Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands'

Introduction: Casablanca's Lost Story

The central question of this book is "Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust?" Trite as it sounds, the idea behind that question came to me as I walked along the white stripe painted in the middle of Fifth Avenue in the eerie emptiness of the afternoon of September 11, 2001. Although this book was originally motivated by the awful events of that day, one of the conclusions I reached in the course of my research was that it could — and should — have been written much earlier.

I am, by training, an historian of the modern Middle East, schooled at Oxford, Harvard, and Duke, and, by profession, an analyst of the politics of the countries and peoples of that region. Almost everything I have ever written has been about Arabs. To do this, I have learned their language, studied their culture, and lived among them. Throughout, I have tried, with great empathy, to understand who they are, where they come from, and whatmakes them tick.

I am also a Jew — a fact that, I am sure, was responsible for my career choice. I am loyal to my country, America, and proud of my connection to the Jewish homeland, Israel. I came of age, intellectually and politically, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the era of Anwar el-Sadat, the journey to Jerusalem, and Israel's peace with Egypt, a hopeful moment when, to many Americans — and certainly to most American Jews — Arabs stopped being caricatures and started being flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional figures. This was also the time when Islamic extremists, including Sadat's killers, began to set their sights on America as the Great Satan, with Israel relegated to the lesser role of devil's helper. In one of those unspoken decisions that determine one's life, I decided that understanding Arabs was important to my being Jewish. And because of the many ties that bind America and Israel, and because of the rising sense of direct clash between the United States and the Middle East, I decided that understanding Arabs was also an important part of my being American. I have lived my life at the point where those four — America and Israel, Jews and Arabs — intersect.

In the twenty-five years since I started studying Arabic and traveling to the Middle East, two ideas stand out.

First is the fact that "Arab culture" is really many cultures, that "Arab people" are really many peoples, and that "Arab countries" are filled with a combustible mix of ethnicity, religion, nationalism, and race that produces the entire range of human passions. That insight alone, I believe, makes comprehensible much of the seemingly impenetrable politics of the Middle East.

Second is an observation about the role of history in the lives of Arabs and Jews. For both groups, the past is a powerful source of motivation, grievance, and legitimacy. From God's covenant with Abraham to his promise to Muhammad, from the Balfour Declaration to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, from Israel's War of Independence to the Nakba, which is the Arabic term for "catastrophe" commonly used for Israel's birth, the role of history as narrative resonates deeply among both Arabs and Jews.

Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are steeped in the details of history. The United States alone boasts more than fifty separate local Jewish historical associations and another fifty local Jewish genealogical societies, plus all the national Jewish organizations; Israel, a country of just 6 million, has more than 215 museums, with more opening every year. The intra-Israeli clash between traditional historians and "new historians" — between mainstream Zionists and their "post-Zionist" critics — is the stuff of great national debate.

Similarly, in Arab countries, as throughout most Muslim societies, history excites, inspires, and animates civic life. "The Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but, unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it," writes the eminent historian Bernard Lewis. "Middle Easterners' perception of history is nourished from the pulpit, by the schools, and by the media. [It is] vivid and powerfully resonant." Arab lands, historical allusions more than a millennium old — such as the names of Muslim battlefield victories from the seventh century — adorn freshly built universities (such as Yarmouk and Mu'tah, in Jordan) and even an inter-Arab consortium of satellites (Badr).

But there is a difference: Jews live predominantly in democracies, where history, like politics, is alive with bustle, debate, and disorder. Most Arabs, by contrast, live in closed societies, where rulers fear uncertainty and spend their nation's wealth controlling it. Although Arab peoples may revere the study, writing, and teaching of history, their leaders are more likely to view a clash of historians as a source of threat, rather than a source of strength.

The result is that historians in most Arab countries are more like the court chroniclers of long-dead dynasties, and the hollow or distorted history they write and teach reflects the difference between intellectual and government employee. This phenomenon has produced a generation of Arabs that knows little about the details and texture of their own history, especially the modern history of the republics, monarchies, and principalities in which they live today. I recall that many Jordanians who read a book I wrote on their country's politics in the 1950s, an especially turbulent time for the Hashemite royal family, told me it had filled in an historical black hole for them, telling stories of people and events that no Jordanian had ever done. Western scholars may chafe at rules that control access to official government documents, but they are nothing compared to the restrictions on information that exist in the Middle East. When I was doing doctoral research in the late 1980s, the University of Jordan housed a massive collection of books in what was then called the "forbidden room" of the school's library. Through political connections, I gained access to the room, which contained some hard-to-find volumes written by and about people out of royal favor but certainly nothing that was worthy of labeling secret. Indeed, the very act of writing history in many Arab countries can be risky business. In this part of the world, it is not uncommon for new leaders to airbrush their predecessors out of history — such is the fate, for example, of Egypt's Sadat and Tunisia's Habib Bourghuiba. Woe unto the historian who has already immortalized the ancien régime in print!

But none of this was actually in my mind as I walked down the middle of Fifth Avenue that sunny Tuesday afternoon. I had practical matters to think about — like contacting my wife, who I later learned had been evacuated from her office two blocks from the White House, deciding where I was going to sleep that night, and figuring how I was going to get back home, to Washington. But I also thought a lot about the audacity of the people who took down the towers that day.

Killing, as Cain learned, is an audacious act, and killing on a grand scale is even more so. As genocides have become frequent occurrences, we know that the potential for such killing is always there, from the knives drawn in Rwanda to the death pits of Bosnia. The worst genocide of all, the Holocaust, stands out because it was the most audacious — Germans employed the most scientifically advanced means of the day in the most culturally advanced society in the world to kill the greatest number of people as quickly and efficiently as possible. On a much smaller scale, the killers of 9/11 did just that. Using the most modern of technologies, they exceeded — if just for a couple of hours — the deadly output of Auschwitz, and were the terrorists able to do so, they would have multiplied the killing many times over. To my mind, the plume of smoke rising over the wounded towers conjured to me the chimneys of the death camps, two examples of killers audaciously perfecting murder on an industrial scale.

None of that would have occurred to the perpetrators of the attacks, of course. But that is as much because of the culture that shaped them as the ideology that motivated them. Virtually alone among peoples of the world, Arabs have effectively claimed — and won — exemption from the global campaign to remember the most audacious crime in history. Soon after 9/11, I surveyed Holocaust and tolerance-related institutions and found that not a single module, text, or program for Holocaust education existed in an Arab country, even within the context of studying twentieth-century history, modern genocides, or tolerance education.

At one level, this phenomenon is easy to explain. Arabs — even many modern, moderate, and enlightened Arabs — opt out of discussions about the Holocaust because of its special relevance to Jews and its role in the creation of Israel. A review of documents at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, shows that only one Arab at or near the highest level of government — a young prince from a Gulf state — ever left a record of an official visit to the museum in its history. In the eyes of many Arabs, the catastrophe of Israel's founding would not have occurred if the catastrophe of the Holocaust had not occurred first; accepting the uniqueness and enormity of the latter therefore runs the risk of accepting the validity and legitimacy of the former. As an historian, it is important to recognize the critical role that the Holocaust did play in the founding of Israel — as source of tragic clarity to Jews about the need for independent Jewish sovereignty, as source of cruel stimulus for Jewish immigration to Palestine, and as source of international sympathy for the Jewish people's claim to self-determination. At the same time, it is necessary to point out that the Holocaust provides neither the first, nor the primary, nor the only rationale for the establishment of a Jewish state. By the time German panzers rolled into Poland, modern Zionism was already more than forty years old and the Zionists had attracted so many Jews to Palestine that the British, who governed the territory under a post–World War I mandate, had already proposed to partition the land to accommodate two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Arab. For most Arabs I have met, that history muddies the image of European colonialists paying with Arab land to atone for their guilt over the fate of the Jews during World War II. To them, the creation of Israel was the world's indulgence to Jews as compensation for the destruction of the Holocaust; validating the latter can only validate the former.

However easy to explain, this phenomenon is not so easy to excuse. In the weeks that followed the 9/11 attacks, as my focus moved from Manhattan to the Middle East, it dawned on me that we do no favors to Arabs to exempt them from this history, whatever connection the Holocaust may have to their political dispute with Israel. To borrow a phrase from another context, sparing Arabs the responsibility of Holocaust remembrance actually exposes the soft bigotry of our own low expectations. And, as the events of 9/11 made clear, it certainly does us no favor either.

At that early date, I decided that the most useful response I could offer to 9/11 was to combat Arab ignorance of the Holocaust. The question was how to do it. An adversarial approach, I soon realized, was the wrong way to engage Arabs if I truly wanted to change attitudes on a taboo topic. To do that, I needed to make the Holocaust accessible to Arabs; I needed to make the Holocaust an Arab story.

The answer came to me one autumn evening in 2001. "Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world," says the Qur'an, an echo of the Talmud's injunction "If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world." If I could tell the story of a single Arab who saved a single Jew during the Holocaust, then perhaps I could make Arabs see the Holocaust as a source of pride, worthy of remembering, not just something to avoid or deny. It was, I thought, the most positive solution I could imagine.

When that idea first came to me, I figured my work was half done. I am not an expert on the history of the Holocaust, and my assumption was that stories of Arabs who saved Jews already circulated among the cognoscenti but were not widely known. In the context I know best—modern Middle East history — such was the case, for example, in 1929, when a few brave Arabs saved the lives of dozens of Jews from an Arab massacre in the biblical city of Hebron. Surely, I thought, the Holocaust had its share of these stories, too. I would only have to find them, mine them, and popularize them.

I was wrong. After a flurry of e-mails — to Sir Martin Gilbert, the renowned historian; to Walter Reich, the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and, ultimately, to Mordechai Paldiel, the widely respected head of the Department of the Righteous at Israel's national memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem — reality set in: Nearly sixty years after the war, no Arab had ever been officially recognized as a rescuer of Jews. "What an interesting topic," a distinguished scholar wrote in reply to a query from me. "Good luck in your work."

Two months after 9/11, my wife and I decided to move to Rabat, the capital of the North African kingdom of Morocco. My first encounter with North Africa was as a child, when my father told fascinating, if unnerving, tales from his wartime stops in Casablanca, Algiers, and Oran in 1943, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, but I had never been there myself. For Jennie and me, the decision to move there broke a pattern. Throughout our eleven years of marriage, we had kept our professional lives apart; she, an economist at the World Bank, worked previously on Vietnam, Russia, and sub-Saharan Africa, but never an Arab country. When Jennie received an offer to relocate to the field office in Rabat, we decided not to pass up the one opportunity to live in a country where our interests might overlap. In April 2002, we left Washington with our two young boys and settled into our new home in Morocco.

Over the next two and a half years, my tiny office on the second floor of our white stucco house at 1 Oulad Fares Street became the world headquarters of a far-flung effort to find Arabs who had saved Jews during the Holocaust. My research extended to a dozen countries on four continents; I drew on the skills of a small army of archivists, translators, interviewers, and researchers as well as the advice and counsel of many experts far more knowledgeable than I in the history of the Holocaust. Early on, I realized that it made no sense to focus solely on a narrow search for Arabs who saved Jews. Context matters. Without understanding the Nazi, Fascist, and Vichy efforts to extend their Holocaust-era persecution of Jews to Arab lands, without understanding how the half-million Jews of Europe's Arab possessions fared under this threat, and without understanding the many different roles that Arab populations of these lands played during this experience, there could be no real meaning to specific stories of Arabs who saved Jews — if they existed, at all. What started as a small, boutique effort to find one Arab who saved one Jew mushroomed into the most complex mega-project of my life.

This book contains what I found. It is, I admit at the outset, not the comprehensive account of any of the concentric circles I just described. That mammoth task awaits a team of graduate students who will make their careers combing over each of the more than 100 sites of German, French, and Italian forced labor set up in Arab countries, sketching the personal tales of the thousands of Jews — both Ashkenazim and Sephardim — interned at "punishment camps" in the Sahara, or assessing the way scores of Arab leaders and officials dealt with the competing tugs of their public responsibilities, on the one hand, and their private friendships with Jews, on the other hand. This book is a more modest undertaking. It is part history, part travelogue, part memoir. It is the story of my search for an Arab who saved a Jew during the Holocaust — the "Righteous" of the title — and what I found along the way: the discoveries I made, the personalities I encountered, the lessons I learned.

One of those lessons is that the Holocaust experience of Jews and others persecuted in Arab lands are not "untold stories" but rather "lost stories." Recall, for example, this scene from the movie Casablanca, in which a Gestapo officer urges the devoted wife of the Czech underground leader to convince her husband to return to Paris under German protection.

Major Strasser: There are only two other alternatives for him.

Ilse: What are they?

Major Strasser: It is possible the French authorities will find a reason to put him in the concentration camp here.

Ilse: And the other alternative?

Major Strasser: My dear Mademoiselle, perhaps you have observed that in Casablanca, human life is cheap. Good night, Mademoiselle.

When Warner Bros. released the movie, in December 1942, filmgoers did not scratch their heads at this passing reference to French "concentration camps" in Morocco. The existence of these camps — much like the terrible fate of Jews more generally — was known, certainly among those who were interested in knowing. Somehow, over the last sixty years, those stories have been lost. There were even brief accounts of Arab rescuers mentioned in well-known books and memoirs of the period; historians never picked up on these, either, and they were also lost. One of the goals of this book is to recapture those stories and revive them; another is to explain how they were lost and why.

Along the way, I include relevant statistics — how many were killed, how many were interned, and so on — but I try not to fixate on them. Based solely on a numerical comparison with the enormity of the horror in Europe, the experience of Jews in Arab lands during the war barely deserves mention and the frequent recitation of statistics inevitably invites such judgment. Such an emphasis on numbers, however, has the effect of ripping these stories from their historical, cultural, and geographic roots and distorting the narrative of the people — both Jews and Arabs — whose lives were touched by the long reach of the Holocaust. This book represents the distillation of years of research, but it is ultimately about stories and the people who lived them; the comprehensive, authoritative account of what transpired in Arab lands during World War II awaits a future volume.

I expect this book to provoke controversy. Over two generations, most Arabs and most Jews have settled into a comfortable pattern of how to view each other's role in history and each other's understanding of history. The stories I tell — both of what happened between Jews and Arabs sixty years ago and how each of them relate to that history today — challenge convention within each community. The lessons I derive from my research are not likely to go down easily with either.

No one who knows me or reads what I have written over the past two decades can accuse me of romanticizing the politics or peoples of the Middle East. The gruesome accounts of torture, betrayal, and death I recount in this book will only confirm that reputation. But, in fact, this is the most hopeful story I have ever told. Recapturing these lost stories from the Holocaust's long reach into Arab lands offers people of goodwill among each community — Arab and Jewish — a way to look through the lens of one of the most powerful narratives in history and see each other differently. It is the most positive response I could offer to the events of that Tuesday morning in September.

Early in this introduction, I wrote that understanding the complex ethnic, religious, national, and racial makeup of Arab societies makes comprehensible much of the Middle East's seemingly impenetrable politics. In order to make this book accessible to nonspecialists, I have taken the risk of disregarding that prime directive. Throughout, I use the shorthand term "Arab" to refer to the Muslim population of the countries in question. Many of these people were not, in fact, ethnic Arabs; a large proportion, for example, were Berbers, native peoples of northwest Africa whose culture and languages predate the Arab Muslim conquests. Similarly, the distinction between Jews and Arabs fails to take account of the variety of Jewish communities in Arab lands at this time. Most Jews in these countries spoke Arabic as their first language; in a sense they were "Arab Jews." There were also large groups of Jews of recent (and not so recent) European origin — Italian, Maltese, Greek, and so forth — who maintained linguistic, cultural, and sometimes even political ties to their countries of origin. Dissecting the different wartime experiences of these various ethnic and national subgroups will, someday, make an excellent dissertation (or two). Because the stories I tell in this book are complicated enough as they are, I decided that the limitation of using the shorthand terms was worth the risk.

In the same vein, I have also tried to make the many names of Arabs mentioned in the book as accessible to the nonspecialist as I could. Therefore, I opted not to apply academic standards of transliteration, which have a way of making Arabic names even more distant and unattainable to a Western reader. Instead, wherever possible (and with a few exceptions), I used the spelling actually preferred by the person in question. So, for example, "Muhammad" often becomes "Mohamed," the way Tunisians in the 1940s tended to spell the name.

Excerpted from Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands by Robert Satloff (Public Affairs, 2006). Reprinted with permission.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit