At the height of World War II, Khaled Abdelwahhab hid a group of Jews on his farm in a small Tunisian town, saving them from the Nazi troops occupying the North African nation.
Now, Abdelwahhab has become the first Arab nominated for recognition as "Righteous Among the Nations," an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi persecution.
The nomination of Abdelwahhab, who died in 1997, has reopened a little-known chapter of the Holocaust in the Arab countries of North Africa.
Abdelwahhab was nominated by Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. think tank.
Satloff said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, he went to Morocco to research what happened during the Nazi genocide in hopes of countering Holocaust denial in the Arab world and tempering some of the sentiments he thought helped pave the way for the attacks.
"I asked, did any Arabs save Jews in the Holocaust?" Satloff said. "If they did, these are stories about which Arabs could be proud. It would also entail accepting the context, because it would mean there was something to save Jews from."
The search led to Abdelwahhab, the son of an aristocratic family who was 32 when German troops arrived in Tunisia in November 1942. The nation was home to some 100,000 Jews at the time.
According to Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, the Germans imposed anti-Semitic policies in Tunisia that included fines, forcing Jews to wear Star of David badges and confiscating property. More than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps, where 46 are known to have died. About 160 Tunisian Jews in France were sent to European death camps.
Abdelwahhab served as an interlocutor between the population of the coastal town of Mahdia and German forces, Satloff said.
Hid families until occupation ended
When he heard that German officers were planning to rape Odette Boukris, a local Jewish woman, he gathered her family and several other Jewish families in Mahdia — around two dozen people — and took them to his farm outside town. He hid them for four months, until the occupation ended.
"Khaled is the finest example, though not the only one, of an Arab who saved Jews from persecution during the German occupation," Satloff said.
Satloff first heard Abdelwahhab's story several years ago from Odette Boukris' daughter, Anny Boukris, a resident of a Los Angeles suburb. An 11-year-old in 1943, Anny Boukris was also hidden by Abdelwahhab.
Satloff went to Mahdia and talked to Anny Boukris' childhood friends, who confirmed the story. Just weeks after Boukris recorded her 83-page testimony, she died at age 71.
Abdelwahhab still has to be approved by the Yad Vashem commission that grants the honor. Since the war, Yad Vashem has conferred the status on 21,700 people, including some 60 Muslims from the Balkans. But no Arab had ever been nominated.
"The commission will decide based on the strict criteria for recognizing the Righteous Among the Nations. We can't speculate on what the outcome will be," said Estee Yaari, a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem.
Tunisia was the only North African country to come under direct Nazi rule. Morocco and Algeria were governed by the pro-Nazi collaborators of Vichy France.
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a North Africa expert at Tel Aviv University, said Morocco's king at the time, Mohammed V, intervened to protect Jews in his country. "But the story in Tunisia was quite different, because there was a direct occupation by the German army," he said.