Muslim Heroes of the Holocaust
Four remarkable stories that some Muslims don’t want to be publicized.
When the Hussainiyat Al-Rasool Al-Adham Islamic Centre opened in the heavily Jewish London neighborhood of Golders Green in 2017, they promised to reach out to Jewish residents. In January 2019, they planned to launch a major exhibit highlighting Muslim heroes who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Local Muslims were outraged. Some were particularly incensed that the Islamic Center partnered with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center. Faced with mounting opposition, the Islamic Center cancelled the exhibit.
That’s a shame because the story they planned to tell is a vital one: among the thousands of “Righteous Among the Nations” heroes identified by Yad Vashem as having risked their lives to save Jews, scores of these saviors were Muslim. Their remarkable stories deserve to be known.
Here are four Muslims who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Let’s not allow extremists to erase their history.
Dr. Mohamed Helmy
Mohamed Helmy was born in Sudan to Egyptian parents, and moved to Berlin at the age of 21 to study medicine. Dr. Helmy settled in Germany, eventually rising in his profession to become head of the Urology Department at the Robert Koch Hospital in Berlin. There, he witnessed Jewish doctors being fired in 1933. Dr. Helmy was even briefly imprisoned along with other Egyptians living in Germany, but was eventually released and allowed to continue practicing medicine. Despite the dangers, Dr. Helmy publicly spoke out against Nazi policies.
When war broke out and Jews began to be arrested in Berlin, Dr. Helmy risked his life to save one family. He was good friends with a Jewish woman named Anna Boros, and he told her she could stay in a cabin he owned in a picturesque Berlin neighborhood named Buch. German authorities investigated Dr. Helmy several times, suspecting him of hiding Jews.
In those periods he arranged for Anna to hide with a different family. “The Gestapo knew that Dr. Helmy was our family physician,” Anna later testified, “and they knew that he owned a cabin in Berlin-Buch. He managed to evade all their interrogations. In such cases he would bring me to friends where I would stay for several days, introducing me as his cousin from Dresden. When the danger would pass, I would return to his cabin...Dr. Helmy did everything for me out of the generosity of his heart and I will be grateful to him for eternity.”
Unbeknownst to Anna, Dr. Helmy even obtained documents from the Central Islamic Institute in Berlin, declaring (falsely) that Anna had converted to Islam and had married an Egyptian in Dr. Helmy’s home, believing that this might save her from deportation if she was ever caught. Dr. Helmy also helped Anna’s mother Julie and step-father Gerog Wehr and her grandmother Cecilie Rudnik find shelter with other families, and helped them with medical problems during the war. In 1944, the Wehrs were caught and interrogated and they let slip that Dr. Helmy was helping them and hiding their daughter. Dr. Helmy raced to move Anna to another safe spot, and provided the authorities with a false letter from Anna saying she was staying with her aunt in the town of Dessau to throw them off her track.
Anna Boros Gutman (second from left) during her visit to Berlin with her daughter Carla (extreme left), Dr. Helmy and his wife Emmi (right), 1969 (Photo: Yad Vashem)
Anna, her parents and her grandmother all survived the war thanks to Dr. Helmy and the other Berliners who helped shelter the family. Anna and her relatives moved to the United States and immediately began writing letters to the Berlin Senate seeking recognition for Dr. Helmy and his friends. In 2013, Yad Vashem named Mohamed Helmy a Righteous Among the Nations for risking his life to help Jews during the Holocaust.
When World War II broke out, Selahattin Ulkumen, a 30-year-old Turkish civil servant, was the Turkish Consul General on the Greek island of Rhodes. The island was home to nearly 2,000 Jews, many of whom could trace their roots back to the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain. Most of these Jews had Greek or Italian citizenship, but some had Turkish papers. When Germany started deporting Rhodes’ Jews in 1944, Ulkumen realized he could help save the island’s Turkish Jews.
Identification portrait of Salahattin Ulkumen, Turkish Consul-General in Rhodes.
On July 19, 1944, the local Gestapo ordered all Jews to report to the island’s train station. They were destined for the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Ulkumen went up to Ulrich Kleeman, the general in charge, protesting, telling him that Turkey was a neutral party and demanding that all Jews with Turkish citizenship – and their spouses – be released at once.
Ulkumen later recalled that “The German commander said that, according to Nazi laws, all Jews are Jews and had to go to concentration camps. I objected. I said that, under Turkish law there is no difference between whether a citizen was Jewish, Christian or Muslim...I said that I would advise my government if he didn’t release the Jewish Turks and that it would cause an international incident. Then he agreed.”
Ulkumen’s speech was largely a bluff: he had no orders to save the Jewish Turks and was acting on his own initiative. Moreover, Turkish law didn’t dictate that the spouses of Turks had Turkish citizenship; he made that up on the spot. In all, Ulkumen saved about 13 Turkish citizens and another 40 Jews with Turkish connections.
Salahattin Ulkumen at Yad Vashem
In some cases, he intervened personally to help individual Jews evade deportation. Albert Franko was married to a Turkish wife. Learning that he had this Turkish connection, Ulkumen had Franko removed from a train that was already on its way to Auschwitz. In another case, Ulkumen went up to a Turkish Jewish citizen, Matilda Toriel, as she queued to report to Gestapo headquarters, and told her not to enter. He then went into headquarters and insisted that her husband, who was an Italian citizen, be released as well. In all, Ulkumen succeeded in adding another 25-30 names to the Gestapo’s list of Turkish Jews, insisting that these Jews were Turkish and had simply allowed their Turkish documents to lapse.
After the war, Albert Franko, Matilda Toriel and other Jews Ulkumen saved told Yad Vashem of his bravery. In 1989, Selahattin Ulkumen was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
In 1943, Lime Balla was a 22-year-old housewife living with her husband Destan in the Albanian village of Shengjerji. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in 1943, 17 Jews escaped from the city of Tirana to the countryside, finding refuge in Lime’s village. Lime and Destan, like other Albanian Muslims, adhered to an intense honor code called “Besa”, which mandated that people protect guests at all cost. For many of Albania’s Jews, Besa was a lifesaver, as Albanian Muslims shielded Jews from deportation by German occupying authorities.
Villagers took in the 17 Jews, disguising them as farmers and sheltering them for 15 months. Lime and Destan took in two brothers, Solomon and Mordechai Lazar. “We were poor,” Lime later recalled. “We didn’t even have a dining table – but we never allowed them (the Lazar brothers) to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat.”
One of Lime’s nephews was a partisan fighting the Nazis in the city of Pristina, and in December 1944 the village’s Jews left for Pristina where partisans continued to shelter and help them. Lime lost contact with Solomon and Mordechai until 1990, when the brothers contacted her. They were living in Israel. Once the Soviet Union had dissolved, it became possible for Albanians like Lime to speak about their wartime activities openly for the first time. In 1992, Yad Vashem recognized Lime and Destan Balla as Righteous Among the Nations.
Khaled Abdul Wahab
Khaled Abdul Wahab was a wealthy Tunisian landowner in the picturesque Tunisian town of Mahdia when World War II broke out. He sheltered Jews and saved Jewish women from being attacked by German soldiers.
In the 1940s, Tunisia had a large Jewish population. Jews from Tunisia were not deported to death camps the way Jews in Europe were, but after Germans invaded Tunisia in 1942, they started enforcing draconian anti-Jewish laws. Annie Buchris was a Jewish girl in Mahdia whose world was turned upside down with the German occupation. Jews had to wear yellow stars on their clothes and many Jews lost their homes. Annie’s house was taken over by German soldiers and her father and brothers were sent to a forced labor camp. German troops forced Annie and her mother live and work in an olive oil factory from which they were barred from leaving.
Khaled was friends with Annie’s father Jacob. Khaled started frequenting German establishments and befriending Nazis in order to spy on them and learn what new horrors they were planning. One evening he heard a plan that made his blood run cold. The Germans were forcing some Jewish women to work in a brothel – and one Nazi told Khaled that he wanted his friend Jacob Buchris’ wife to work there too. Khaled knew he had to intervene.
He plied the Nazi officer with alcohol until he was drunk, then drove to the olive oil factory and informed the Buchris family that they were in danger. He waited as the Buchrises and about two dozen other Jews living in the factory packed their belongings and then took them to a farm his family owned nearby.
One of the Jewish girls who sheltered in the farm was Eva Weiseldec, who later recorded testimony about Khaled’s bravery. “One night,” she recalled, “he ferried the women, children and old men in our family to a farm he owned about 20 miles outside of town. There, he said, we would be safe…. As luck would have it, however, a German unit arrived in the area not long after we did. Our host told us to get rid of our yellow stars, stay inside the farm walls and keep far away from the main house.”
Khaled hosted Germans in his farm while two dozen Jews hid just meters away in a different part of the property.
Some Nazis knew Jews were hiding on the farm. One night, drunken German officers wandered over to the barn and shouted, “We know you are Jews and we’re coming to get you!” Khaled rushed over and somehow persuaded the officers to leave the Jews alone. “The next day,” she recalled, “our host came to the stables. We rushed to express our thanks to him, but he was more eager to apologize to us. He said he was sorry that we had to face the terrifying ordeal of the Germans’ threats, expressed relief that he had intervened in time to prevent a horrible tragedy, and promised that it would never happen again.”
The two dozen Jews stayed in Khaled’s farm until British troops took over the area in 1943 and they could return to their homes.
Addendum: An unnamed mosque in the Redbridge neighborhood of London has told a local community group that it will host the exhibit on January 20 - though it is not yet making its identity known for fear of incurring renewed protests. The exhibit, titled "Love Your Neighbor" will also be hosted in London in February by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has announced that it will host the exhibition during a meeting with the Albanian ambassador to Britain.