In this podcast we speak to Esmond Rosen and Fiyaz Mughal about The Role of the Rightous Muslims who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The views expressed in this podcast are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily those of HMDT.
We’re here today with Esmond Rosen and Fiyaz Mughal. They put together The Role of the Righteous Muslims booklet for Faith Matters. Thank you very much for coming in; so first of all could you tell us a bit more about the booklet?
Fiyaz: There’s a – basically a – I mean there is a lot of history that goes back in terms of the role of Muslims in the Holocaust, but actually, very little of it has come to the forefront within Europe, specifically within Europe. The U.S. has done some work and through the work that we did with Es [Esmond Rosen], effectively Es had found out there had been individuals like Robert Satloff in the U.S. who’s done some work around the role of Righteous Muslims – but they were individuals who put themselves at risk for no other reason but to do the right thing, and also they put their family at risk. There’s a very high bar to being a righteous person which has been set by Yad Vashem – and that bar means not only you put yourself at risk, but also to some degree you put your family and your loved ones at risk. And so the term righteous, really reflects those individuals who’ve taken those kind of heavy risks, and who did things to save people in the Holocaust and so these are some of the stories of Muslims who saved Jews, and through the research we did and Es [for] many, many months spent researching this, it was clear there was many stories, but whether politics or other reasons, these stories never really came to the forefront. So that was a starting point.
Esmond: And I think also these were just ordinary people, guided by their faith in Islam and their personal desire to do what was right, and they saved Jews’ lives during the Shoah, during the Holocaust, and I think they were also very noble and brave Muslims that saw what was occurring around them and hid and protected Jewish people from the sheer brutality and injustice of the Nazi war machine. So they illustrate the social justice that exists within Islam, and I think that’s the importance. Which shaped their actions – of many Muslims during this period and they served as a sense of – the stories served as a sense of pride for Islamic communities throughout the world.
Could you tell us a bit more about how someone becomes a Righteous Person?
Esmond: It’s about persons who receive the award, and bestow it upon individuals, who through their courage and without financial reward risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, during the Shoah. It’s a criteria that’s actually determined by an independent commission, chaired by the justice of the Supreme Court – the Israeli Supreme Court – which grants the title Haside Mot Ha Ollum – literally it means people of the world’s nations.
And as far as from a extensive and meticulous research of historical evidence, eye witness accounts of survivors and others – and it’s only awarded if all these criteria has been presented to them. And Yad Vashem itself is located in the real peaceful grounds of the Jerusalem forest, and was established to honour the memory of the martyrs who were cynically murdered by the Nazis during the Shoah, and it’s a permanent reminder of man’s inhumanity to man, which occurs and still does unfortunately occur when bigotry and prejudice is allowed to prosper. The award of the Righteous among nations fulfils a Talmudic and Koranic verses that whoever saves one life, acts as if it’s saved the whole world. And the title conveys the gratitude of the Jewish people to those non Jews who risked their lives to save others and it’s in Yad Vashem that 70 Muslims have been honoured in this way, with the creation of an avenue of trees, and the names added in the garden of the Righteous.
Fiyaz: I think just to add to that, we shouldn’t forget that these labels are provided to individuals – we shouldn’t forget the vast numbers of people who actually did things out of courage to save lives during the Holocaust. And one of the things that is problematic and the problematic bits historically, is that many of the stories of predominantly North Africans and those within the Middle East region were never really written down on paper, they were oral traditions that families passed down to say that actually we were involved in saving this person or your dad was involved in doing this – those oral traditions having not been written down and being passed down a couple of generations really got erased over time whether it’s politically or through migrations of individuals, and so there’s been a lot of lost information.
Es: It’s a chapter of history that is not well known but just deserves to be – they need to be heard to dispel myths and prejudices, and untruths about Muslim-Jewish relationships, and I think it’s also important that it conveys a positive fact about the existence of the Holocaust itself, that’s so important. And unfortunately which has become a mantra – particularly in the Muslim world today – and one has to talk about that to move on to other things. And I think the fact that you can actually tell a positive story, not a negative story about the Holocaust, particularly in the relationships that we’re trying to build, between Muslims and Jews and others – it’s important that it can’t be the elephant in the room anymore – it has to be talked about in that way. And it’s a booklet that I think also records that ordinary men and women can do extraordinary actions which challenges our easy assumptions about group behaviour, and the positive power of faith. To uphold those human values, and that’s so important, and it reminds us about the moral choices that people can make, and what men and women are capable of, and it challenges perhaps our own prejudices, and our own possibilities of doing something.
So could you tell us some of these stories of the Righteous Muslims?
Fiyaz: One of the stories which I think captures us both is the story of Selahattin Ulkumen who actually ended up on an Israeli postage stamp in the 1990s because of his actions. He was the governor general – the commanding officer on Rhodes, and the consulate general for what was then the Ottoman Empire. And Rhodes fell to the Germans around 1944, and what happened was the commanding officer was effectively looking for individuals like Jews on the island to extradite them, extradite them onto the mainland of Europe and then onwards to the concentration camps. Selahattin was involved, actually, to cut a long story short, he was involved in actually trying to save Jews on the island, by suggesting that they were actually Turkish nationals, and that under Ottoman law, those Jews that were married to Turks, were effectively protected under Ottoman law, but that also Ottoman law protected them as citizens who were also seen, if they had any connection with Turkey, they were also seen as being citizens under that premise, so by using the citizenship element Selahattin effectively argued with the commanding officer that there would be a diplomatic incident if they were extradited. Now he stuck to that argument, and he managed in the end to save about 50 Jews on the island, he says he wished he could have saved a lot more, but actually that’s what he could do. He actually suffered quite considerably because of his actions. He suffered because obviously he went up to the commandant and constantly reiterated the case of saving lives, but also eventually they came to the conclusion that he was trying to get people out of the country – so they bombed his home, mortally wounding his wife, and effectively, he had to leave the island, his wife had been injured quite severely – he suffered quite considerably under the abuse the Germans also gave him, but in the end having saved these 50 lives, when he was interviewed later in his life, he was pretty clear that he wished he could have saved more, but the 50 lives he saved were at least 50 out of the 1,700 lives that were deported, individuals deported to Auschwitz. So it was a small story but a significant story in the actions of a person who believed that Jews, Christians, Muslims at that time had a right to life – that their protection was key, and actually that their Human Rights needed to be protected.
Es – And also there’s the amazing situation in Albania whereby of the 70 Muslims that had been honoured at Yad Vashem, 63 of them are from Albania, and they followed a code of Islamic faith, which is called Besa – it’s a promise, it’s a promise that one gives, that they will give hospitality, they will give trust, and they look after... if they say they’re going to look after someone they do it – they mean it. And some of these stories, there was a family that were called the Veselis, and Moshe and Ela Mandil had to flee what was then Yugoslavia, Novi Sad in April 1941, the Germans came. They eventually arrived in Tirana, Albania, and there they met Neshad Prizerini, he was Muslim and he owned a photographic shop, and he gave them – he was actually a former apprentice – but he offered them not just work but the whole family protection and hospitality in his own extended family. So you can imagine how many people might have been living together in one place. And there they also met Refik Veseli, who was a 17-year-old apprentice, the situation worsened while they were in Albania, and the Nazis moved in. And it was Refik who moved the whole of this family into the mountains and they fled through roads and over bridges that had been partially shot at and destroyed etc into the forest and into the mountains, and he hid them there with other Jewish families until the allies were able to liberate the country in 1944. They moved back to Novi Sad with Refik and they eventually emigrated to Israel. They contacted each other again, and it was in fact it was the family, the Mandil family who Gavra – his son – Moshe’s son wrote to Yad Vashem and said what had happened, and he explained that there was not one Jewish family who failed to find shelter with the Albanian population and recalled this promise, this besa, which was simply that; it was a promise. And basically they became – that is Veseli and Fatima and Refik and Hammid and Xhemal became the first Muslims in Albania to be honoured by Yad Vashem in 1987.
But there’s another, just one other story that I think is quite amazing. And this involves a fantastic guy by the name of Ali Sheqer. And he owned a general store – food provision in Puke in Albania, and when the German transport lorry rolled up, and there were 19 Albanians [inside] ready to go to prison and there was one Jewish guy who was about to be shot, and Ali – they stopped at what was basically a transport cafe on the end of the road, I suppose it was, and he gave them drink and he gave them food – but he gave them a bit more drink than perhaps he needed to do, and of course he got them into a jolly state, the Nazi troopers there, and they fell asleep. And whilst they fell asleep he slipped this young man a melon. And in the melon there was a note, and the note said ‘get out of the lorry, jump down, run into the woods, hide yourselves there, and we’ll sort it out.’ Eventually the Germans must have woken up, and they realised their prisoner had gone, and of course they blamed Ali for all this and they drove him into town and they were dead mad etc. I mean, they must have been in right trouble, losing a prisoner. They held him up against a wall and they put a pistol to his head, four times they were going to, threatened to shoot him – and of course they would destroy, they said, the whole village. But he held out. And eventually they got fed up because he obviously wasn’t going to tell them the story, and they had to roll on and of course the good story was that he went back to the store, and he found this young man, whose name is Yeoshua Baruchowic, and he now lives, or he lived in Mexico for years afterwards as a dentist. He [Ali] was eventually recognised in 2002.
And what do you hope you will be achieved by telling these stories?
Fiyaz – The key thing as we’ve said before is the inspiration factor for people to find out the information that needs to be found out. There are lots of pieces of information that can be put together, but there’s also an element, where there’s kind of a rewriting of history that’s taking place – particularly around Muslim and Jewish interaction around the Holocaust. There seems to be a lot of writing that seems to place Muslims within the Nazi camp which is fundamentally wrong. It’s fundamentally flawed because it wasn’t just if people were looking at it, an element of Muslim brigades in Bosnia. The Muslim context of engagement stretched from North Africa right the way through to Burma – and all of that was involved in supporting the Allies, in their military actions. But in that process, lots of individuals were involved in these kinds of stories. So it is important to rewrite and rebalance what is taking place today, because this rewriting of history, to place one people, or sets of people of one faith in one camp is deeply worrying, and I think our work is to say, that people need to be looking at the reality of what took place, and these human stories are the reality. Not the politics, or what’s been poured out there in the public domain – this is what makes the difference because it did. It did to the lives of the very people who are named here.
So, our theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is Speak Up, Speak Out. The stories found in The Role of the Righteous Muslims are about speaking up when you see wrong-doing. What would you say was the importance of sharing these stories?
Fiyaz – earlier we said that the stories have poignancy historically, but they also have a relevancy and a poignancy today, because if we’re talking about people standing up and speaking out – you look at what is happening in the Middle East – it’s about people standing up, and actually speaking out. And this is part of human nature; it’s part of human nature in the end to stand up to injustice, it is part of human nature, it will continue for the foreseeable future. And actually, the stories talk about injustice, but people are standing up in different ways, in different parts of the globe and saying that things are fundamentally wrong. And regimes that decide to kill people on the back of their will, is fundamentally wrong; and people taken at night from their families and tortured is fundamentally wrong. And that if you’re Jew or you’re a Muslim, or you’re a Christian and you’re attacked because you are of those faiths, it is fundamentally wrong. These are core things that these stories tell us, and that actually, people who didn’t regard themselves as courageous can be inspirational for all of us because these people say ‘no we just did what we had to do.’ They didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to do that – in fact some of them lost their loved ones because of it. And so for a materialistic society that we are becoming – for a society which starts to forget about the other, or their neighbour, these stories can ground us, actually to say; ‘materialism is important to our lives, but actually human relationships are the most important to our lives, that the person across the street who hasn’t been checked upon is important, that actually standing up to injustice is important. That if you see the Jew, the Muslim, the Christian, or the Hindu being attacked because of who they are, whether it’s on a bus or on a street corner, and say that we don’t accept that kind of behaviour, and I think that’s the inspiration I hope that people will get, it’s the inspiration I get, and certainly from the work that Es has done with us – he’s inspired me actually to want to keep going on this agenda; so I think all of us have really positive attributes that we can bring to protecting human life.
Es and Fiyaz thank you very much for telling us about the booklet. Just finally where can people find The Role of the Righteous Muslims?
You can find it on our website, which is www.faith-matters.org. You will see a scrolling bar of publications; The Role of the Righteous Muslims will be on that, you can just press on that link/picture, it’ll open up the booklet, you can download it for free. If you’ve got an iPad or an iPhone, and you’ve got a couple of minutes free on the bus, and you’ve got connection, you can download it from iTunes book store – it’s available on iTunes bookstore – if you put Role of the Righteous Muslims it should come up, and you can download it from there. So website or your iPhone/iPad, and if you are really not technologically focused and you really don’t want to touch anything electronic, if you get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org we will send you a booklet copy, and we’ll send it to you for free, but we hope that you will take the booklet and it won’t just sit on a bookshelf; the key to this is actually maybe getting some friends around and having some discussion sessions and chats with people, so that these stories and ideas and thoughts can be discussed – these booklets are not produced for bookends, they’re produced so that they can become live discussions for communities. I think that’s a value we can give to the lives and the actions of these individuals.
And so just before we end, I wanted to thank some key individuals involved. Just wanted to pass on my deep thanks organisationally as well as personally to Es for the five months worth of work that he did on this booklet, it certainly wasn’t for the money, we hardly paid him but it was the inspiration he drew within the organisation and he inspired within me, so thank you very much Es for this, and I know he’s also acknowledged that he did this for his young children and I think that’s an inspiration for all of us. I also wanted just to say just a quick vote of thanks to the Holocaust Memorial Day [Trust], you guys have been inspirational to us; given us this opportunity, and also last but not least if I can suggest that if people want to just Google this, they can find if they just put Righteous Muslims it’ll come up, and so they can work their way through this, if they just want to locate where this is. So a real pleasure, thank you for having us today, thank you Es, we hope that these stories will inspire others in trying to find out information and in some small way making a difference in your local areas and local communities.
You can also download and subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes