The Arab Doctor Who Risked His Life for a Jewish Family During the Holocaust

Egyptian-born Dr. Mohamed Helmy is the only Arab to be honored by Yad Vashem as a righteous among the nations – yet the author of a new biography says his actions were not unique

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Photos by Dr. Mohamed Helmy and Anna Boros, with Yad Vashem and Nazi soldiers in the background.
Photos by Dr. Mohamed Helmy and Anna Boros, with Yad Vashem and Nazi soldiers in the background.Credit: Anna Gutman Estate/ Carla Gutman Greenspan Family Archives / New York AP World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Rich Tenorio
Rich Tenorio
Rich Tenorio
Rich Tenorio

When German-Jewish journalist Ronen Steinke first learned about the sole Arab to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, he had no idea that there was much more to the long-forgotten story of Dr. Mohamed Helmy.

An Egyptian-born urologist who was honored by the Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial and museum in 2013, Helmy risked his life hiding a Jewish teenage girl named Anna Boros in Berlin during World War II.

Part of the little-known prewar Arab community in the German capital, Helmy disguised Anna as his headscarf-wearing Muslim niece and assistant, Nadia. When Nazi suspicions increased, his schemes became more elaborate. One involved converting Anna to Islam and marrying her off to a friend, Abdel Aziz Helmy Hammad.

Their story is the subject of Steinke’s new book, “Anna and Dr Helmy: How an Arab Doctor Saved a Jewish Girl in Hitler’s Berlin,” published by Oxford University Press and translated by Sharon Howe.

The cover for "Anna and Dr Helmy," by Ronen Steinke. Credit: Oxford University Press

“What surprises me is that the story is not unique – several Arabs helped Jews during the Holocaust,” Steinke, who first read about Helmy in a small news item, says over Zoom. “Of course, there were many Muslims in the Balkans, in Bosnia.But what is striking is that [2013] was the first time Yad Vashem, Israel’s official institute for Holocaust remembrance, actually decided to nominate [Helmy] and accept the facts. There was an incredible amount of politics around this, an incredible amount of resistance.”

Steinke felt that tension when he visited present-day branches of both families: Anna’s in New York and Helmy’s in Cairo. Anna, who married after the war and became Anna Gutman, stayed in contact with Helmy until his death in 1982.

Yet, Steinke notes, Helmy’s relatives declined to accept the recognition from Yad Vashem, or even to have anything to do with it – though a compromise ceremony was held in Germany in 2017.

“Although I hope to build a bridge and advocate leaving stereotypes aside … the realities that I encountered in both Cairo and New York were sobering,” Steinke says. “Two families at opposite ends of the [Earth] … for political reasons are unable to see one another. They hold strong opinions of the other side.”

Dr. Mohamed HelmyCredit: Estate of Dr. Mohammed Helmy /

Treating Jews in secret

Steinke, 38, is a columnist for the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. He is the son of an Israeli mother and a German father. His previous book was also about an outsider who defied prejudice: Fritz Bauer, a Jewish lawyer in West Germany who worked to bring Adolf Eichmann to justice. A German-language edition of “Anna and Dr Helmy” was published in 2017.

Today, he laments rising antisemitism and Islamophobia in his home country – a dramatic contrast with the tolerance he discovered between Jews and Arabs in prewar Berlin, and the welcoming attitudes overall in Germany toward its Arab and Muslim communities.

Prominent Jews such as Albert Einstein and Martin Buber attended events sponsored by the Moslemische Revue. Interfaith marriages took place between German Jews and Muslims, and a gay Jewish novelist named Hugo Marcus converted to Islam, taking the name Hamid and becoming the head of a Berlin mosque.

“Today it seems strange, but in those days it was absolutely normal, it absolutely made sense, for Arabs and Jews to see themselves as close siblings,” Steinke explains. “They were very much aware that their religion, their culture, was close – especially when living together in a majority-Christian country such as Germany.”

Anna BorosCredit: Anna Gutman Estate/ Carla Gutman

Born into a prominent Egyptian military family, Helmy went to Germany initially for education, then stayed there to work at Berlin’s Moabit hospital. Many of its doctors were Jewish; one, Dr. Georg Klemperer – brother of the future wartime diarist Victor Klemperer – served as the young Egyptian’s mentor.

Following the rise of Hitler, Jewish doctors at Moabit were sacked in 1933 and then beaten by the SA, some fatally. Helmy was not only retained, but promoted to doctor.

The Reich exempted Arabs from the Nuremberg Laws and did not prohibit Helmy’s relationship with his German fiancée, Emmy Ernst. Yet he grew to loathe his new, inept Nazi colleagues, and he continued to treat Jews in secret.

Ultimately, in 1937, Moabit did not renew his contract. It was an opportune time to respond to a request he had received the previous year from a Jewish woman named Cecilie Rudnik. She informed him of the increasing antisemitic threats to her family – herself, her daughter Julie and her granddaughter, Anna. Helmy hired Anna as his assistant, teaching her how to use a microscope to analyze patients’ blood and urine.

“I think, in reality, he did have, of course, humanity as a reason to help somebody in need,” Steinke says, adding that he also had “some very human qualities, such as pride. The Nazis he was forced to work with in his job as a doctor in the hospital were such idiots. He felt they were not only politically repellent, he also felt superior to them in an intellectual sense. It was an attack on his pride to have to work with them. I think he enjoyed, to some degree, tricking them, mocking them, playing them.”

The doctor had grown used to trickery, convincing the Reich of his support through letters – including one to Hitler. Yet he also liked antagonizing Nazis, which came with a cost.

After a verbal spat with the brother of Rudolf Hess, he was incarcerated with fellow Egyptians from 1939 to 1940. He was released thanks to Nazi hopes of winning Muslim support through lenient treatment of the local population – and he was allowed to resume practicing medicine. This contrasted drastically with the regular trainloads of hundreds of Jews being sent eastward to die in the camps.

Not a historical inevitability

Anna’s family lied to the Nazis that their daughter had left for Romania, her official homeland due to her birthplace of Arad in Transylvania. Meanwhile, she took up a new life as Nadia. When Helmy drove them through Berlin and was questioned about his headscarved passenger, he responded brusquely, saying time was short because he had to see a patient.

The Nazi outreach to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, inadvertently benefited Dr. Helmy. He and Anna were hired to provide medical care for the mufti and his delegation in Berlin, and the delegation included a sympathetic friend of Dr. Helmy’s, Kamal el-Din Galal, who assisted with Anna’s conversion.

The doctor protected other members of Anna’s family, including her grandmother, whom he sheltered with a German friend – and fellow Righteous Among the Nations member – named Frieda Szturmann; and Anna’s mother Julie and stepfather Georg Wehr, a non-Jew who later converted.

“A very hopeful message comes along with this,” Steinke reflects. “It wasn’t one person, it was a network of Arabs in Berlin helping Jews. We should take note,” the author says before adding, “I’m not going to deny, of course, that there were Arabs who allowed themselves to side with the Nazis.” However, Dr. Helmy’s network represented “the other side of the story.”

Although Dr. Helmy’s friends managed to keep the secret despite the widening circle of people who knew, Anna’s cover was broken by her mother during an interrogation by the Gestapo in 1943. But Dr. Helmy came through yet again. He sent Anna to hide in a cabin on an estate. She joined many others who were hiding in makeshift shelters in the war’s final years. As a cover story, he told the Nazis he had no idea where she was and that she had lied to him about her identity.

Steinke hopes Egypt will someday recognize Helmy’s contributions, just as he hopes for wider recognition of the fact that hostility between Arabs and Jews was not a historical inevitability.

“In the Arab world, there is no interest whatsoever in honoring Arabs who helped Jews,” Steinke says. “It’s puzzling … a person like Mohamed Helmy, people should take pride in him, Egypt should take pride in him. It’s not the case. It’s almost a taboo. On the Israeli side, there’s also a regrettable hesitation to accept the fact that Arabs were not all antagonistic to Jews as recently as 100 years ago.”’

Ronen Steinke’s “Anna and Dr Helmy: How an Arab Doctor Saved a Jewish Girl in Hitler’s Berlin,” published by Oxford University Press, is out now.

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