Robert Satloff’s “Among the Righteous” is another Holocaust book you should read. You should read it because it, for the most part, is not about Europe. It’s about North Africa and the Arabs during the Hitler years. And, because this topic has not been explored as closely as has the Jewish experience in Europe during the Second World War, the book is, as Satloff admits, just a beginning. Much research and scholarship remains to be accomplished.
Satloff, who speaks Arabic, started his quest when he realized that no Arab “righteous gentile” had been honored by Yad Vashem or elsewhere for helping to save Jews during the Holocaust. He realized that such instances must have existed, that the stories were lost, and that he wanted to uncover them.
In his relatively short book, published in 2006, Satloff first tells the story of North Africa, and particularly the former North African French colonies, which lived not only through the invasions of the German and Allied armies, but also under the Vichy government (and in the case of several months in Tunisia, actual German occupation). During this period of time, there were restrictions placed on Jewish educational and commercial activities not too different from those which European Jews faced, and there were concentration camps and work camps (not death camps, per se, but “punishment” camps which were more awful than you could imagine) located in many desert locations.
He makes it clear that the Arabs of these countries (Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt) often actively corroborated with the European fascists, some because they felt they had no choice, and some who were extraordinarily enthusiastic. There are many stories about Arab atrocities.
But there are also stories Arab support and assistance to the Jews of their communities. But these stories have by and large been lost as fading family history, comparatively little having been written down. Satloff was able to chase down a couple of instances (hiding Jews on Tunisian farms, and even under the Grand Mosque of Paris), but it wasn’t easy.
There are reasons for this. Arabs and North African Jews were not chroniclers to the same degree as Eastern Europeans. The history of this period, and especially of treatment of Jews during this period, is not taught today, and has not been taught, in North African schools; neither the remaining Jews, nor the Arabs, want to admit that Jews were mistreated in Arab lands during the war. After all, the entire Palestinian position is posited on Israel being punishment of innocent Arabs because of the crimes of Europeans.
In addition, the Arab narrative requires that the Holocaust be minimized to the extent possible (or, from time to time, denied), and certain main relative to the deprivations of other groups during the war (similar to the campaign in the Baltic states to equate Nazi and Soviet crimes during and after the war).
Many (most?) Arabs do, according to Satloff, deny they are anti-Jewish, aver that Jews and Arabs lived together in neighborly peace for centuries, and claim that Zionism is a Jewish aberration, not so much a Jewish national movement, as a movement designed to be anti-Arab.
The book is important to read because it does break new ground, and bring a more complete picture of the Holocaust throughout those places which were touched by the Nazis or the war (the book, by the way, does not deal with Iraq or Iran, but only with North Africa). Why hasn’t more been done to retain the stories that did exist about Arab friendships with Jews during this period? This also seems, in large part, to be a result of current politics. As Satloff says, the Arabs don’t want to admit it, and the Jews don’t want to look too hard.