Essay: A righteous Arab

He saved Jews in Tunisia from the Nazis; Yad Vashem should award him its highest honor

For the past two years, Yad Vashem has been debating whether a Tunisian Arab rescuer of Jews merits the prestigious title of Righteous Among the Nations. So far it has declined to award Khaled Abdul-Wahhab this honor, on the claim that the man's otherwise meritorious act was not done under conditions of immediate risk to his life in the country then ruled by the Germans. The risk to one's life principle has since the creation of Yad Vashem comprised the elemental condition for the Righteous title, but has over the years undergone various interpretations. As was pointed out by the late justice Moshe Bejski, who headed the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous for 25 years, the "risk to life" criterion did not imply that a rescuer was "facing a hangman's knot" when he/she extended aid to Jews. The very fact that in aiding Jews a person was placing himself in jeopardy of eventual punishment was sufficient reason to fulfill the "risk" requirement. For instance, in Vichy France, in 1942, Paul Heritier, who lived in Chamalieres, near Clermont-Ferrand, and owned a vacation home in Chaumargeais, about 75 kilometers away, allowed the use of that home to Andre Chouraqui, for his clandestine work with Jewish operatives. Heritier did not live in that distant village home, hardly visited that area and was not involved in any way in Chouraqui's clandestine activity. In 1991, he was awarded the Righteous title. It was justified on the reasoning that although he did not face any risk to his life, since the French Vichy authorities did not impose the death penalty on persons aiding Jews, potential arrest and imprisonment could not be ruled out, and this accorded with the "risk" principle. There are many examples of persons who aided Jews in one way or another and were honored by Yad Vashem, although the risks they faced, which were real, did not include an immediate threat to their lives. Such as Pastor Andre Trocme, who turned his village of Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, into a safe haven for hundreds (some say thousands) of Jews. When confronted by the Vichy authorities, he responded that he would continue to shelter fleeing Jews. He was imprisoned for a while, then released. He too was awarded the Righteous title, and justifiably so. KHALED ABDUL-WAHHAB spirited out a group of two dozen Jews in his van after curfew time from their confined place, in a disaffected oil firm, in the city of Mahdia, in the dead of night, and sheltered them on his out-of-the city estate some 30 kilometers away, where they remained closeted for close to a month to avoid harm by the Germans. This story has been fully substantiated by two of the recipients of Abdul-Wahhab's aid - Anny Boukris and Edmee Masliah. In the interview with Anny Boukris, she was asked point blank: "Was he risking anything by doing this for you?" "Sure, sure," she responded. "What could have happened to him?" "To kill him," she emphatically stated. Perhaps she overstated the risk factor, and perhaps not. Who is to say, with the Germans in full control, and in the process of reducing the Jewish population to slavery and pauperism as a first step to even harsher measures? Did Abdul-Wahhab not risk his personal safety and welfare? Did he not risk questioning and possible interrogation or arrest by the Germans who controlled Tunisia? Upon his transfer there, SS Colonel Walter Rauff, inventor of the gas vans in Poland, began by physically abusing Jewish leaders, conscripting thousands of Jews for forced labor (some died) and drawing plans for their eventual deportation to concentration camps (see Michel Abitbul's masterful study of the Jews in Tunisia under German rule). When Abdul-Wahhab placed his Jewish wards on his estate, he told them to remove their obligatory Jewish star whenever Germans from a nearby German Red Cross outfit visited him, so as to avoid any risks to them and himself. Fortunately for all concerned, British and US armies swiftly defeated the Germans in Tunisia, on May 6, 1943. The two dozen Jews on Khaled's estate exited from their confinement safe and sound. PAUL HERITIER, who did not shelter any Jews in his distant uninhabited summer lodge but allowed one person to use it without himself being there - has been honored with the Righteous title. If apprehended, he would not have faced the death penalty by the Vichy authorities. In fact, there is no record of the Vichy regime executing any Frenchman solely for aiding Jews, even of persons caught sheltering Jews in their home. But when it came to the case of the Tunisian Khaled Abdul-Wahhab - he was denied the Righteous title, not because he faced no risks whatsoever but because in his case Yad Vashem applied the harsh conditions pertaining to rescuers in Poland; and his life was not definitely, unquestionably and automatically at risk. This is, indeed, a far-reaching and untenable extension of the "risk" principle. Here it is important also to remember that the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous operates at two levels; three sub-commissions that deal with simple, clear and non-controversial rescue stories, and a plenary commission that deals with complicated and debatable stories. The writer is former director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem and currently teaches at Yeshiva University.