The Holocaust Was an Arab Story, Too

Citizens of Arab nations also played a role in the events of World War II, whether as villains or heroes, collaborators or 'righteous gentiles.'

Robert Satloff
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Robert Satloff

Denial of the Holocaust is a consistent theme of Arab politics - a staple not only of radicals, both secular and Islamist, but of the mainstream as well. Borrowing methods from their Western counterparts, Arab deniers wrap their arguments in pseudo-scientific scholarship, discounting (or denying) the numbers of dead, equating the Holocaust with lesser crimes, denigrating its historical uniqueness, or reversing history to ascribe to present-day Jews the role of "Nazi" persecutors of Palestinians.

A heartening trend in recent years is that a growing number of Arabs have begun to address this phenomenon, deplore its effects and even correct the record for Arab readers. But despite these signs of progress, Holocaust denial remains a powerful orthodoxy.

One issue that remains completely out of bounds is any exploration of the intersection of the Holocaust with Arab history itself. For the Holocaust, although overwhelmingly a European story, was not solely a European story. It was an Arab story, too.

From the outset, German plans to persecute and eventually to exterminate the Jews extended throughout all the lands Germany and its allies hoped to conquer. That included a great Arab expanse in North Africa, extending from Casablanca to Tripoli and onward to Cairo - a region that was home to a half-million Jews. Indeed, the country-by-country plan of extermination laid out at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942 makes sense only if the wildly inaccurate figure for the Jews of unoccupied France - 700,000 - is understood to include France's North African possessions: the colony of Algeria and the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia.

In the brief period when they had a chance, the Germans and their allies laid a significant basis toward their murderous goal for North Africa's Jews. For three years - from the fall of France in June 1940 to the expulsion of German troops from Tunisia in May 1943 - the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators, and their Italian fascist allies applied in these areas many of the same tools that would be used to devastating effect against the much larger Jewish populations of Europe. These included not only statutes depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence and free movement, but also forced labor, confiscations, deportations, and executions. Virtually no Jew in North Africa was left untouched. Thousands suffered in labor camps, work gangs, prisons, or under house arrest. By a stroke of fortune, relatively few perished. But if U.S. and British troops had not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and perhaps Egypt would almost certainly have met the fate of their brethren in Europe.

Particularly hard hit was Tunisia, the only Arab country to come under direct German occupation. In just six months, from November 1942 to May 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators implemented a forced-labor regime, confiscations of property, hostage-taking, mass extortion, deportations and executions. They required thousands of Jews in the countryside to wear the Star of David, and they created special Judenrat-like committees of Jewish leaders to implement Nazi policies under threat of imprisonment or death.

French malevolence Despite the depravity of the Germans, one can point to France as being, in some way, even more malevolent in terms of the bringing of the Holocaust to Arab lands. In Morocco and, especially, Algeria, France implemented strict laws against local Jews, expelling them from schools, universities and government employment, confiscating their property, and in some cases sending local Jewish political activists to harsh labor camps. In some respects, Vichy applied its anti-Jewish statutes with more vigor in Arab lands than in the unoccupied zone of metropolitan France. All this was done without much prodding from Berlin.

Not content with this, Vichy also dispatched more than 2,000 European Jews to labor camps in North Africa, many of whom had been refugees from Central Europe who joined the French army or Foreign Legion. Unlike the other "unwanteds" that Vichy sent to suffer on the fringes of the Sahara - Spanish republicans, communists, socialists, anti-Nazi Germans, and Gaullists - Jews were sent because of their religion, not their politics.

Shipped southward by cattle car from the ports of Algiers and Oran, these unfortunates were herded into camps from which there was little opportunity for escape; some died in the attempt. Given little food, water or rest, they worked from dawn to dusk gathering, breaking, loading, and moving rocks to build the never-to-be-completed Trans-Sahara Railway, or mining the ore along the route.

Torture was common and frequent. According to later testimonies, the camp commandants and senior officers, mostly foreign legionnaires themselves, were vicious anti-Semites, sadistic and often drunk, many of German origin or with fascist sympathies. A 1943 British Foreign Office document, "Barbaric Treatment of Jews and Aliens in Morocco," records the testimony of Polish Jewish prisoners who made their way to London after being freed by the Allies. Here is one such testimony, describing a common method of torture:

"The tombeau - tomb - is a grave dug in the ground, two meters long, 40 centimeters deep and 60 centimeters wide. Men under punishment are confined to this tomb for various periods ... The minimum sentence is eight days and nights. The maximum survived was 17 days and nights ... Typical of the offenses which earned a man a stretch of tombeau was that of the German Jew Selgo... Like all the others, he had to lie face up night and day. He had no covering, only a tattered Legion uniform with no underclothes. He was not allowed to move or change positions in the tombeau. An Arab was posted over the graves to see that the victims stayed rigidly still ...

"The only occasion when a man was allowed to raise his head a little was after a rainstorm when the graves filled with water. Then he was allowed a stone for a headrest to save him from drowning. As the subsoil was clay, the water would take three days to drain away ... A man was allowed to relieve himself only during these three visits of the guard. If he could not do it then he had to do it in his clothes and lie in it ... As the majority of prisoners were suffering from severe and sanguinary dysentery, a man lying in his own filth was the rule rather than the exception."

Villains and heroes Many Arabs today would respond that all this has nothing to do with Arab history. But they would be wrong. Arabs in Arab countries were not too different than Europeans were in Europe. Just as in Europe, most members of the local populace were indifferent to the suffering of Jews around them, but a few helped - the Arab world, too, had its "righteous gentiles"; yet some made matters demonstrably worse. From May 2002 to July 2004, while living in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, I tracked down stories of Arabs who played a role in these events, be they villains or heroes. With the help of researchers and investigators in 10 different countries, I was able to unearth the stories of dozens of such individuals.

Their number includes outright collaborators - i.e., Arabs who personally participated in the persecution of Jews. Among these were an Arab sadist who commanded a Jewish work brigade in the Tunisian countryside; another Tunisian, Hassen Ferjani, convicted by a French military tribunal of having informed to the Germans on three Jews fleeing across Allied lines, an act leading to their deportation and eventual beheading; Arab patrolmen who tracked down Jewish escapees from forced-labor camps; Arabs who walked alongside German soldiers, pointing out Jewish homes and property for confiscation; the Arab accomplice to a German soldier who raped a Jewish woman in La Marsa, outside Tunis; and Arab camp guards who urinated on the heads of Jewish forced laborers as they lay buried to their necks in the sands of Algeria.

In addition to these individuals were the hundreds of Arabs who volunteered to join Axis and pro-Axis forces like the Phalange Africaine, the Brigade Nord Africaine, and the German-Arab Training Battalion. And then there were the nameless thousands throughout North Africa who extorted money and property from Jews at their moment of abject weakness.

As for the heroes who helped save Jews from pain, injury, indignity and perhaps death, they included:

* The bey of Tunis and, more famously though less conclusively, the sultan of Morocco, both of whom provided vital moral support to their Jewish subjects, as well as practical help to a number of Jewish personalities and their families;

* The Arab country squire who opened his farm to 60 Jews escaping from an Axis forced-labor camp in Tunisia's Zaghouan valley;

* An Arab notable in the Tunisian seaside town of Mahdia who, upon learning that a German officer was bent on raping a local Jewish woman, whisked away her entire family in the middle of the night and kept them hidden on his farm for several weeks until the Germans quit the town.

* The Arab politician who secretly warned and offered shelter to his long-time Jewish friends when Nazi SS troops were planning raids against the Jewish leadership in Tunis;

* Religious leaders in Algiers who forbade any Muslim from serving as a Vichy-appointed conservator of Jewish property;

* Arab inmates of a prison camp in the Algerian desert who forged an anti-fascist bond with their Jewish prison mates;

* And, in faraway Paris, the rector of the municipal mosque, Si Kaddour Bengabrit, who is said to have given Jewish children counterfeit certificates of good standing as Muslims, thereby enabling them to escape deportation.

Taken together, this history is rarely told, and the heroes, in particular, have never been recognized. Of the more than 20,000 "righteous" honored by Israel's Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews from death during the Holocaust, not a single one is an Arab (though there are a number of Muslims). My view is that there are two reasons for this: Few ever looked for "Arab righteous," and fewer still had an incentive to be found.

Fleeting memories For Arabs, the legacy of World War II was soon overshadowed by two other developments: the conflict with Zionism over the fate of Palestine and the struggle for independence against European colonialism. By the late 1940s - and certainly by the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 - the blurring of the State of Israel with "the Jews" was already a deeply embedded theme of Middle Eastern politics. For an Arab, there was little to be gained (and much to be lost) by being identified with the defense of Jews or of Jewish interests. Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco and, to a lesser extent, Habib Bourghiba, were significant exceptions, noteworthy not least for their rarity.

For Jews, the situation was more complex. To many of those remaining in North Africa, memories of their horrible wartime experience were swiftly overtaken by the less systematic but often more violent anti-Zionism that compelled hundreds of thousands to quit their homes for Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. Once in Israel, wartime memories were further obscured by the tension between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. To the degree that the former jealously guarded their Holocaust legacy - theirs, after all, had been by far the greater calamity - the latter tended not to focus on theirs. Similarly neglectful were Holocaust historians and institutions; even today, one hears debate in Israel over whether it is even appropriate to use the term "survivors" for Jews from Arab countries who suffered Nazi-era racial laws and punitive actions.

An additional wrinkle concerns the odd position held by the small, dwindling remnants of once-grand Jewish communities in Arab countries. Navigating between the Scylla of Islamic radicalism and the Charybdis of regime indifference to their fate, Jews in these countries have by and large opted for quiescence. This attitude even extends backward to their history. Although I did come across Sephardi activists agitating for wider acknowledgment of the history of the Holocaust in Arab lands, none actually resides in an Arab land today.

But if these considerations help to explain the obscuring of the Arab encounter with the Holocaust, they hardly excuse it. Consider the rebuff I received when I met the children of a candidate for recognition as a "righteous Arab": Tunisia's wartime prime minister, Mohammed Chenik.

Walking a dangerous line between the Germans and his long-time personal friendships with Jews, Chenik had - according to various interviewees - used his connections to warn Jewish leaders of impending arrests and secured dispensations from forced labor for the sons of Jews he knew from his business days. He very likely saved Jewish lives, perhaps at risk to his own.

Whatever the motive behind these deeds - personal friendship, old business obligations, simple kindness - they were truly noble. Since I was intending to resurrect the story of this long-forgotten statesman and bring honor to his name, I had expected his family to embrace these revelations, or at least to thank me for my efforts. And indeed, the family members who gathered in their comfortable seaside villa outside Tunis to hear my tale were polite, generous and welcoming. But through the smiles and handshakes, it rapidly became clear that they wanted nothing to do with my story of their father's exploits. We have never heard about any of this, they insisted, and even if what you say is true, it does not amount to anything significant. Although they urged me to return with irrefutable proof, they offered no help and it was obvious they hoped never to hear from me again.

Perhaps the hardest blow has been the silence that has greeted so many requests I have made to moderate, forward-thinking Arabs to assist me in researching their history. For every helpful response I received to a posting on an Internet message board or to an unsolicited telephone call, there were a dozen cold shoulders, unanswered faxes, or unfilled promises.

In October 2003, for example, I contacted the prominent Egyptian thinker Ahmed Kamal Abulmagd - widely considered one of the most moderate and open-minded of Muslim theologians, and certainly no Holocaust denier - after his appearance at the American University of Cairo, where he participated in a public exchange with the American ambassador. At one point in their discussion, Abulmagd turned to the ambassador and said: "We all condemn the policies of Hitler and the Holocaust, but enough is enough. There is a moment of saturation and, let me be very blunt on this, world Jewry is in danger because of the very irresponsible policies of the government of Israel, supported by some unaware leaders of the Jewish community in the United States. I hate to see a day where there is an unleashing of dormant general anti-Semitism, in Europe, particularly, and maybe in the United States. But we Arabs are not part of it. We are not part of the Holocaust. We never persecuted Jews."

In contacting Abulmagd, my purpose was not to persuade him to repudiate his remarks. On the contrary, I wanted to ask him to use his good offices in helping me gain access to Egyptian consular records from the late 1930s. Those files, I believe, may contain evidence of an "Arab Wallenberg," an Egyptian diplomat who I suspect provided marriage or birth certificates to German and Austrian Jews, enabling them to flee to Cairo and from there to freedom in London. Though one might think Egyptian officialdom would be eager to exploit proof of a great humanitarian act by an Egyptian diplomat, one that would burnish Egypt's bruised image in the United States, none of my requests to Cairo policymakers - some of whom, at the highest levels of government, I have known for more than 15 years - has ever been acknowledged.

That is why I wrote to Abulmagd - twice. Noting the absence of a single Arab among Yad Vashem's list of "righteous" non-Jews, I begged for his intercession: "Didn't some Arabs help or rescue some Jews?" I asked. "And if indeed some Arabs did rescue some Jews, then isn't this the positive, constructive answer to Arab Holocaust denial?"

But the taboo against recognizing any Arab connection to the Holocaust, even one that might celebrate the deeds of a heroic Arab rescuer, is evidently too strong. I am still waiting for an answer.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This article is adapted from his "In Search of Righteous Arabs," Commentary, July/August 2004. He can be reached at robs@washingtoninstitute.org

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