Egyptian family rejects Israel honour for hero doctor

AP, Sunday 20 Oct 2013

Family of an Egyptian doctor who helped Jews during the Holocaust says they would have accepted the honour if it was offered by any other country


A member of the family of the first Arab honoured by Israel for risking his life to save Jews during the Holocaust says the family isn't interested in the recognition.

Egyptian doctor Mohamed Helmy was honoured posthumously last month by Israel's Holocaust memorial for hiding Jews in Berlin during the Nazi genocide. However, a family member tracked down by the Associated Press (AP) this week in Cairo said her relatives wouldn't accept the award, one of Israel's most prestigious.

"If any other country offered to honour Helmy, we would have been happy with it," Mervat Hassan, the wife of Helmy's great-nephew, told AP during an interview at her home in Cairo this week.

Israel's Yad Vashem Museum praised Helmy as "Righteous among the nations," bestowing on him the highest honour given to a non-Jew for risking great personal danger to rescue Jews from the Nazi gas chambers.

Typically, the museum seeks to track down living family members to present the award to in a ceremony, but in the case of Helmy, who died in 1982 in Berlin, Yad Vashem said they had not been able to find any living relatives.

With the help of a German historian, AP obtained the certificate of inheritance of Helmy's wife Emmi, who died in 1998. The document contained the names of three relatives in Cairo and when contacted by AP, Hassan agreed to share her memories of Helmy.

Hassan said the family wasn't interested in the award from Israel because relations between Egypt and Israel remain hostile, despite a peace treaty signed more than three decades ago. But, she cautioned, "I respect Judaism as a religion and I respect Jews. Islam recognizes Judaism as a heavenly religion."

"Helmy did not select patients of a certain nationality, race or religion. He treated them regardless of who they were," she said.

Dressed in a veil, the 66 year-old woman from an upscale neighborhood of Cairo was pleased to talk about her husband's great-uncle. She and her husband, who did not want to give his name to AP, say they visited Helmy regularly in Germany.

Helmy was born in 1901 in Khartoum, in what was then Egypt and is now Sudan, to an Egyptian father and a German mother. He came to Berlin in 1922 to study medicine and worked as a urologist until 1938, when Germany banned him from the public health system because he was not considered Aryan, said Martina Voigt, the German historian who conducted research on Helmy.

When the Nazis began deporting Jews, he hid 21 year-old Anna Boros, a family friend, at a cabin on the outskirts of the city, and provided her relatives with medical care. After Boros' relatives admitted to Nazi interrogators that he was hiding her, he arranged for her to hide at an acquaintance's house before authorities could inspect the cabin, according to Yad Vashem. The four family members survived the war and immigrated to the US.

"I think it's remarkable, it's inspiring," said Irena Steinfeldt, director of Yad Vashem's "Righteous among the Nations" department.

After the war, Helmy picked up his work as a physician again and married Emmi. The couple never had any children.

"They did not want to have children for fear of the wars," remembered Hassan. "They did not want them to see the horrors of war."

Yad Vashem says it has other names of relatives of Helmy that appeared in his will, forwarding this information to the Egyptian ambassador in Israel. The museum says they were informed that authorities in Egypt are looking to find these relatives.

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