Just as people celebrate felicitous occasions and holidays every year, so too do they commemorate humanity’s worst tragedies and moments of oppression in history. These commemorations mark an opportunity to reconcile with our dark pasts, and to seek absolution for the tragedies and oppression that struck different peoples. With each commemoration, the most important takeaway is learning not to repeat the atrocities of the past, and in doing so we find a small silver lining in these dark clouds of history.
But oppression tends to resurface in different forms. In its most egregious forms, it relies on discrimination as the basis for assaulting the dignity and humanity of entire communities, whether for their religious, political, or even geographic affiliations.
Today, such discrimination is levelled at people from within the offices of the White House, in the US capital, this time singling out Arabs and Muslims.
In the past few days, US citizens have spoken out on behalf of pluralism, immigrants, refugees, and Muslims, expressing their support in different ways. We saw this in the protests at airports, and in the demonstrations in Democratic states. In New York, the resistance came in the form of a project dubbed “I Am Your Protector”, which tells the stories of individuals who undertook heroic acts and protected others during tumultuous times.
Without singling out any particular political or religious identity, the project aims to undermine the narratives that politicians rely on to justify discriminatory and oppressive practices. As such, it focuses on particular figures and their stories, which celebrate collaboration during times of crisis, and stem from shared human values.
In commemoration of the genocide at Auschwitz, during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War 11, “I Am Your Protector” chooses to revive this history by shedding light on the brave Muslims who risked their lives to resist Nazi practices, and to save their Jewish comrades from captivity and death in the Nazi concentration camps.
According to the website, an Egyptian-Muslim doctor named Mohamed Helmy saved Anna Boros Gutman (aged twenty-one at the time) and her family from Nazi forces in Berlin and the Holocaust (between 1942 and 1954). During the frenzy of displacement of Jewish families from the city, Helmy and his family protected the Gutmans by hiding them in their cabin on the outskirts of Berlin, evading questioning and investigations in order to protect them. “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,” Gutman wrote.
Meet the Muslims who helped Jews avoid the concentration camps
An initiative documenting the efforts of individuals in the face of fascism
As for Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder of the Muslim Institute at the Great Mosque of Paris, he aided Jews by forging papers certifying them as Muslims to prevent their arrest by Nazis.
Khaled Abdul Wahab was a Tunisian who saved two Tunisian Jewish families by hiding them in his farm near Mahdia to protect them from danger. Also from Tunisia comes the story of Ahmed Somia, a pulmonologist who worked at the French-Muslim Hospital in the French town of Bobigny. With the aid of his friends, Somia clandestinely provided care to the wounded and afflicted Jews and members of the resistance in his private clinic.
The project also showcases the stories of Iranian and Turkish diplomats who saved hundreds of Jews by granting them Iranian and Turkish passports, such as Abdol-Hossein Sardari, who served at the Iranian mission in France. Additionally, Behic Erkin, who was the Turkish ambassador to France during the Nazi occupation, forged documents for Jewish families, stating that their homes, businesses, and properties belonged to Turks, thus aiding in misleading the inspections and raids targeting Jewish homes.
Then there is Johanna Neumann, who had moved to Albania with her family, and recalls the Muslim Pilku family who hid her and her mother in their home in the summer of 1943, during the German occupation of Albania. The family presented them as relatives who had come to visit them from Germany.
Albania, which had a population of about 800,000 during World War II, nonetheless stood at the forefront of the struggle to defend escaped Jews from Nazi savagery. Albanian citizens saved and protected Jewish families, and provided those from neighboring countries with asylum.
Following the German occupation of Albania in September 1943, the country’s official response echoed that of its people, affirming the refusal to comply with Nazi orders to provide lists of the names of Jews. Rather, the Albanians continued to hide them, forging identity papers and integrating them with the indigenous population.
Such stories were among the few beacons of light in the dark history of World War II, when this European Muslim state succeeded in protecting its entire Jewish population, whether Albanians or refugees, where so many other European countries failed.
US photographer Norman Gershman documented this history in pictures, after visiting these Muslim families who protected Jews. The photographs were later printed in a book titled Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.
“I Am Your Protector” Co-Director Dani Laurence Andrea Varadi says that the history of individual acts of heroism reminds us of the importance of personal initiatives, and how they can save and protect others from harm, affirming the importance of cohesion in the face of strife.
The project calls on visitors to view reality through a new lens, and to adopt new perspectives to open up their hearts and minds without the restraints of political rhetoric. In essence, it calls on people to embrace the same humanistic spirit that these Muslims had when they risked everything to save their Jewish comrades.