The first and only Arab to be named as Righteous Among the Nations will be honored at a ceremony in Berlin on Thursday, during which his great-nephew will receive an award on his behalf.
Yad Vashem recognized Dr. Mohamed Helmy in 2013, but had not been able to track down any of his relatives until this year.
In the absence of information about Helmy’s next of kin, Yad Vashem turned to the Egyptian Embassy and asked for its help in finding his nephews, in the meantime displaying the medal and certificate of honor in an exhibition.
An Associated Press reporter managed to track down a relative of Helmy in Egypt that year, but was told that the family was not interested in recognition from an Israeli institution.
But this year, Israeli film director Taliya Finkel helped connect between Yad Vashem and Nasser Kutbi – the son of Helmy’s nephew, an 81-year-old professor of medicine from Cairo – who agreed to travel to Berlin to receive the award. Finkel, who made a film about the story, Mohamed and Anna: In Plain Sight
, will also film Thursday’s ceremony.
Light in the midst of darkness: the story of Mohamed Helmy. (YouTube/WorldJewish Congress)
“This is extremely meaningful and moving,” Irena Steinfeldt, director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, told The Jerusalem Post
“I think this can teach us the ability of people to overcome cultural barriers and to look at human beings and to see their suffering,” she said of Helmy’s story.
Helmy was born in Khartoum in 1901 to Egyptian parents and in 1922 went to Germany to study medicine, settling in Berlin.
After completing his studies, he went to work at the Robert Koch Hospital in Berlin, where he rose to the position of head of the urology department. Helmy witnessed the dismissal of Jewish doctors from the hospital in 1933. He was not fired yet, but not being of Aryan race, he was discriminated against and in 1938 was also dismissed. In 1939 and again in 1940 he was arrested together with other Egyptian nationals, but was released a year later because of health problems. He was also not allowed to marry his German fiancée, Annie Ernst.
Despite being targeted by the regime himself, Helmy spoke out against Nazi policies, and risked his life to help Jewish friends. When the deportations of the Jews from Berlin began, and his friend Anna Gutman née Boros 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,” Gutman wrote after 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. 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 Gutman’s mother, Julie, stepfather Gerog Wehr, and her grandmother Cecilie Rudnik, providing for them and attending to their medical needs. He arranged for Rudnik to be hidden in the home of Frieda Szturmann, who has also been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. For over a year Szturmann hid and protected the elderly lady and shared her food rations with her.
When the Wehrs were caught in 1944, under interrogation they revealed that Helmy had been helping them and that he was hiding Anna. Helmy immediately brought Anna to Szturmann’s home and managed to evade punishment by showing the police a letter Gutman had allegedly written to him, saying she was staying with her aunt in Dessau.
The four family members survived the Holocaust thanks to the actions of Helmy and Szturmann. After the war they immigrated to the United States, but never forgot their rescuers, and in the 1950s and early 1960s 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.
Following reports in the media about the honoring of Helmy, an Israeli relative of Gutman contacted Yad Vashem, connecting staff to her daughter Carla.
Carla sent a photo showing her and her mother visiting Helmy and his wife in Berlin in 1969 and a number of documents that she had found among her mother’s things. Two documents, in German and Arabic, revealed that Helmy used every possible means to protect Gutman, even getting her a certificate from the Central Islamic Institute in Berlin, headed by the mufti of Jerusalem, attesting to her conversion to Islam, and a marriage certificate saying that she was married to a fellow Egyptian in a ceremony that was held in Helmy’s home.
“If it weren’t for Dr. Helmy, I would not be here today, as well as my two brothers, Charlie and Fred. In addition, between the three of us, we have seven children who wouldn’t be here as well,” Carla wrote to Yad Vashem.
Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff will present Kutbi with a certificate and a medal bearing the quote, “Whoever saves a life saves an entire world.” Carla will also be traveling from New York to attend the ceremony.