In 1963 Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem embarked upon a worldwide project to pay tribute to the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. This was a unique attempt to “honor individuals from within the nations of perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders, who stood by the victims' side and acted in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed in the darkest time of history.”
Yad Vashem has honored almost 25,000 heroic people from 44 countries including Holland, the former Soviet Union, France, Germany, Romania, the former Yugoslavia, and Albania. Although some Moslems have been included from the latter two countries, now for the first time an Egyptian Arab has been posthumously awarded this esteemed honor.
Dr. Mohamed Helmy risked his own life to save a Jewish family during the Holocaust. Born in Khartoum, Sudan in 1901 to Egyptian parents, Helmy moved to Berlin, Germany in 1922 to study medicine. After completing his studies, he went to work at the Robert Koch Institute but was dismissed in 1937. Since he was not an 'Aryan' according to the racist Nazi government, Dr. Helmy was forbidden to work in their public health system or marry his German fiancée, Emmi Ernst. Despite this discrimination, he continued to practice medicine privately.
In 1939 he was arrested together with some other Egyptian nationals, but released the next year due to his own health issues.
"We must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust... in gratitude and hope, we must remember them." – Elie Wiesel
Despite being targeted by the regime and the tremendous danger involved, Helmy courageously spoke out against Nazi policies, putting his own life at risk. Then the deportations of Jews from Berlin began and 21-year old Anna Boros, a family friend, urgently needed a hiding place. Helmy brought her to a cabin he owned in a Berlin neighborhood, a haven of safety for her until the nightmare war finally ended.
At times of extreme danger when under police investigation, Helmy arranged for Anna to hide somewhere else.
“A good friend of our family, Dr. Helmy hid me in his cabin in Berlin from 10 March until the end of the war. As of 1942 I no longer had any contact to the outside world. The Gestapo knew that Dr. Helmy was our family physician, and they knew that he owned a cabin in Berlin,” Anna wrote after the war.
“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."
Helmy saved not only Anna but also her mother Julie, her stepfather Georg Wehr and her grandmother Cecilie Rudnik. He provided for them, took care of their medical needs and arranged for Cecilie to be hidden in the home of his German colleague, Frieda Szturmann. For over a year Szturmann risked her life to protect the elderly woman, sharing her precious food rations with her.
Great danger occurred when the Wehrs were caught in 1944. During their interrogation they revealed that Helmy was helping them and hiding Anna. Helmy immediately brought Anna to the home of Frieda Szturmann and, due to his ingenuity, managed to evade retribution.
Some may wonder why he put his own life in danger in order to save others. Was it to get back at the Nazi regime which discriminated against him and prevented him from marrying his fiancée? Was it that as a doctor, he believed in the intrinsic value of a human life? Or was it simply, as other righteous gentiles have insisted, "the right thing to do"?
Today in Israel, despite the bitter problems between Jews and Arabs, doctors do not discriminate regarding their patients' ethnicity or faith. To them, they are all human beings whose lives are precious, even wounded refugees from Syria, a country officially at war with Israel.
Israeli medical staff say they make no distinctions among those they treat and some have formed close bonds with their Syrian patients: “In medicine there are no borders, no color, no nationality,” insists Oscar Embon, director-general of Ziv Medical Center in Tzfat. “You treat each and every person and I am proud that we are able to do this.”
Dr. Helmy would certainly have agreed with this view.
After the war, Anna Boros and her family emigrated to the United States but never forgot their rescuers. During the 1950s and early ‘60s they wrote letters to the Berlin Senate praising their heroism. When these letters were recently discovered in the Berlin archives, they were submitted to Yad Vashem.
Martina Voigt, a German historian who conducted research about Helmy, explained that he married his fiancée, Emmi Ernst, after the war and they lived in Berlin until his death in 1982. His wife died in 1998. Sadly, they never had any children, complicating the search for relatives.
Yad Vashem has now recognized Dr. Mohamed Helmy and Frieda Szturmann as Righteous among the Nations, and searching for their next of kin to present them with the certificate and medal.
“The rescued persons were people he had treated as a doctor. He knew them,” said Irena Steinfeldt, director of Yad Vashem’s “Righteous among the Nations” department. “They were part of his universe of moral obligations and therefore he set out, despite the danger, and did it. I think it’s remarkable, it’s inspiring.”
Meanwhile, their certificates and medals are on display at Yad Vashem's exhibit “I Am My Brother’s Keeper: 50 Years of Honoring the Righteous among the Nations," in testimony to these incredibly courageous individuals.