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Family of WW2 Arab hero reject Israeli honor

Family not interested in the award by the Holocaust memorial because Egypt-Israel ties remain hostile

Family members of an Egyptian physician who recently became the first Arab to be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, said they were not interested in accepting the recognition bestowed by the Israeli institution.

Dr. Mohamed Helmy was honored last month for risking his life by hiding and caring for a Jewish friend while in Berlin at the height of the Second World War.

“If any other country offered to honor Helmy, we would have been happy with it,” Mervat Hassan, the wife of Helmy’s great-nephew, told The Associated Press. She said the family wasn’t interested in the award because relations between Egypt and Israel remain hostile.

Yad Vashem carried out a search for Helmy's next of kin to posthumously honor his relatives in a ceremony and present them with the certificate and medal of the Righteous, bestowed by the center on non-Jews who helped save Jews from the persecution of the Nazis and their collaborators.

“I respect Judaism as a religion and I respect Jews. Islam recognizes Judaism as a heavenly religion,” stressed Hassan, noting that her relative "was not picking a certain nationality, race or religion to help. He treated patients regardless of who they were."

Helmy was born in Khartoum in 1901 to Egyptian parents. In 1922, he went to Germany to study medicine and settled in Berlin. According to Nazi racial theory, Helmy was defined as a Hamit or Hamitic (the descendants of Ham, son of Noah) – a term adopted from 19th century racial science and used to define the natives of North Africa, including ancient Egyptians, the Horn of Africa, and South Arabia. Not being of the Aryan race, Helmy was discriminated against and forbidden to work in the public health system and was unable to marry his German fiancée. He was briefly imprisoned in 1939, together with other Egyptian nationals, but released a year later because of health problems.

Despite being targeted by the regime, Helmy spoke out against Nazi policies, and notwithstanding the great danger, risked his life by helping his Jewish friends. When the deportations of the Jews from Berlin began, 21-year old Anna Boros, a family friend, was in need of a hiding place. Helmy brought her to a cabin he owned in the Berlin neighborhood of Buch which became her safe haven until the end of the war. At times of increased danger when he was under police investigation, Helmy would arrange for her to hide elsewhere.

“A good friend of our family, Dr. Helmy…hid me in his cabin in Berlin-Buch from 10 March until the end of the war. As of 1942, I no longer had any contact with the outside world. The Gestapo knew that Dr. Helmy was our family physician, and they knew that he owned a cabin in Berlin-Buch,” Boros wrote after the war. “He managed to evade all their 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 also helped Anna Gutman’s mother, stepfather and grandmother Cecilie Rudnik. Providing for them and attending to their medical needs, he arranged for Cecilie Rudnik to be hidden in the home of Frieda Szturmann. For over a year Szturmann hid and protected the elderly lady and shared her own food rations with her. Szturmann was also recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations together with Helmy.

One particular moment of great danger occurred when the Wehrs were caught in 1944, and during their brutal interrogation revealed that Helmy was helping them and that he was hiding Anna. Helmy immediately brought Anna to Frieda Szturmann’s home, and it was only thanks to his resourcefulness that he managed to evade punishment.

Thanks to the help and courage of Dr. Helmy and Frieda Szturmann the four family members survived the Holocaust. After the war they immigrated to the United States, but did not forgot their rescuers, and in the 1950’s and early 1960’s wrote letters on their behalf to the Berlin Senate. These letters were uncovered in the Berlin archives, and were recently submitted to Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department.

Dr. Helmy remained in Berlin and was finally able to marry his fiancée. He died in 1982. Frieda Szturmann passed away in 1962.



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