JERUSALEM – An Arab who saved the lives of two dozen Jews during the Holocaust is about to receive an unprecedented honor from Israel. Khaled Abdelwahhab, a wealthy Tunisian landowner, is poised to become the first Arab to be celebrated as a Righteous Gentile.
The award, presented by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority, is granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust in which six million died.
More than 21,000 people have been granted the title of Righteous Among the Nations since it was established in 1963, with Oskar Schindler probably the best known. But, in spite of stories of heroism and friendship recorded by members of North Africa’s once-large Jewish community, no candidate has emerged from the Arab Muslim world.
The story of Khaled Abdelwahhab was uncovered by an American Jewish expert on Arab and Islamic politics who was researching for a book.
A survivor told Robert Satloff that Abdelwahhab had rescued 23 Jews, including her family, as they sheltered in an olive oil factory after being thrown out of their homes by German soldiers. He feared that the women were going to be put to work in a brothel and gave them sanctuary for the remaining six months of the German occupation.
Interviewed at her home in Los Angeles a few weeks before her death, Anny Boukris said that Abdelwahhab had discovered that German officers were planning to take her mother, Odette, to work in the brothel they had set up in Mahdia, on the east coast of Tunisia.
Abdelwahhab’s father was a good friend of the Boukris family, so he drove straight to the olive oil factory and told all the Jews sheltering there that their lives were in danger and that they must go with him immediately.
He settled them all at his family farm in the village of Tlelsa, 20 miles from Mahdia, and they remained there until British troops ended the German occupation in April 1943.
Abdelwahhab was 32 when the Germans arrived in Tunisia and was described by Dr Satloff as a bon vivant, blessed with Hollywood film-star looks — and an eye for the ladies. His father was a former minister to the court of the Tunisian bey [sovereign].
Abdelwahhab studied art and architecture in New York and lived for a time in Paris. He married a Venezuelan opera singer in Spain and she became the mother of one of his two daughters. He died in 1997 at the age of 86.
Estee Yaari, of Yad Vashem, told The Times that a file on Abdelwahhab had been opened and would be considered by a commission of experts led by a supreme court judge. “It looks as if there is enough material to move this forward and he would be the first Arab to become a Righteous Among the Nations,” she said.
Dr Satloff, executive director of the Institute for Near East studies in Washington, uncovered the story of Abdelwahhab’s heroism while working on a book that he hoped would break “the conspiracy of silence” in the Arab world surrounding the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.
Dr Satloff, who flew to Israel to meet Yad Vashem officials yesterday, said: “These stories are only coming to light now because we haven’t looked too hard before at the Holocaust experience in Arab countries. But another reason is that Arabs who did save Jews didn’t want to be found. They are reluctant to admit that they saved Jews.”
More than 1.5 million Jews lived in northern Africa during the Second World War and were subject to persecution by the Nazis and their allies there, although few were sent to the death camps in Europe.