Family of Arab awarded Righteous Among the Nations rejects honour

By Isabelle Fraser, October 21, 2013
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The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem (Photo: Chabuk)

The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem (Photo: Chabuk)

The family of the first Arab to be named Righteous Among the Nations has declined to take up the honour.

The award was bestowed posthumously on Dr Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian-German doctor, by Yad Vashem for his role in saving a Jewish family in Germany during the Holocaust.

Since recipients of the award are often no longer alive, Yad Vashem usually seeks out family members to whom the award can be given, but said they had been unable to find any living relatives of Helmy.

But with the help of genealogists, an Associated Press journalist tracked down members of Helmy’s family in Cairo, Egypt.

Mervat Hassan, the wife of Helmy’s great nephew, said that they would not be accepting the award, citing hostile relations between Egypt and Israel. She told the journalist: "If any other country offered to honor Helmy, we would have been happy with it.”

She continued: "Helmy was not picking a certain nationality, race or religion to help. He treated patients regardless of who they were … I respect Judaism as a religion and I respect Jews. Islam recognises Judaism as a heavenly religion."

Yad Vashem has said it will continue to look for other relatives of Helmy in order to bestow the honour on his family, including some heirs who appeared in his will.

Mohamed Helmy, born in Khartoum in 1901, was a Germany-educated doctor who in 1937 was banned from working in the German public health system due to his race. He was also unable to marry his German fiancée because of Nazi racial laws.

He hid 21-year-old Anna Boros and members of her family in a cabin on the outskirts of Berlin when the Germans started to deport Jews in 1941. He also provided them with medical care. The four family members survived the war and immigrated to the United States.

Boros wrote after the war that Helmy “managed to evade all [the Nazis’] interrogations. In such cases he would bring me to friends where I would stay for several days, introducing me as his cousin from Dresden. When the danger would pass, I would return to his cabin…. Dr Helmy did everything for me out of the generosity of his heart and I will be grateful to him for eternity.”

Helmy remained in Berlin after the war and married his fiancée; he died in 1982. Also honoured as Righteous Among the Nations was his German friend, Frieda Szturmann, who also helped hide members of the Jewish family.

To be named Righteous Among the Nations is the highest honour bestowed to non-Jews who acted to save Jews during the Holocaust.

According to Yad Vashem, 25,000 people from 44 countries have been honoured as Righteous, including more than 500 Germans and a few dozen non-Arab Muslims.

Last updated: 1:01pm, October 21 2013