Remarks by Abraham H. Foxman
ADL National Director
On the Presentation of the ADL Courage to Care Award
To Khaled Abdelwahhab
Washington, DC, April 30, 2007 ... That I stand before you today is testimony to my faith that when good people do the right thing, good things happen.
I stand here today because of a person who acted in extraordinary ways -- risking all to protect the life of a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Lithuania.
I was that child and it was my Polish Catholic nanny who saved me by making me her own until the end of the war when my parents miraculously returned. I never had a chance to thank Bronislawa Kurpi, for the gift she gave me.
So, I content myself knowing that I have the privilege and the responsibility to show to you and the world, that good people make good things happen – and thank them for it.
Today we honor one who acted outside the bounds of expected behavior, and whose ethnicity challenges our preconceived notions about who might risk his or her life for the sake of Jews.
From the very beginning of the Second World War, Nazi designs to persecute and eventually exterminate the Jews extended throughout the area that the Nazis and their collaborators sought to conquer.
That area included a great swath of Arab land from Casablanca to Tripoli to Cairo – land that was also the home to more than half a million Jews. From 1940 to 1943, the Nazis, the Vichy French and the Italian fascists enacted and enforced laws that deprived Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence and freedom of movement. They also tortured, enslaved, deported and executed Jews. Thousands of Jews were sent to forced labor camps.
Had the U.S. and British not pushed axis forces from Northern Africa by May of 1943, these Jews would have met the same fate as their brothers and sisters in Europe.
During those years Jews in Arab lands suffered terribly. The Arabs were not different from their European counterparts. Most were by-standers, some collaborators, and thanks to the investigative work of one we will honor later in our program, we have learned that a few – a precious few – risked their lives to save Jews.
It was not until November of 2002 that Robert Satloff learned of the story of the Boukris family – a Tunisian family who along with their neighbors were sheltered and saved by Khaled Abdelwahhab, the son of a wealthy Arab landowner and former minister to the court of the Bey, Hassan Husni Abdelwahhab.
In 1942, the Germans arrived in Mahdia, a town on the eastern shore of Tunisia. Immediately, they began requisitioning Jewish properties to house their troops.
Jacob Boukris, his wife Odette and their three children were given one hour to leave their comfortable home. Jacob gathered his immediate family, and with his aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors and sought refuge in an olive oil factory a mile and a half from the center of town.
At the same time, the Germans had set up a house in town where they would capture girls and have their way with them. Two of the Jewish girls, traumatized by the experience committed suicide.
Khaled Abdelwahhab found out about this and did what he could to protect young girls. He would often send his cook to the Nazi bordello with Tunisian delicacies and wine to get the Germans to drink and pass out before they could attack the young women.
It was at this house that Abdelwahhab learned that a German officer had designs on Boukris' wife Odette. Khaled Abdelwahhab raced to the olive oil factory, gathered the Boukrises and all of their relatives, told them that they were in grave danger, and moved them to his family's farm 20 miles to the west in the small village of Tlelsa. He arranged for local women to bake for them, he provided food and shelter for two dozen people.
He even arranged for a local rabbi to provide kosher chicken for their Sabbath meals.
Every day for over four months, Khaled Abdelwahhab visited them, provided for them and made them feel safe.
In April of 1943, British troops entered Mahdia and the Boukrises were able to return to their home. For years after, Khaled was a frequent honored guest at Shabbat dinners of the Boukris family.
Khaled Abdelwahhab risked his life for the sake of others in the face of humanity's greatest evil. An Arab saving Jews.
Khaled's actions should cause us to think about the possibilities of Jewish – Arab fraternity. His actions challenge preconceived notions that must not and will not be forgotten.
Today we are honored to welcome Khaled Abdelwahhab's daughter, Faiza, who lived in Tunisia and currently resides in Paris. It is our hope that this story – uncovered by Rob Satloff will be told far and wide. We can think of no better example of the courage to care than Faiza Abdel Wahhab's father, Khaled Abdelwahhab.
Faiza, please join us at the podium to receive this award and say a few words.