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"A story that plants hope, even in the darkest days": The first Arab World Righteous Among the Nations receives recognition Israel today


Dr. Mohammed Helmy was an Egyptian doctor who risked his life to save a Jewish girl named Anna Buros and her family from the Nazis in Berlin during World War II. and sent the director Talia Finkel on an unimaginable journey in an attempt to close a historical circle • In her new film, "Anna and the Egyptian Doctor", she succeeded in bringing together Dr. Nasser Kutbi, Helmi's nephew, who after four years agreed to receive the letter on behalf of his uncle, and Carla Greenspan, Anna's daughter • "The idea of ​​'he who saves one soul is as if he saved an entire world' exists in both Judaism and Islam. Tikun Olam starts small, and that's what Helmi did"

In October 2013, the Israeli media briefly reported on the refusal of an Egyptian family to immediately and immediately accept the right of the Righteous Among the Nations for their family member, an Egyptian doctor - Mohammed Modi Helmy (Halami in Arabic pronunciation), who lived and worked in Berlin and during World War II saved a Jewish family from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

About a month before that, Yad Vashem very solemnly announced the decision to recognize Helmi as a Righteous Among the Nations, and thus the Egyptian doctor, who passed away in 1982 in Berlin, the city where he lived most of his life, became the first Arab to receive the title.

This recognition could have produced a common historical denominator between Arabs and Jews, but it did not happen.

Helmy died without children.

Foreign journalists who contacted certain relatives, located in Egypt, encountered a complete rejection of Israeli recognition.

One of them was quoted as saying: "If another country had offered us this recognition of honor, we would have agreed and gladly accepted it. Since this is Israel, we are not interested in recognition. When Helmi was alive, we used to visit him. He was very happy when we would come, because he and his wife had no children And we were the only family he had left. He had Jewish friends and he respected them very much, but his opinion was not comfortable with Zionist and occupying Israel. I am sure that if he were alive, he would have refused to accept the recognition."

"now or never"

Talia Finkel, film director and multidisciplinary artist, believes that art is a tool for social change.

She returned to Israel at exactly the same time from Vienna, where she stayed for four years with her husband due to his academic work, and came across the news in question.

"I came across a short news item on the Internet about the fact that the first Arab Righteous Among the Nations was recognized, and his family refused to accept the award. There were many talkbacks about the news about the family's refusal, they were accompanied by violent hateful words against Arabs, and the family was accused of anti-Semitism. This is what pushed me to work on the story. No I was used to this verbal violence. How could it be that a human being did an ultimate act - saved Jews in Germany - and the Israelis are angry. Instead of telling what a beautiful story, I wish there were more like this - the reactions were simply terribly violent towards the other side."

Finkel, now 44 years old, then began a personal and professional journey, which gave birth to two films.

The first, "Mohammed and Anna - The Courage to Save", which describes the unbelievable story of the rescue of the Jewish young woman Anna Buros and her family by Dr. Helmi, which took place in the capital of the Third Reich under the watchful eye of the Nazi authorities. The film was broadcast on the first channel of Israeli television on International Holocaust Day 2017.

On the occasion of International Holocaust Day this year, Han 11 will screen the second film, "Anna and the Egyptian Doctor", on January 28, in which the director plays a central role in establishing contact between Anna's daughter, Carla Greenspan, who lives in the USA, and one of Helmi's relatives in Egypt, D. R. Nasser Kutbi, who agreed as part of the work on the film to Finkel's initiative to receive the Right of the Nations badge in Berlin five years ago.

"Anna and the Egyptian Doctor", accompanied by beautiful animations by Yaron Shin (Jewboy), very sensitively describes the stages that made possible the closing of the historical circle and the late awarding of honor to the Arab rescuer.

"I put myself into this film, I played the story and gambled on a lot of things that required time, work and money that I didn't have," admits Finkel.

"This project could have fallen at any given moment. I jumped headfirst into a pool that I didn't know if there was water in it or not. I see this film as my activism and an attempt to show from Helmi's story the story of Nasser and the story of the politics that almost destroys everything, and in the end it didn't. I worked About the 2017 film, when I realized that Nasser was ready to receive the signal, knowing that I needed to organize it quickly. Nasser, now 85 years old, was after surgery at the time, and probably felt that time was pressing. I asked him to give me a year so that I could organize properly, but he He told me, 'It's either now or not.' So I immediately started working. I took a loan, I did crowdfunding. I had to convince potential financiers that this film is completely different from the first film. The ones who came to my aid were the Gesher Cinema Fund's 'Joint Venture for Jewish Content and the Hebrew Story' Multicultural and the Foundation of the Claims Conference.

Waiting for the approval of the Egyptian intelligence to come to the screening of the film in Israel.

Nasser and Carla from the film, photography: Itzik Portal

False letter to Hitler

In the early 1960s, Helmy was indeed recognized for his work to save Anna and her family from the Nazis on behalf of the Senate in Berlin and the person who headed it at the time, Willy Brandt - later the first Social Democratic Chancellor of West Germany, but this special story did not receive the public resonance it deserved and plunged into the abyss of femininity .

Until a Berlin doctor, Carsten Milder, who bought Helmi's clinic in the Moabit neighborhood in West Berlin, found personal documents of Helmi and Anna documenting the affair, and after his retirement we were freed to conduct a comprehensive investigation at the National Archives in Berlin.

With all the details he found he headed to Vashem.

At this point, Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations Department began to conduct an investigation on its part, which ended with the recognition of Helmi.

Helmi was born in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in 1901, at a time when Egypt and Sudan were jointly ruled by the British Empire.

His parents were Egyptian.

At the age of 21, young Helmi went to Berlin to study medicine.

At the end of his studies he worked in a hospital named after Robert Koch. After the Nazis came to power and the publication of discrimination laws against the Jews, Helmi continued to treat Jewish patients despite the explicit prohibition to do so. in the German healthcare system.

Race laws also forbade him to marry his German fiancée, Annie. After Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland in September 1939, and since Egypt was considered a British protectorate, Helmy was arrested with other Egyptian citizens by the Reich authorities and sent to a camp. He was released later for health reasons.

Despite his foreign origin, Helmi did not shy away from expressing his criticism of the Nazi regime in public and mobilized to help Anna and her family, who were among the Jews he treated as a doctor in Berlin.

He found a hiding place for Anna's grandmother at a mine (the mine's name is Frida Sturman, who along with him immediately and there received the title of Righteous Among the Nations), helped Anna's mother and her non-Jewish husband in obtaining food and medicine, and took care of Anna's hiding in various places, while Constantly deceiving the Gestapo, who suspected him.

Even when Anna's mother was caught by the Gestapo and told her investigation that Helmi was hiding Anna, the Egyptian doctor managed to mislead the Nazis when he showed them a fabricated "confession letter" of Anna's, in which she said that she deceived him by telling him that she was not Jewish, and stated that she had moved to live with an imaginary relative in another city in Germany .

Even earlier, the Nazis allowed Helmi to work as a doctor again, in the place of a doctor who was drafted into the army and sent to war.

Helmi hired Anna as an assistant in his clinic.

One day he was invited to the main headquarters of the Gestapo.

Not knowing what awaited him, he took Anna with him.

To the surprise of both, Helmi was asked there to take care of the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was one of the collaborators with the Nazis.

"Helmi spent a total of about a year and two months in detention during the war," says Finkel, "he realized that if he did not change his attitude towards the Nazis, he would not be released from prison. That is why he did everything possible to improve his situation and return to work as a doctor. He even wrote a letter To Hitler, in which he said that his mother was German and his father Egyptian, although both of his parents were completely Egyptian, that he had been active for the Nazi movement since 1929 and was injured when he was attacked by one of the movement's enemies, and that because of his support for the movement he could not get a job - until the Nazis came to power. None of this It was true."

Wasn't he worried that the Germans, known for their penchant for meticulous documentation, would check these lies?

"That was his tactic part of the time. He knew what he was doing. He wrote letters of flattery that helped him." 

Also saving Anna?

"He used tricks, which mostly worked. Only his attempt to marry Anna off to a Muslim Egyptian friend, so that he could smuggle her to Egypt, was not successful. The Germans actually looked into this matter and found out that the friend was already married in Egypt, had a child with his wife there, and they did not approve the wedding."

The grave of Helmy and his wife Emi in Berlin Photo: Chen Leopold, Photo: Chen Leopold

The forgotten heroine

"Helami's rescue plan was strategic," says Nasser Kotbi, who was his grandmother's brother, in a phone call from his home in the Heliopolis neighborhood of Cairo.

"When he heard that Anna had received a message from the authorities that she should prepare for deportation, he did everything to prevent her deportation. He introduced her as his niece who had come from Dresden, then he converted her to Islam so that she could be absorbed into Muslim society in Berlin, and then betrothed her to a Muslim Egyptian. She accepted A new identity, although, as mentioned, the Nazi authorities did not recognize this marriage. Then he hid her in a garden shed at his fiancee's parents' house in the suburb of Buch, north of Berlin, and from there he smuggled her to his girlfriend's house elsewhere. He hung up on the Gestapo, and his plan succeeded. He won. He saved Anna. When I understood the depth of his plan, I felt enormous respect for him. Helmi was indeed my mother's uncle, but the age difference between us was not great. He was my second father, and Annie his wife was my second mother. She is the forgotten hero of this story.

Nasser, like his other relatives who refused to receive the Righteous Among the Nations medal, visited Helmy in Berlin several times.

Did he hear harsh criticism of Israel from him, as claimed by one of the family members?

"Helami, my uncle, never spoke to me about this issue," he says, "he did express great concern about the situation in Egypt. He was very involved in what was happening there. If he had such feelings regarding the occupation of a 'Zionist' country, he would have told me this".

Carla Greenspan, 66, Anna's daughter and a retired nurse who lives in Manhattan, also got to meet Helmi twice in Berlin.

"The first time was in 1968 with my parents. I was more or less 12 years old. My father had a brother who lived in Berlin, and he went to visit him on the way back from a visit to Israel. I also met Annie. I remember that he was very kind. I knew about the rescue of my family, But I didn't fully understand the significance of the matter. We returned to Berlin in May 1980 with my mother, father and husband and went to see him and his wife again. He was already very old and I liked him immediately. Meeting him was very significant for me." 

How old were you when you first heard the story from your mother?

"It seems to me that I have always known this story, from a very young age. My grandmother lived with us, and I also heard it from her. They used to talk among themselves about the story, and I listened. It was always a part of our lives. My mother and Dr. Helmi corresponded for years after the war , until the 80s.

Every time a letter arrived there was great excitement.

Read it to the whole family at dinner.

Dr. Helmi was very interested in photography. I remember that before we went to Berlin for the first time, I went with my father to a store in Manhattan to buy him a nice camera as a present."

Anna and 12-year-old Carla visiting Helmi in Berlin;

Right: Helmi's wife, Emi, 1968, photo: courtesy of Carla Greenspan

Names, places and faces

Anna died in November 1986. She was not aware that Yad Vashem awards the Righteous Among the Nations award to Jewish saviors in the Holocaust, so she did not try again in her lifetime to ask for recognition.

"One of the times we visited Dr. Helmy," Carla recalls, "my mother told me that he received a letter of appreciation from Willy Brandt, when Hella was mayor of Berlin, for what he did during the war, but she had no idea about Yad Vashem.

The world was different then, without internet and communication as there is today.

Maybe today I could find things online, but in all honesty - it didn't bother me."

When did you first hear about this signal?

"Sometime in 2014, I received a phone call from my cousin, who lives in Israel. She told me that she had read in the newspaper that Yad Vashem had decided to give the medal to Helmi's family. I was shocked. I said that this was wonderful news. The cousin called Irena Steinfeld, who was then the head of the Hasidic department the nations of the world at Yad Vashem, and gave her my contact information. Irena called me and I helped her by sending photos and letters. In retrospect, I am ashamed that I did not start the process of recognizing Helmi as a follower of the nations of the world. In January 2015, a ceremony was held at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin for the awarding ceremony to Frida Sturman, who hid the My grandmother for over a year, at Helmi's request. Then it became clear to me that Helmi's family refuses to accept the signal. After that, I flew to Israel and visited Yad Vashem. Steinfeld showed me all the information she had collected, and I learned for the first time things I never knew about my family history. For me, this is a journey which has lasted for eight years, during which I learned a great deal about the family.

"For example, my mother's father died at a very young age, in his 30s. We don't know why. I learned the name of the camp that my step-grandfather was sent to. My mother's mother, Juliana, was married and gave birth to my mother - Anna. She and her husband divorced when my mother There was a baby girl. He ran away, and we never heard anything more about him. My grandmother remarried a gentile, and thanks to that she did not suffer persecution at the beginning of the war. With the help of Yad Vashem's investigation, the whole story became more complete and tangible for me. Names, places and faces were added to it."

Anna circa 1945, Photo: Photo: Courtesy of Clara Greenspan

Share the message

Finkel's connection to this story comes from Dr. Helmi's activism, doing the right thing, saving the Jewish family despite all the risks involved. Weaker than him, and endangered himself.

This is the story that inspired me.

I work from the gut on messages that are important to me and connect to my beliefs.

This is also what managed to keep me in this production for so many years without pay, and despite the very great difficulties.

I believe I am conveying a message that is important.

It is no accident that this story came to me.

The idea of ​​saving one soul as if saving a whole world exists in both Judaism and Islam.

Tikun Olam starts small, between us and our environment, and that's what Helmi did.

This is also where I acted: I tried to understand why the family did not want to receive the signal, and then I found Nasser who did agree to receive, and he shares my feelings about the world."

Finkel turned to Peter Fox, a Viennese friend and producer, and asked him to put her in touch with an Egyptian investigator, who obtained for her interviews with six members of Helmi's family.

One of them was Nasser.

"I noticed that he was more liberal than the others," recalls Finkel, "He spoke English, unlike the others who didn't agree. I knew that Carla really wanted to thank the family, and I asked Petar to talk to the investigator and find out with him if it was possible to have a Skype call between Carla and Nasser, and Nasser agreed. This conversation was filmed by the investigator in Cairo, a camera crew filmed Karla in New York, and I was sitting in Jerusalem. Nasser did not yet know of my existence at the time. He knew that it was an Austrian production.

"After the connection between him and Carla was established, we wrote to him that the Austrian production had decided to entrust the film to an Israeli director, and we asked him if it bothered him. He replied that it did not. Then I 'came out of the closet' in front of him, met him in Cairo, interviewed him and later offered him to accept the The Righteous Among the Nations. And he agreed."

"The investigator photographed Nasser in Cairo, a camera crew photographed Carla in New York, and I was sitting in Jerusalem."

Talia Finkel, photo: Efrat Eshel

"People are people"

Finkel thought that the most appropriate place to hold and film the meeting between Carla and Nasser and also the recognition ceremony was Berlin, where the story of the rescue took place.

She looked into the possibility of holding the ceremony in the Ahmadiyya Mosque, which was built about a hundred years ago and was the first large mosque in the German capital.

"I talked to the imam, and he agreed. I told Nasser, and he was very enthusiastic. Then I went with it to Lid Vashem and to the Israeli embassy in Berlin. They also said yes at first, but then it turned out that for security reasons this was not possible, and we held the ceremony in a boring white hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs The German. I organized the arrival of Carla and Nasser to Berlin for six days of filming, and I informed Lid Vashem and the embassy that on the last day of filming we could hold the ceremony and if they wanted, this was their chance. Everything was organized within six weeks. Everyone did everything to make it successful."

Nasser tells me that the fact that Helmi and Annie had no children led to Yad Vashem contacting the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv and receiving the name of one of his relatives, who represented a small part of the family.

That relative claimed that they could not receive the recognition because they were not "related to the matter".

"When Talia called, I told her that I had no problem getting the recognition for him. I visited Israel in 1993 as part of an international meeting, and at the official reception the hosts made sure that I sat next to the then foreign minister, Shimon Peres. I visited all over the country then, and later I even wanted to enroll in a Hebrew studio in Haifa, the most beautiful city in your country. Since the reaction of the Egyptian authorities, at all levels of government, was very positive to receiving the signal, the rest of the family accepted my move. People think that there was a meeting of the family elders and that they decided not to receive the signal. It was not so. This Not a Hollywood production. Only one part of the family did not agree at the time to receive the award."

The fictitious marriage certificate that Helmi arranged for Anna to smuggle her to Egypt, photo: courtesy of Carla Greenspan

How were the reactions in Egypt to this story?

"When it became known about the receipt of the signal in October 2017 and people learned about my uncle's activities, a very popular host of an evening television program conducted an interview with me. The authorities knew about everything and encouraged me. There were no hostile reactions. In 2020 I even published a book about the affair, called 'An Egyptian Doctor In Nazi Berlin." 

Is there a chance that Talia's films about the affair will be screened in Egypt?

"Why not? Now I'm trying to get to the screenings of the film in Israel. I need to get permission from the Egyptian intelligence so I can come. It's a bureaucratic matter." 

The United Arab Emirates announced a few days ago that for the first time it intends to include in the curriculum the subject of the Holocaust, which is not taught in Arab countries.

This decision was harshly criticized by the Palestinian side, who claim that the Holocaust is a "Zionist narrative".

How do you explain the difficulty that some people in the Arab world have in recognizing the Holocaust?

"Whoever does not recognize that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, that is his problem. It is inconceivable that everything we know about the Holocaust is a hoax. Millions were murdered. There was the conference held in Wanze in 1942 where the 'final solution' of the Jewish problem was decided. The things These are known, it cannot be denied. In the 1930s, many Egyptians sympathized with the Jews in the face of the racist Nazi persecution, although at the same time the attitude of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' developed.

"It should be remembered that Helmi carried out the rescue after being arrested by the Gestapo. As a former prisoner of the Gestapo, he hid a Jewish woman for three years, while the Gestapo was looking for her. Why did he do this? Helmi grew up in Egypt, which was a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. We have Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, Copts, Jews, even Baha'is. He could not imagine that any person would be discriminated against and persecuted because of belonging to a certain group."

"What is special about this story," emphasizes Carla, "is that today, unfortunately, there is so much hatred between Muslims and Jews, and there are Muslims who deny the Holocaust. This story shows that people need to find the link and unifier between them regardless of their religious affiliation - Jews, Muslims , Christians. People are people, and we need to learn to respect each other, help each other the way we would like to be treated, and stop hating each other. There is room for everyone. I also think this story is important for the Arab world, as it shows that a Muslim Arab can to help the Jew, and thus it will no longer be possible to deny the Holocaust." 

"I'm not an expert on the matter, but there is definitely a problem with the Arab world's attitude towards the Holocaust," emphasizes Finkel, "I can tell from my personal experience from the filming we did in Egypt. I had a local producer who told me and my cameraman that it was better not to say we were Israelis. We worked there as Russians. A lot of Arabs and Palestinians I spoke with are not aware of the story of the Holocaust, they feel that the occupation is like the Holocaust. When you don't learn about the issue and don't hear about it, you might really think there was no Holocaust."

Following this story, did you also become interested in the issue of the Holocaust in Arab and Islamic countries and people who worked to save Jews in these countries?

"I started reading about it. If I find another story of this or a similar magnitude, I will definitely consider making a film about it. I think my role as a director, as a creator, as someone who has the ability to use media, is to shed light on stories that are difficult for others to see, or that I have A special approach to them. The stories of the followers of the nations of the world give a lot of hope for the good in the world, and I very much hope that the world will begin to go in these directions, between humans and humans, between humans and the environment and between humans and animals. I would like the situation in the world to improve, and every story that can contribute for this in some way or to bring about a change, as Helmi did, and as Nasser decided to risk himself and receive the signal right then and there - is a very inspiring story of the ability of one person to change the world.

"The person who reads Helmi's documents in the film is a Syrian actor who lives in Berlin. He agreed to participate in the film, but did not want his name mentioned in the credits. After he finished the recordings, he changed his mind, and on top of that, he also wanted to come to the screenings of the film. This story changed him something".

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Source: israelhayom

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