This true story of courage and cunning is recounted with gripping tension by the talented journalist Ronen Steinke, a political commentator for one of Germany’s leading newspapers. Sharon Howe translates it from the original German with sensitivity and precision. Written in the style of a fictional thriller, the book begins when the young medical student Mohamed Helmy moves to Berlin in 1922 from Cairo to study medicine.
Much to his surprise, he encounters a warm Jewish-Muslim community in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin, an environment Steinke says was not uncommon in the time of the Weimar Republic, but one that has been largely forgotten. Eleven years later, when Hitler comes to power, Helmy is still in Berlin, but he now must find a way to accommodate his worldview to the Nazi regime that has begun to control his professional life.
As the son of an Egyptian army major, Helmy was not brought up with either humanitarian or progressive ideals, yet the cruelty he witnesses as the fascist regime takes over every aspect of life forces him to confront his deepest beliefs and ultimately take action in light of the new insights he gains from the experience.
The Nazis suspect that he is treating Jews, which is no longer permitted, and they are right, though they can’t prove it. Being neither Jewish nor Aryan, he is tolerated by the Nazis, which gives him latitude in his behavior, but not as much as he would like, as he is not fully trusted.
In 1936, he meets Anna, the daughter and granddaughter of two of his Jewish patients. The family immigrated from Hungary to Berlin but found neither peace nor safety with the Nazis in charge. Three years later, barely surviving in the atmosphere of Nazi terror, the mother and grandmother beg Helmy to help Anna, a shy fourteen-year-old. He decides to hide Anna in plain sight, taking her into his medical practice and training her to work as his assistant. He changes her name to Nadia, gives her a headscarf, and teaches her some Muslim prayers and a few phrases in Arabic. He claims she is his niece, having recently moved to Germany from Romania.
The disguise he creates for Anna is a success, at least most of the time. The Gestapo continues to search for her and all the other Jews they think might be hiding in their midst, but Helmy and Anna continue to evade the SS. Helmy learns to impersonate the ideal pro-Nazi Arab, Steinke tells us, “acting as a resentful Egyptian whose homeland has suffered under the detested British.” The gestapo arrests and imprisons Helmy 1939, but he is soon released in what Steinke suggests was an outspoken attempt “to bring prominent Muslims over to the side of the Nazi regime.”
Among the 25,000 non-Jews who have thus far been honored with the coveted title of Righteous Among Nations by the the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for helping to save Jewish lives during World War II, there is only one Arab, and that is Dr. Mohamed Helmy.
Because of this unique honor, Steinke was drawn to Helmy’s story and conducted extensive research in the state archives in Berlin and Gestapo correspondence from the time, and also interviewed many descendants of Helmy and Anna.
He found that Weimar Berlin was open and progressive and far from antisemitic, and while the book is about two people and the subterfuge they created, it also highlights a much bigger, riveting story, one about Jews and Arabs coexisting peacefully.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.