ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
In the West, the Nazi Holocaust has achieved the status of a political moral landmark. The systematic murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis during World War II was so enormous in its horror it required a new noun, and it got one -genocide.
The Holocaust, which Jews now often call by a Hebrew name, the Shoah, became a global cautionary tale against racism, anti-Semitism and totalitarianism. That was in the West.
In Iran next week, there'll be a conference addressing the question of whether it really happened, or whether it really was all that bad. And in Arab countries, as the writer Robert Satloff has found over the years, the Holocaust is often minimized.
Satloff is an American Jew and a Middle East historian. He knows Arabic, he's written about the history of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, and when his wife's career took him to live in Morocco, he set about a project. He was disturbed that the Holocaust is not even taught in Arab schools, so he thought he would search for a way in for Arabs to join in a global conversation. He would find accounts of Arabs who acted righteously, who saved Jewish lives.
It's the story of his book, “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands,” and in some Arab lands it reached very deep.
Mr. ROBERT SATLOFF (Author, “Among the Righteous): Principally, we're talking about North Africa, because North Africa is - first of all, it's where the Germans came. North Africa was where Vichy, France, had its principal possessions, and they applied the Vichy anti-Jewish statutes to their territories in Morocco and Algeria and Tunisia.
The Italians under Mussolini had a colony in Libya, and they applied their stringent statutes eventually against the Jews of Libya. And the Germans, when they came to Tunisia in late 1942, brought the SS with them. And though they were only in Tunisia for six months, they applied in Tunisia many of the same elements that were eventually applied in Europe.
SIEGEL: So you spend your time trying to find examples of Arabs who acted altruistically and who, in some way, saved Jews from the Nazis and their agents. And eventually you did find it.
Mr. SATLOFF: Yes, eventually we did. We found, I found what I think are absolutely remarkable stories of heroism, of Arabs who would open their homes in the middle of the night to Jews fleeing from Axis labor camps to Arabs who would warn Jewish leaders about SS raids coming to arrest them to Arabs who on their own would spirit Jews from their homes because they found out that Germans were coming to rape a Jewish woman. These are fantastic stories under any circumstances, but under the circumstances of a German occupation, they are, I think, truly remarkable.
SIEGEL: The Holocaust, in Arab discourse, is related directly to Israel. And it seems the connection is made that if one validates the experience of the Holocaust as having been the horrible crime of the 20th century, in some way one is therefore acknowledging the necessity of the state of Israel.
As you were researching the book, did you encounter that equation being made between Israel and the stories of the 1940s?
Mr. SATLOFF: Yes I did, and sometimes in very odd and awkward ways. Sometimes I would knock on the door of the family of this or that Arab, who I believed was a rescuer, and I wanted to celebrate this great humanitarian act with the children or the grandchildren of that Arab who did this during the war, and the last thing that they wanted was for their father or grandfather to be recognized as a great humanitarian for saving Jews, which I originally was naïve enough to think that they would want to know, but as I learned throughout my story, many people didn't want this to be known.
There was even one fantastic story where there's sort of irrefutable proof that an Arab opened his doors to Jews fleeing from a labor camp, but in family lore, this Arab opened his door to Germans who were avoiding being captured as prisoners of war from the Allies. There's no evidence really that that happened, but there's quite a lot of evidence that he opened his door to Jews. But over generations, the story has changed.
SIEGEL: How do you understand the phenomenon of either Holocaust denial or minimization, that it happened, yeah, but it has no resonance for people today, that you might encounter very often among not just Arab politicians, but literate, educated people in the Arab world?
Mr. SATLOFF: Well, there are really three different types of Holocaust denial. One is the it never happened sort of denial, and that's on the fringe. And at the other end of the fringe is yes it happened, and if only Hitler had finished the job, the world would be better off. And that's also on the fringe.
But in the vast middle, there's this relativism. Yes, Jews suffered, but over time, Kurds have suffered, Rwandans, Cambodians. Lots of people have suffered, and that's just too bad. War is hell. And that is really a political position that many people take, and its main rationale is to de-legitimize the reason for Israel's existence.
SIEGEL: You began this project a Jewish American historian who has studied the Arab world, knows Arabic, you're - this is the area that you're immersed in -hoping to find some commonality post-9/11, that the Holocaust would not be an obstacle to discourse between Arabs and the West and that Arabs need not be excluded from this story of history. In the end, success? Or was that a bit naïve or overly optimistic about this project?
Mr. SATLOFF: Well, I'm not a romantic about the Middle East, and I don't think anyone can accuse me of that crime. I am very pleased that I have opened a discussion, that I've received response from all over the world, from all over the map. And what I'm really delighted about is many Arabs, many Jews, many non-Jews, are willing to look at this moment in time and see people as people.
Arabs are not cardboard cutouts. Some were perpetrators and villains, some were heroes and rescuers, and the vast majority were like Europeans. They were indifferent to the fate of people around them. And that, I think, is very healthy. And if we can get people to talk about the Holocaust as a real life human event that occurred in Arab countries as well, then perhaps we can erode some of this denial which is so terrible, spreading across the Middle East.
SIEGEL: Robert Satloff, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SATLOFF: It's a pleasure, Robert.
SIEGEL: Robert Satloff is author of the book “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands.”