An Arab ‘Righteous Gentile’: A daughter’s story

69 years ago, my father saved a Jewish family from the Nazis. He modestly kept that secret to himself for the rest of this life

Hall of Names at Yad Vashem 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hall of Names at Yad Vashem 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is perhaps not every day that an Arab Muslim woman living in Paris contributes an article to a newspaper in Israel.
But I can think of no better way to share my story.
In late December, I happened across a New York Times article by Eva Weisel, an 83-year old Jewish woman from Los Angeles. The article told the story of Eva’s childhood during the Holocaust, a childhood interrupted by the yellow star, a home stolen by German soldiers, fear that the men in her family would not return from forced labor.
By a stroke of luck, she and the other women in her family found protection in the generosity of a courageous non-Jewish local who provided shelter on his sprawling farm outside of town. But just when they felt safe, two drunk German officers found them.
Nearly 70 years later, the horror of that night is still palpable to Eva: “They started banging on the courtyard door and shouting: ‘We know you are Jews and we’re coming to get you!’ My grandmother started screaming ‘Cachez les filles’ – ‘Hide the girls!’ I remember being shoved under the bed, trembling and sobbing as I tried to hide under a blanket.”
EVA’S STORY, however, does not end in tragedy. A guardian angel – their non- Jewish protector – arrived just in time to intervene with the Germans and prevent a massacre.
She doesn’t know exactly what the man did; she presumes he bribed the Germans. But she and the other women in the family are forever grateful to this man for saving their lives.
Why was this story printed in the New York Times, the most influential newspaper in the world? After all, while stories of rescue are not as nearly as common as the stories of millions whose lives were cut short by the Nazis, they are not uncommon.
Eva’s story is newsworthy because it took place in Mahdia, a small town on the eastern shore of Tunisia, and because her rescuer was an Arab man named Khaled Abdul-Wahab. She chose the Times as a venue to call for Abdul-Wahab, a Muslim, to be recognized as the first Arab “righteous among the nations,” along with thousands of other non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Khaled Abdul-Wahab was my father, though he never spoke about his heroism with us. I once asked him about the war years, but all he said was that some Jewish families stayed on our farm. Always modest, all my father ever told me when I once asked about the war years was that some Jewish families stayed on our farm. As Eva’s account confirms, that was an understatement.
My father died in 1997, taking the secret of his protection of Eva and her family with him to the grave. I didn’t learn about his heroism until five years ago. This chapter of his life adds one more layer of pride to the connection I have with my father and another chapter to a book of happy childhood memories I have from my father’s farm.
YAD VASHEM, an institution that serves as a beacon of justice and memory for people around the world, has twice rejected my father’s nomination to be recognized as a Righteous Gentile. I call on the leadership of Yad Vashem to heed Eva’s plea and to reconsider the case while she and the other rescued members of her family are still alive. If Yad Vashem recognizes my father as a righteous, I would proudly travel to Jerusalem to accept the honor in his name.
However, if Yad Vashem decides that the eyewitness testimony of three Tunisian Jewish women my father protected – Eva, her late sister Annie Boukhris and their cousin Edmee Masliah– does not satisfy its requirements, its refusal does not diminish his righteous deeds.
I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of gratitude expressed by numerous organizations – including the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Anti- Defamation League in New York, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, and the Gardens of the Righteous in Milan – which have already honored my father’s memory.
More important than all these honors, however, is that the story of my father’s care for the Jewish families on our farm has come full circle. Two years ago, during the making of the documentary film Among the Righteous, I traveled back to our farm. There, I had the privilege of meeting Edmee, one of the women my father had protected.
Although Edmee and I had never set eyes on each other before, it was like a family reunion, full of tears and hugging. Since then, over sumptuous Shabbat dinners of her delicious Mahdia couscous, our friendship has deepened. I have become part of her family, just as she and her family had been part of ours long before I was born. Both Edmee and I have new reasons to be grateful for my father’s act of courage that winter’s night in Tunisia, 69 years ago.
The writer lives in Paris. She works in the film industry.