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Museum of Tolerance premieres documentary about 'Arab Schindlers' who saved Jews

March 26, 2010 | 10:40 am

Sing A capacity crowd filled the Museum of Tolerance's 300-seat film auditorium Thursday night for the premiere of "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab Lands." (About 50 to 60 more attendees, who skewed toward the Social Security set, watched the film from another theater, requisitioned as an overflow venue.)

The documentary, exploring Arab efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust and funded by Jewish and Muslim donors, is based on a similarly named book by Dr. Robert Satloff, a historian and executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Among the attendees were Judea and Ruth Pearl, parents of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002 and whose story was depicted in the film "A Mighty Heart," as well as at least one North African Holocaust survivor, who later thanked Satloff, saying, "You made me cry tonight."

Si Ali Sakat (2)Satloff's historical investigation stemmed from what he describes as a desire to find an "Arab Schindler," change Arab views of the Holocaust and improve Arab/Jewish relations. The documentary depicts him arriving at this quest after the shock of 9/11 and a subsequent move to Morocco, where his wife, an economist, accepted a job at the World Bank.

He was also puzzled that there were no Arabs listed as the "righteous among the nations" -- the designation created by Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial and museum, for gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

Proficient in Arabic and French, Satloff was disappointed by the Holocaust denial he routinely heard when living in Morocco and that he observes in Arab media (the author has made many appearances on Al-Jazeera and other Arab media). Yet it was this same language ability that allowed Satloff to traverse Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and France to track down survivors and their alleged rescuers.

The quest was largely successful. Satloff gleaned firsthand testimony from Jewish survivors and descendants of Arab rescuers who saved Jews from deportation to the dozens of concentration camps set up in North Africa by Axis governments. Some children of rescuers expressed pride at their parents' actions, while others wanted nothing to do with Satloff.

During the subsequent Q&A, Satloff said that it was "inexplicable" and smacked "of a double standard" that Yad Vashem rejected as a righteous among the nation a man featured in the documentary, Khaled Abdul Wahab. He attributed the rejection of Wahab -- a debonair Tunisian landowner who entertained German soldiers so that he could steer them away from the Jews he hid on his estate -- to political differences between departments within Yad Vashem. Satloff expressed hope that his documentary would lead to further research on the subject and to the honoring of Wahab and other rescuers.

That research seems to be well underway: among the questioners was a young Muslim woman researching a book on Muslim perceptions of the Holocaust.

The hourlong documentary airs on PBS on April 12, coinciding with Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

-- Jacob Silverman

Photos from "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab Lands," including bottom of Si Ali Sakat, a former Tunisian government minister, saved Jews who fled from a labor camp.

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