Helmy was born in Khartoum in 1901 to Egyptian parents. In 1922, he went to Germany to study medicine and settled in Berlin. After completing his studies, he went to work at the Robert Koch Hospital in Berlin (later called Moabit Hospital), where he rose to the role of head of the urology department. Helmy became witness to the dismissal of Jewish doctors from the hospital in 1933. (A study conducted by the Robert Koch Institute in 2009 showed that the Institute was heavily involved in Nazi medical policy). Helmy himself was not fired, but according to Nazi racial theory he was defined as a Hamit or Hamitic (the descendants of Ham, son of Noah) – a term adopted from 19th century racial science, defining the natives of North Africa, the Horn of Africa, South Arabia, including Ancient Egyptians. Not being of Aryan race, Dr. Helmy was discriminated against; he was fired from the hospital in 1938, and was unable to marry his German fiancée, Annie Ernst. Moreover, in 1939 and again in 1940 he was arrested together with other Egyptian nationals, but released a year later because of health problems.
Despite his being targeted by the regime, Helmy spoke out against Nazi policies, and notwithstanding the great danger, risked his life and helped his Jewish friends. When the deportations of the Jews from Berlin began, and Anna Boros (Gutman after the war), a family friend, was in need of a hiding place, Helmy brought her to a cabin he owned in the Berlin neighborhood of Buch, which became her safe haven until the end of the war. At times of danger when he was under police investigation, Helmy would arrange for her to hide elsewhere. “A good friend of our family, Dr. Helmy…hid me in his cabin in Berlin-Buch from 10 March until the end of the war. As of 1942 I no longer had any contact to the outside world. The Gestapo knew that Dr. Helmy was our family physician, and they knew that he owned a cabin in Berlin-Buch,” Anna Gutman wrote after the war. “He managed to evade all their interrogations. In such cases he would bring me to friends where I would stay for several days, introducing me as his cousin from Dresden. When the danger would pass, I would return to his cabin… Dr. Helmy did everything for me out of the generosity of his heart and I will be grateful to him for eternity”.
Helmy also helped Anna Gutman’s mother, Julie, step-father Gerog Wehr, and her grandmother, Cecilie Rudnik. He provided for them and attended to their medical needs. He arranged for Cecilie Rudnik to be hidden in the home of Frieda Szturmann. For over a year Szturmann hid and protected the elderly lady and shared her food rations with her.
A moment of great danger occurred when the Wehrs were caught in 1944, and during their interrogation revealed that Helmy was helping them and that he was hiding Anna. Helmy immediately brought Anna to Frieda Szturmann’s home, and it was only thanks to his resourcefulness that he managed to evade punishment by showing the police a letter Anna had allegedly written to him, saying she was staying with her aunt in Dessau.
Thanks to the help and courage of Dr. Helmy and Frieda Szturmann the four family members survived the Holocaust. After the war they immigrated to the United States, but never forgot their rescuers, and in the 1950’s and early 1960’s wrote letters on their behalf to the Berlin Senate so that they would be honored as rescuers of Jews.
Dr. Helmy remained in Berlin and was finally able to marry his fiancée. He died in 1982. Frieda Szturmann passed away in 1962.
After the Department of the Righteous gathered all available documentation from the German archives, on March 18, 2013, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous decided to honor Frieda Szturmann and Dr. Helmy as a Righteous Among the Nations – Helmy was to be the first Arab rescuer to be awarded the title. In the absence of information about Dr. Helmy's next of kin, Yad Vashem turned to the Egyptian embassy and asked for their help in finding his nephews, and in the meantime the medal and certificate of Honor were put on display in the exhibition "I Am My Brother's Keeper" in the Exhibitions Pavilion on the Mount of Remembrance. The rescue case was based on archival documents of the 1960's, and there was no information about Szturmann and Helmy's next of kin. It was only known that Anna Boros had immigrated to the United States after the war, but there was no way of finding her family.
Like many other cases, this story did not end with the official recognition. Following the reports in the media about the honoring of Helmy, an Israeli relative of Anna Boros-Gutman contacted Yad Vashem and connected us to Anna's daughter Carla.
I'm embarrassed to say that I have often thought about telling Yad Vashem to add Dr. Helmy's name to the list of the Righteous but never bothered because I knew he and his wife were dead and they never had any children. I didn't realize how important making this information public really was, she wrote to Yad Vashem,
If it weren't for Dr. Helmy, I would not be here today, as well as my two brothers, Charlie and Fred. In addition, between the three of us, we have seven children who wouldn't be here as well. Carla sent us a photo showing her and her mother visiting Helmy and his wife in Berlin in 1969 and a number of documents that she had found in her mother's things. The two documents, in German and Arabic, revealed that Helmy used every possible means to protect his protégé: he even got her a certificate from the Central Islamic Institute in Berlin, headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, attesting to her converting to Islam, and a marriage certificate (in Arabic), saying that she was married to a fellow Egyptian in a ceremony that was held in Helmy's home.
Dr. Helmy was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in March 2013. The Helmy family rejected Yad Vashem's designation, stating that
if any other country offered to honor Helmy, we would have been happy with it.
After a four-year search, Yad Vashem announced in October 2017 that they had found a member of Helmy's family willing to accept the award on his behalf. Nasser Kutbi, an 81-year-old professor of medicine from Cairo whose father was Helmy’s nephew and who knew him personally, travelled to Berlin, Germany to accept the award.
Dr. Mohamed Helmy, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum;
Relative: Egyptian family rejects Israel honor, Omaha-World Herald, (October 10, 2013);
In First, Yad Vashem to Bestow Righteous Gentile Honor to an Arab, Haaretz, (October 23, 2017).