Egyptian doctor becomes first Arab recognized for saving Jews during Holocaust

Dr. Mohamed Helmy, who went to Berlin to study medicine and was himself arrested by the Nazi regime, later helped save four Jews. He now joins the ranks of so-called 'righteous gentiles.'

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Irena Steinfeldt, an official at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, shows a certificate recognizing Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor in Berlin, as 'Righteous Among Nations' for saving a Jewish family during the Holocaust, in Jerusalem, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum, has added an Egyptian doctor to the ranks of Gentiles recognized as “Righteous Among Nations” for aiding Jews during the Holocaust.

Dr. Mohamed Helmy is the first Arab to be honored in the 50-year span of the project, which has recognized 24,911 individuals from 44 countries.

Yad Vashem, located in Jerusalem, learned of Helmy through letters written by several Jewish survivors he helped. The letters were found in a Berlin archive and recently passed along to Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among Nations department.

Helmy  moved to Berlin for medical studies in 1922 and went on to work at a hospital, but his professional progress was thwarted by Nazi racial policies, and he was even arrested in 1939 and held for a year. Nevertheless, when a 21-year-old Jewish patient of his, Anna Boros (later Gutman), sought his help, he sheltered her in a cabin he owned in Berlin and moved her to friends’ homes from time to time to prevent her from being discovered.  He also helped to hide three of her relatives, with the help of Frieda Szturmann, whom Yad Vashem has honored along with Helmy.

The recognition of Righteous Among Nations is inspired by an idea from the Mishnah, “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.” The background of those who have been honored so far varies widely, from intellectuals to illiterate laborers, from Muslims to nuns, from a zoo director to a circus owner.

But they generally share one or more of the following characteristics, according to Yad Vashem: They hid Jews in their home or on their property, provided false papers and false identities, smuggled Jews or helped them escape, and rescued Jewish children.

A commission of Holocaust survivors, researchers, and historians currently chaired by retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel reviews each potential honoree. The commission decided in March to honor Helmy and Szturmann, who have both passed away, but delayed the announcement until yesterday in an attempt to notify relatives first, according to Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari.

“We hope maybe [the announcement] will help us find the next of kin,” she says, adding that the announcement was also published on Yad Vashem’s Arabic website. Among the Arab outlets that picked up the story was Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.

Since the announcement yesterday, Yad Vashem has received a number of inquiries from relatives of Anna Boros Gutman, says Ms. Yaari, but they are still hoping to hear from relatives of Helmy.

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