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A Tunisian Schindler
by Fr. Dave Denny

Last winter I heard an interview with Robert Satloff, author of Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands. Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He discussed his reasons for writing a book that seeks stories of Arabs who helped Jews during World War II. Noting that the Holocaust was one of the strongest stimuli for founding the Israeli state, he described how difficult it is for today’s Arabs and other Muslims to discuss the Holocaust or sometimes even acknowledge it, because it led to what they call the Nakba (catastrophe): the death, displacement, or oppression of indigenous Palestinians, and the reestablishment of what many consider a “crusader state.”

Satloff knew that the Nazis (German, Italian and Vichy-French) had established over one hundred forced labor camps in Arab lands, including North Africa. It would be difficult for people who lived near these camps to deny their existence.
He also believes that people are generally the same around the world. After 9/11, Satloff felt the need to find some “righteous” Arab who, like Oscar Schindler, might be honored as a “Righeous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem, Israel’s monument to the Holocaust. Although some Arabs gladly worked with the Nazis, others, Satloff surmised, likely resisted. As he interviewed North Africans, he turned up some evidence of Arab aid to threatened Jews. But many of today’s North African Muslims are not proud of these tales, so they have modified or simply stopped telling them.

But he found his righteous gentile. His name was Khaled Abdul-Wahhab, a wealthy Tunisian who, in 1942, after hearing a Nazi declare that he had his eye on a young Jewish mother, went immediately to her hiding place and whisked the woman and her family away to his farm.

Just before a recent trip to Israel/Palestine I heard a follow-up to Satloff’s odyssey. On April 19, NPR reported that Abdul-Wahhab had indeed been nominated to become part of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Abdul-Wahhab died in 1997, but his story lives through his children and through Nadia Bijaoui, a Tunisian Jew who, when German officers evicted her family from her home, took refuge with other Jews in an olive press factory. It was to this olive press that Khaled came. Nadia is the daughter of Anny Boukris, the woman “targeted” by the Nazi officer and rescued by Abdul-Wahhab. Nadia met Abdul-Wahhab’s daughter Faisa recently in California. You may hear their voices on NPR.

Satloff’s work and this tale of heroism give me hope. But not everyone agrees. Washington Post reviewer Deborah Lipstadt believes that Satloff is naïve and his work “noble but misguided” because such stories, based on fact, cannot penetrate the deafness of the prejudiced. Howard Jacobson, writing in the Sunday Times (London), wonders, “… how long it will be before both sides accept that there is no hope of peace until each agrees to swim in the other’s past, is anybody’s guess.” Lipstadt seems resigned to a never-ending struggle with impenetrable prejudice. But if grace exists, then its waters can erode walls, its music may open deaf ears, and we may begin to recognize that we swim in a common reservoir of grief, betrayal, lies, cruelty, compassion, truth, and hope.

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