HANOVER — At the beginning of the 20th century, Berlin had a sizable, highly educated Arab community, which was known to have very good relations with the city's Jewish residents. There are records of Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Martin Niemöller, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse taking part in events at the Berlin mosque, while sons of well-to-do families from Cairo and Damascus attended university in Berlin.
But unknown to us until now was just how deep those relationships between Jews and Arabs ran, particularly once the Third Reich came to power. Independent research by Berlin surgeon Karsten Muelder at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs archives has uncovered a piece of history that reverberates today.
Beginning in 1933, in the very heart of Hitler’s capital city, Arabs were hiding Jews to save their lives.
Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem lists nearly 25,000 brave men and women who saved Jewish lives during World War II. Of course, the most famous of these stories is that of the young Frankfurt girl Anne Frank, who was hidden from the Nazis in Amsterdam by a couple named Miep.
Among the 25,000 people the Israeli memorial lists, there is just one Arab. While he saved a Jewish teenager's life, he also risked his own because his background meant he too faced persecuted by the Nazis.
At a fashionable shisha café in Cairo, we met two of his descendants. They are proud, upright men, who, between cigarettes, sip mochas. One is ex-General Mohammed El-Kelish, and the other ex-officer Ahmed Nur el-Din Farghal. Both have brought photos that show their ancestor Mohammed Helmy (1901-1982), a slim and ponderous-looking man, wearing a doctor’s white coat in one photo and tennis gear in another.
It's the first time that Helmy's relatives have agreed to speak with a journalist, and they are a bit anxious. They say Mohammed Helmy found his one true love in Germany, Berlin-born Emmy Schmidt, and that he loved children.
Mohammed Helmy and Emmy Schmidt — Photo: Private collection
The Jewish teenager he saved, Anna Boros, visited Dr. Helmy because she wasn't allowed to go to a white doctor, they say. Helmy stayed voluntarily in Berlin during the Nazi reign because "he wanted to help to treat the sick and wounded." While doing so, the Egyptian Helmy walked a very fine line between adaptation and subversion from 1933 onward. But he succeeded in executing a brilliant plan to save Anna’s life.
Helmy’s life began in Khartoum, then part of Egypt, where he was born into an influential family as the child of an army major. He was schooled in Cairo and emigrated to Berlin in 1922 to study medicine. He successfully completed his state examinations in 1929 and began his doctorate at the Moabit hospital in 1931. But his career ended abruptly in 1933 when he lost his job at the hospital.
"A doctor said at the time that it could not be tolerated that an Egyptian was treating German women," Helmy reported after the war, which is noted in a reparation file. Nearly all Arabs left the country in 1933, and Helmy is only one of 300 who decided to stay, attached to both his patients and his girlfriend Emmy.
Starting in 1933, he was only allowed to treat patients privately. Helmy witnessed how his patient Anna was forced to change to a Jewish school in 1938 when she was 13 years old.
After the war, Anna described what followed. "It would be too long a story to list all the humiliations and persecution we had to endure in school," she said, according to the archived records.
In November 1938, synagogues were burned and Jews were publicly beaten to death on the streets. Helmy started to take care of Anna, especially after the Jewish school closed in 1940. He hired her as an assistant and taught her how to conduct a blood test and how to use a microscope. He also spoke with Anna’s mother Julie Wehr and grandmother Cecilie Rudnik, who were able to survive by running a produce shop.
By that time, Helmy had to be careful himself. In 1939, shortly after the war began, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs ordered that 20 to 30 Egyptians were to be interred to be exchanged for German POWs held in North Africa.
On the list were Arabs of high social standing, especially valuable for purposes of exchange: men with degrees and academic titles and those active in Islamic clubs. Helmy was arrested on Oct. 3, 1939, and was only released five weeks later after being held in appalling conditions.
Luckily for him, the Nazis saw Arabs as valuable assets in the fight against other colonial powers and therefore let them be when the deportation of Jews began in the winter of 1941. Thanks to this, Helmy was released from both his first and second stay in prison.
In March 1942, Anna’s family received the Gestapo's summons for deportation, and that's when Helmy decided to help her go underground in the face of the Nazi threat. She was 17 by then, and he hid her in his girlfriend Emmy's garden shed in the suburb of Buch. When it became too dangerous to keep her there, he took her to acquaintances and introduced her as his Muslim niece. He was even able to help Anna’s mother, hiding her at a patient's house.
Anna Boros in 1945 — Photo: Private collection
At the same time, Helmy was working on a plan to ensure Anna’s permanent safety. Though Anna died in 1986, her family members, who live in the United States, are eager to share details of events from her point of view.
It is almost exactly a year ago that Anna’s daughter, Carla Greenspan, gathered her family together — three children, brothers, half-brothers, in all 25 people. "We looked around the room, and we realized that none of us would be here today if Dr. Helmy hadn't existed," she says. "This room, filled with 25 people, would simply be empty."
From Judaism to Islam
The first step in Helmy’s plan included Anna’s conversion to Islam. There is even a seemingly official certificate dated June 10, 1943, which was filled out at the Islamic Central Institute in Berlin, showing this.
Helmy received help from an old university friend, Kamal Eldin Galal. Although his friend worked for the Nazis by designing propaganda aimed at the Arab world and was also secretary general of the mosque committee, he was nonetheless happy to help by stealing official letterhead and official stamps.
The second step involved another friend. On June 16, 1943, Helmy organized a Muslim wedding for Anna. Once again, papers were forged and Helmy passed himself off as Anna’s father to give Anna official Muslim origin. Helmy’s friend Abdel-Aziz Helmi Hammad, a 36-year-old Egyptian, who was jailed with Helmy in 1939, played the part of the husband.
Anna managed to survive the remainder of the war by pretending to be Muslim, although she never left Berlin and her garden shed hideout was once discovered. Helmy had to follow a Gestapo summons and produce paperwork in front of insistent Nazi officers. How he managed to get out of this situation alive, no one knows, and he died in 1982.
Back on June 2, 1960, Anna lifted her right hand in front of New York notary Theodora W. Joven Hoyt and gave an affirmation in lieu of oath, which was sent to the Jewish community in Berlin. She asked for Helmy, "this wonderful human being," to be honored, although he wanted no formal recognition.
Helmy still lived in Berlin in the 1960s, after finally being able to marry his fiancée Emmy, and becoming director of the hospital in Buch.
In the fall of 2013, a medal was engraved with the following words: "Those who save a life, save the world." It's a Jewish proverb taken from the Talmud. The medal was meant for Mohammed Helmy, but his Cairo relatives refused to accept the award because it came from Israel.
"We would be delighted if another country honored him," both ex-officers say sitting in the shisha café in Cairo. "Helmy helped all people no matter what their religion. Now Israel wants to honor him specifically because he helped Jews. But this doesn't do justice to what he did."
Anna’s descendants say they are sad about the refusal, still hoping that they will one day finally meet the relatives of their family's savior.