Israel honors Egyptian doctor who saved Jews during Holocaust

Yad Vashem posthumously honored Egyptian physician Dr. Mohamed Helmy as “Righteous Among the Nations,” the first Arab awarded this highest distinction.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, on Thursday held a ceremony posthumously honoring Egyptian physician Dr. Mohamed Helmy, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Israel’s Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff presented the medal and certificate of honor to Dr. Nasser Kotby, Helmy’s nephew, on behalf of Yad Vashem, the State of Israel and the Jewish people, at a ceremony held at the Academy for Germany’s Foreign Ministry.

The “Righteous Among the Nations” designation is a title bestowed upon gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust

Helmy, the first Arab awarded this highest distinction, was recognized by Yad Vashem in March 2013 along with Frieda Szturmann, and their names are engraved on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

After initially refusing to receive recognition form Israel, Helmy’s family agreed to travel to Germany to receive the award from the Israeli Ambassador to Germany.

Director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem Irena Steinfeldt remarked that “despite being targeted by the Nazi regime and notwithstanding the great danger, Dr. Helmy risked his life to help his Jewish friends. At a time when Jews were persecuted and murdered only because they were Jews, when indifference and hatred prevailed, he saw the persecuted as human beings, and felt it was his duty to stand up and act.”

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She further noted that Helmy’s story is a unique case of a Muslim Egyptian immigrant in Germany who courageously set out to save people of a different religion and a different nationality.

“Dr. Helmy’s humanity shows that every person, however marginalized by society, can make a difference,” she underscored.

Rescued by an Egyptian in Berlin

Helmy was born in Khartoum in 1901 to Egyptian parents. In 1922 he went to Germany to study medicine and settled in Berlin. After completing his studies, he went to work at the Robert Koch Hospital in Berlin (later called Moabit Hospital), where he rose to the role of head of the urology department. Helmy was witness to the dismissal of Jewish doctors from the hospital in 1933.

Helmy himself was not fired, but according to Nazi racial theory he was defined as a Hamit or Hamitic (the descendants of Ham, son of Noah) – a term adopted from 19th century racial science. Not being of Aryan race, Dr. Helmy was discriminated against; he was fired from the hospital in 1938, and was unable to marry his German fiancée, Annie Ernst.

In 1939 and again in 1940 he was arrested together with other Egyptian nationals, but released a year later due to health problems.

Despite his being targeted by the regime, Helmy spoke out against Nazi policies, and notwithstanding the great danger, risked his life and helped his Jewish friends.

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When the deportations of the Jews from Berlin began, and Anna Boros (Gutman after the war), 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 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 to the outside world. The Gestapo knew that Dr. Helmy was our family physician, and they knew that he owned a cabin in Berlin-Buch,” Anna Gutman 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, Julie, step-father Gerog Wehr, and her grandmother, Cecilie Rudnik. He provided for them and attended 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 food rations with her.

A moment of great danger occurred when the Wehrs were caught in 1944, and during their 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 by showing the police a letter Anna had allegedly written to him, saying she was staying with her aunt in Dessau.

Two documents found after the World War II, in German and Arabic, revealed that Helmy used every possible means to protect Boros – he even got her a certificate from the Central Islamic Institute in Berlin, headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, attesting to her converting to Islam, and a marriage certificate in Arabic, saying that she was married to a fellow Egyptian in a ceremony that was held in Helmy’s home.

The four Jewish family members survived the Holocaust. After the war they immigrated to the US, but never forgot their rescuers, and in the 1950’s and early 1960’s wrote letters on their behalf to the Berlin Senate so that they would be honored as rescuers of Jews.

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

By: World Israel News Staff