahhab decided to hide Odette and her family, along with 24 other Jews, on his oil farm in the neighboring town of Tlelsa, where they remained for roughly five months until the Allied forces expelled the Nazis in 1943. Not long after the war, Boukris’ family resettled in France, where she met her husband and began a family, eventually moving once more to the United States, leaving her story and Abdelwahhab’s behind.

Though Bijaoui’s mother, Anny Boukris, revealed the details of her survival to Satloff in 83 typed pages of transcript, the mother and daughter never had the chance to discuss it together. Two months after she conducted the interview, Boukris died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. Faiza Abdelwahhab did not have the chance to discuss it with her father, since Khaled Abdelwahhab had died years before Satloff’s search.

But together, for at least a couple of hours, their offspring sat and shared their parents’ story. ”It was very strange,” Abdelwahhab said, referring to when she first met Bijaoui a week before their scheduled conference in New York. ”But we feel like family. We feel very close.”