Uncovering Arab heroes of Holocaust

By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2008

Shortly after 9-11, Robert Satloff and his family went to live in Rabat, Morocco.

Mr. Satloff was on a mission to uncover the roles Arabs played in helping or hindering Nazi Germany and its allies with the expansion of the Final Solution into North Africa.

“It was challenging to be an American living in an Arab capital several months after 9-11 and after the start of the war in the Gulf,” Mr. Satloff said by telephone from his office in Washington, D.C. “It was a challenge being a Jewish American at a time when, in May 2003, there were a series of terrorist bombings against Jewish targets in Casablanca.”

Mr. Satloff, who serves as executive director of The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, is a historian and an expert on Arab and Islamic politics and United States Middle East policy. He knows a good deal about the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Islamist challenge to the growth of democracy. But he did not have any particular expertise on the Holocaust before he launched his project. And, as it turned out, no other historian knew much about the role of Arabs in the persecution of Jews.

“For most historians, it is as though it didn’t exist,” Mr. Satloff said. “I hadn’t heard a word.”

When he started his research, Mr. Satloff assumed that among the 21,000 rescuers listed at Yad Vashem, the Israeli national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, there would be a proportional number of Arabs.

“It was to my real surprise there wasn’t a single Arab,” he said. “The more I looked into it, the surprise grew because there were over 110 labor camps set up in Arab countries.”

Mr. Satloff, his wife and their two children, who were very young at the time, lived in Morocco for two years and traveled throughout the region. Mr. Satloff’s research became the basis of his book “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories of the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.” The book was published in 2006 and quickly gained international acclaim. Mr. Satloff’s discoveries helped persuade the German government to award compensation to Jewish survivors of labor camps in North Africa.

Mr. Satloff, who has a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies from Oxford University, will bring his unique perspective to Worcester tomorrow evening as the first speaker in the fall series of lectures hosted by Clark University’s Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Mr. Satloff will deliver his talk, “In Search of an Arab Schindler,” at 7:30 p.m. in Tilton Hall in the Higgins University Center, 950 Main St., Worcester.

In “Among the Righteous,” Mr. Satloff describes how Nazi Germany, Vichy France and Fascist Italy introduced their anti-Semitic policies into North Africa. Jews were deprived of their civil rights. Their property was confiscated, and they were forced into slave labor camps. Many Arabs were indifferent to their suffering, while others played active roles in the persecution, serving as camp guards, clerks, policemen, overseers and torturers.

Yet Mr. Satloff also uncovered stories of bravery and compassion. Religious leaders throughout Algiers delivered sermons warning Muslims against participating in efforts to strip Jews of their property. The head of a mosque in Paris assisted Jews in getting false identity papers. There are a handful of Arab rescuers who stand out in Mr. Satloff’s mind.

“I regret I never got to meet Khaled Abdul-Wahab,” Mr. Satloff said. “He was the first to be recognized at Yad Vashem.”

Mr. Abdul-Wahab had studied in America and returned to his homeland, Tunisia. He was from a very small town, where his family owned property. He gave refuge to two dozen Jews on his farm while Germans occupied the town.

Because of their antipathy to Israel, many Arabs do not want to acknowledge that their countrymen saved Jews during the Holocaust. Mr. Abdul-Wahab’s daughter is not among them.

“He died in 1986, but I know his daughter quite well, and she’s a remarkable young woman who, unlike several of the others interviewed, is deeply proud of her father and delighted to learn of this episode and ecstatic that he is receiving recognition for what she considers a matter-of-fact act,” Mr. Satloff said. “To those of us who know these stories, it’s huge and it speaks volumes about the man.”

During their stay in North Africa, the Satloffs lived with a certain level of anxiety because of the prevailing attitudes. Mr. Satloff recalled the day he got a call from the American Embassy in Morocco. It was suggested that he pick up a copy of a leading Islamist newspaper.

“I see my picture on the front page as though there was a target on it,” he recounted. “I was being `outed’ by the radical Islamists. It was three months later that the bombs went off against Jewish targets in Morocco.”

In general though, the Satloffs found the large majority of Moroccans to be moderate and kind-hearted.

“We kept a very low profile and things were fine,” Mr. Satloff said. “But Morocco, like many Middle East countries, has extremists.”

Mr. Satloff said that in writing the book he hoped to target ignorance about the roles that Arabs played in the Holocaust.

“It has relevance for them quite apart from the conflict with Israel,” he said, adding that two of the most recent genocides have occurred in Arab countries – the gassing of Kurds by Iraqis and the killing of non-Arabs by Arabs in Darfur.

“In some small way, I believe both of these could have been averted if the universal lessons of the Holocaust had not been avoided in Arab countries,” Mr. Satloff said.

Two years after the publication of “Among the Righteous,” Mr. Satloff is headed down another path. He is working with a filmmaker on a full-length documentary based on the book.

“I’m very excited about it,” Mr. Satloff said. “We’ll go to North Africa and Europe and meet people we talk about in the book. It’s a whole chapter of the Holocaust, and a chapter within a chapter, that people need to know more about.”