Every year the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem grants the award to a non-Jew for helping Jews during the Holocaust. This year, for the first time in the history of the award, it has been given to an Arab, namely the late Egyptian doctor Mohammed Helmy, for his aid to the Jewish community in Germany during World War II.
In 1922, Helmy moved from Egypt to Germany to study medicine. Even in those days, long before the war broke out; Helmy was discriminated against and fired from his job at the Robert Koch Institute. The fact that he was not of the Aryan race exacerbated the discrimination and he was banned from practicing medicine and marrying his German fiancé. He was arrested in 1939 and remained in prison for a year.
After he got out, he helped Anna Gutman, a family friend, and her relatives hide from the Gestapo. The website quotes Gutman as saying: “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.”
After the Gutman family escaped to the United States, they wrote letters to the Berlin Senate in the 1960s about their rescuer and these letters were recently submitted to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is believed that Helmy remained in Berlin and was able to marry his fiancé. He passed away in 1982.
The museum was established to keep the memory of the Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust alive. In 1963, the museum’s Remembrance Authority decided to create a database of all the non-Jews who helped the fleeing Jewish community in any way possible. They created a public commission, overseen by a Supreme Court Justice, who looks through every case submitted and verifies the facts.
The museum’s website states: “This project is a unique and unprecedented attempt by victims to pay tribute to people who stood by their side at a time of persecution and great tragedy. Based on the principle that each individual is responsible for his or her deeds, the program is aimed at singling out within the nations of perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders, persons who bucked the general trend and helped the persecuted Jews.”
The program divides the help that was given into four different categories. Firstly, there are those who hid Jews in their own homes. These “rescuers” put their own lives in danger, as they were subjected to torture and often killed by the Nazis if those in hiding were discovered. In addition, they had to provide extra food and drink during a time of war, when supplies were already low or rationed.
The second category consists of the people who helped create false identities for fleeing Jews by providing them with fake papers so that they could slip under the radar. These rescuers were usually either officials who broke the law or forgers. As per the website: “Diplomats in Budapest in late 1944 issued protective papers and hung their countries flags over whole buildings, so as to put Jews under their country’s diplomatic immunity.”
The third type of rescuers includes those who aided in smuggling Jews from dangerous locations, where their lives were at risk, to safe zones. This included people who helped them cross borders into “unoccupied countries” or escape from prisons.
The final category is for those who rescued children, or rescuers who adopted Jewish children who were separated from their parents or left behind. Usually, these children ended up being killed by the regime unless they were taken in. In some countries, specific underground organisations were created to save them.
In addition to a digital database available on the museum’s website, those awarded the title are given a medal, a certificate and their name is added to the Mount of Remembrance, located in Jerusalem.