Khaled Abdelwahhab is likely to become the first Arab honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority. The title of Righteous Among the Nations has been awarded to 21,000 people since its establishment in 1963, but never to an Arab. A committee of Holocaust survivors, lawyers, historians, and other individuals, chaired by a Supreme Court Justice will make the final decision whether or not to award Abdelwahhab with the title of Righteous Gentile based on the satisfaction of certain criteria.
Born in Tunisia in 1911, Khaled Abdelwahhab was the only son of Hassan Husni Abdelwahhab, the famed author. Despite having grown up in a small town, Abdelwahhab was quite worldly, having traveled as a young man to Europe and America, where he studied art and architecture in New York during the early 1930’s. In the words of Ahmed Smaoui, Robert Satloff writes in Among the Righteous, Abdelwahhab “was an elegant, refined, cultured man, both an aesthete and a gourmand. His zest for good food and conversation was infectious; to have dinner with him…was more than a meal, it was an experience. To top it off, Khaled was dashing, debonair, and strikingly handsome.”
A wealthy Tunisian landowner, Abdelwahhab held several posts in the Tunisian government, though his greatest love was his farm in Tlelsa, about twenty miles from Mahdia, a town along Tunisia’s eastern shore. As an adviser in the Ministry of Tourism, Abdelwahhab seems to have “concerned himself with the care and preservation of Tunisia’s rich archeological legacy.” He also served as the chief of staff to the Minister of Agriculture. Abdelwahhab died in 1997 at age eighty-six. He had two daughters – one named Fafou who lives in Tunisia, and the other, a daughter of a Venezuelan opera singer Abdelwahhab had married in Spain.
The testimony of Anny Boukris, a Tunisian Jewish woman, supported by the memories of others who were alive at the time, tells the tale of Abdelwahhab’s rescue of two-dozen Jews from Mahdia. In 1942, the Germans arrived in Mahdia and expelled Jewish families from their homes in order to transform them into barracks. Anny Boukris’ family and extended family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins, took shelter along with the Uzzan brothers at an olive oil factory a mile and a half from the center of town. Of the 23 Jews living at the factory, about half were children. The men were forced to perform day labor for the Germans, but Mahdia’s Jews continued to have access to kosher food and celebrated the Shabbat every Friday night.
As one of the town’s leading citizens, Abdelwahhab often interacted with the German soldiers, hoping to learn more about their plans. Through his relations, he learned that the Germans had set up a house where they could regularly take advantage of the girls and young women who were kept there, some of whom were Jews. Abdelwahhab visited the house many times in an attempt to protect the women who were kept there. He brought Turkish delicacies and fine wine to distract the soldiers, hoping the Germans would get so drunk they would bypass the women and go straight to bed. On one such night, a German soldier confided in Abdelwahhab that he planned to bring a certain beautiful Jewish woman to the brothel the next day. From the soldier’s description, Abdelwahhab realized that he was talking about Anny Boukris’ mother, Odette. Hassan Husni Abdelwahhab had been a close friend of Jacob Boukris, Anny’s father, so Khaled Abdelwahhab determined that he would save the Boukris family. Abdelwahhab was especially generous with the wine and once the German soldier had fallen asleep, Abdelwahhab left for the olive oil factory. There, he relayed to Jacob and Odette Boukris what he had heard from the German soldier and offered to evacuate the entire group to his farm in Tlelsa, which was about 20 miles from Mahdia. Making many trips throughout the night, Abdelwahhab managed to move the entire group to his farm.
The living quarters were tight, but the group was both comfortable and safe. The Boukris’ left the farm once a week to visit a Jewish owned farm four miles away, where each Thursday, much of the Mahdia Jewish community gathered to see the local rabbi preside over the kosher ritual slaughter of chickens for the Shabbat meal. Abdelwahhab visited the Boukris’ and the Ussan’s almost every day while they remained on the farm. They lived there for four months before the British took Mahdia in April 1943.
While it is unclear how much risk Abdelwahhab actually took, Anny Boukris reported that her parents believed he would have been killed had the Germans found out he was hiding Jews. For years following the war, Abdelwahhab was often a guest at the Boukris’ Shabbat dinners and even visited Anny after she had married and moved inland to Sbeitla.
Sources: Satloff, Robert. Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands.. NY: PublicAffairs, 2006. Times Online (January 24, 2007, December 3, 2006).