Muslims in WWII and the Holocaust

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The Washington Post has recently published an article by Michael Wolfe entitled “Meet the Muslims who sacrificed themselves to save Jews and fight Nazis in World War II.”

I’m glad that the article tries to present a forgotten side of Jewish-Muslim relations and the positive role of Muslims in Western society, but after reading it I have some concerns.

First, Wolfe somewhat blurs the distinction between rescuing Jews and being involved in the Allied war effort.

Noor Inayat Khan was certainly remarkable, and deserves her own article. Her fiancé had been Jewish, and the Nazi treatment of Jews was one of the factors leading to her involvement in the war effort. She found Nazism “fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she had been brought up with by her father.” Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was fond of an old Sufi proverb, “Be the follower of love, and forget all distinctions.” This is a beautiful example of how religious spirituality (in this case, Muslim), however, Noor Inayat Khan was not directly involved in the rescue of Jews, and her motivation was universalist.

It is unlikely that the majority of Senegalese Tirailleurs- conscripts- were motivated by a desire to assist Jews, let alone sacrifice themselves for that cause. There was growing resentment of France for the distinctive uniforms they wore (“slave’s clothing”), and for the insensitive treatment by their officers, so when they helped liberate French towns and discovered that not everyone was fighting in the resistance, they were understandably outraged. This is not to denigrate the Senegalese in any way. They fought bravely, loyally, and often suffered more than other troops. All it means is that they were human, and did not necessarily respond enthusiastically to sacrificing themselves for what they considered a stranger’s cause.

Second, Wolfe presents an entirely rosy view of Muslim efforts to rescue Jews.

The Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari comes across as genuinely good, a dedicated servant of his country. However, the claim that he issued Iranian passports to 500 French Jews is unsubstantiated, appearing only in a statement made by his nephew many years after Sardari’s death. Sardari himself never mentioned it. The actual story involves the Jugutis- a community of crypto-Jews whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Islam in Meshed in 1839. They lived outwardly as Muslims whilst secretly adhering to Judaism. Several of them resided in France, alongside Jews from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran. One of their leaders, Dr. Atchildi, came up with a plan to save his community by claiming that Jugutis were religiously Jewish, but ethnically Aryan. Sardari helped him achieve legal recognition exempting Jugutis from anti-Jewish laws, and then requested that he place Iranian Jews on the list of Jugutis as well. Sardari’s chief concern was to help his compatriots, which is not a bad thing at all.1

The other diplomatic examples in the article pale in comparison. Corry Guttstadt extensively researched Turkey’s role in the Holocaust, and her findings exploded the myth of Turkish rescue. Some consuls, it is true, did save Jews, but the documented cases do not reach thousands of people saved, and the motivations were rarely very noble (though on this score many diplomats of other nations also fare rather poorly). Rescue was often the result only of sexual and monetary exchanges. Lives were saved, which is a good thing, but it hardly does credit to those diplomats who primarily benefited themselves. The Neçdet Kent story of the train seems very moving and inspiring, but is pure fabrication. Kent is the only source of the story, no survivor testimony corroborates it, and it is contradicted by material evidence.

Wolfe’s other Turkish example is even uglier. Not only did Behiç Erkin not issue Turkish passports to thousands of Jews with only distant connections to Turkey, he actually stopped the one individual on his staff- a French national- who did. Beginning in 1942, the Nazis had Jewish nationals of neutral countries deported. The passage to Turkey was neither funded nor organized by Turkey. Individuals either had to pay from their own pocket, or receive funding from a Jewish relief organization. Turkey, in fact, was not only slow to save its Jewish citizens, it even rescinded the citizenship of many Turkish Jews, leaving them stranded and vulnerable.

Ahmed Somia apparently was a dedicated resistance fighter, and the hospital did rescue many parachutists and members of the resistance, although everything that I have read accords Abdelhaffid Haffa- the hospital’s guardian- with a far bigger role than Somia. Haffa led the resistance activity, working secretly with a Jewish doctor. Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a religious leader of Paris’ Algerians and rector of the Grand Mosque, played a far more ambiguous role. Benghabrit saved some Jews, washed his hands of others (even as late as 1944), and generally pursued a range of actions from collaboration to resistance. In Benghabrit’s defense, we tend to approach WWII and the Holocaust with considerable hindsight. Things were usually not as clear to participants. 2 Benghabrit pursued what he considered the best course for preserving his community. This did not always involve rescuing Jews.

By all means, Muslim assistance to Jews in the Holocaust should be highlighted, but romanticized myth-making does not build better bridges, and might make reconciliation and cooperation even harder.

“Generally, the myths historians interrogate are those that reinforce, rather than contradict, univocal narratives of conflict. In such cases, while the more complex truth may be painful, it can offer recognition to both sides, providing a more blended version of a disputed history and paving the way for possible reconciliation. By contrast, in the case of the Grand Mosque, the more mythical story does not seem to reinforce entrenched hatreds but rather to offer promise for reconciliation. Yet in so doing, it obscures a more complicated historical reality, and… reinforces a wider series of problematic perceptions that mar Jewish-Muslim understanding.”

In other words, we cannot have a meaningful discussion about Jewish-Muslim relations, or Muslims and the Holocaust, or the modern role of Muslims in Western society if we stick to myths. Even if the myth is positive, it obscures the real history and the real problems.

Of course, I also think that history matters, whether or not it leads to meaningful dialogue.

Still, I would like to end with a very positive example from Wolfe’s list. Albanian Muslims (and Catholics, too) were dedicated in saving Jews to an extent rarely found elsewhere. They were moved not only by besa– their code of honour- but also in many cases were influenced by the teachings of the Bektashi Sufi order.