Ronen Steinke is a lawyer, journalist and author who has painstakingly charted the tale of Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian physician who saved the life of a young Jewish girl and her family in Berlin during the Holocaust. By conducting research on German archives and visiting their descendants in Cairo and New York, Steinke was able to piece together their remarkable story, which was first published in book form in 2017 and has since been adapted into a film by Taliya Finkel, entitled Mohamed and Anna: In Plain Sight.
When the secret police of Nazi Germany barged into a doctor's surgery in Berlin in fall 1943, they found a young Muslim woman there, sorting blood and urine samples behind the reception desk. She was fair-skinned, with a round face and intelligent eyes. Her dark hair was tied back beneath a sheer headscarf. When she smiled, her cheeks dimpled. And she smiled a lot – even during these encounters with the Gestapo.
People remembered the woman as tall and pretty. Full of energy and a picture of health, some said. Others found her harder to describe: Oriental. Mediterranean. Wore a headscarf. What else was there to say about Dr. Mohamed Helmy's Muslim assistant? A well-assimilated young woman, certainly, one commented. Few could have guessed at the time just how apt this particular compliment was.
The Gestapo officers barked their orders, demanding to see the boss – At once! Of course, the young woman assured them, the doctor would be with them presently. Would the gentlemen like to take a seat in the meantime?
Like her employer, an Egyptian physician, the woman spoke with no trace of an accent and her Arabic name, Nadia, was easy for Germans to pronounce. When asked where she came from, she explained that she was a relative of the doctor: his niece.
The Gestapo officers rummaged through drawers and flung open cabinet doors. They burst into the waiting room, pulling back curtains with suspicion, and no doubt ordering some of the patients to produce their papers. Standing back at a discreet distance of a few meters, yet visible to all, Nadia dutifully assisted them.
Trains had been rolling into the extermination camps for two years now. The Nazis had begun deporting German Jews to their deaths from October 1941 and were now hunting down those who had escaped the initial round-up. Around 1,700 Jews had gone into hiding in Berlin. Many were homeless and slept under bridges or in woods, or spent their days riding the subway and hiding in waiting rooms and toilets after the trains stopped running at night.
This wasn't the first time the Gestapo had shown up at the practice demanding to speak to the Muslim doctor. Nor was it the first time they asked about the whereabouts of one particular Jewish girl who had vanished: a girl named Anna.
Dr. Helmy will be happy to help you however he can, the hijab-wearing assistant assured them. Just then, creaking floorboards announced that the doctor was indeed about to take the Gestapo off her hands. The dark, gangling Egyptian emerged from his surgery and approached the officers with his hand outstretched. Heil Hitler, gentlemen.
A Tale of Hope in Hateful Times
This is the story of a masquerade. It shines a light on an all but forgotten world: the old Arabic Berlin of the Weimar period. At the beginning of the 20th century, Berlin had a small but highly-educated Arab community with doctors such as Mohamed Helmy among them, who were known to have good relations with the city's Jewish residents.
There are records of Jewish intellectuals such as Albert Einstein and Martin Buber attending the 1929 inauguration of the Berlin Mosque, and later speaking at events held there that aimed to encourage interfaith dialogue. The writer Dr. Hugo Marcus, a Jewish-Muslim convert and manager of the mosque from 1923 to 1939, proclaimed at the time: “Fellowship and hospitality are open in the same way to those of all confessions, races and classes. And Christians, Jews, free thinkers are as welcome as our Muslim brothers and sisters.” Elsewhere, the sons of well-to-do families from Cairo and Damascus attended university in Berlin.
But some relationships between Arabs and Jews ran deeper still, particularly after the Nazis’ rise to power. Research at the State Archive of Berlin and the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office has uncovered the extraordinary tale of one Arab man who hid a Jewish girl and her family in the heart of Hitler’s capital to save their lives.
Israel's official Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem lists the names of nearly 25,000 brave men and women who helped protect Jewish lives during World War II. The most well-known of these stories is of course that of the Dutch couple who hid a young Jewish girl from Frankfurt, Anne Frank, and her family from the Nazis in Amsterdam.
Just one Arab’s name appears on the list. What renders Dr. Mohamed Helmy’s story so remarkable is that unlike the protectors of Anne Frank, he did not hide his protégé behind a fake wall. Instead, he hid her in plain sight, transforming the Jewish girl Anna into the Muslim girl Nadia in an audaciously simple disguise. In saving the teenager's life Dr. Helmy also risked his own, because his background meant that he too risked persecution by the Nazis. In times of hatred, theirs is a tale of hope.
A Forgotten Community: Arabs in the Weimar Republic
Dr. Mohamed Helmy was born in 1901 in Khartoum, then part of Egypt and now the capital of Sudan, into an influential family as the child of an Egyptian Army major. He was educated in Cairo and emigrated to Berlin in 1922 to study medicine. On completing his state examinations in 1929, he began his doctorate at the Robert Koch Hospital in 1931.
During this period, visiting Arab students were welcomed with open arms to the city. Middle Eastern guests took rooms in middle-class homes, with their rent providing a lifeline to many a host family. The majority were concentrated in flats around the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin's chic shopping boulevard, from which they enjoyed a view of cabaret clubs, coffee houses and the peaked caps of the Prussian police.
More often than not, it was Jewish families who extended the hand of friendship: sometimes out of fellow feeling, and sometimes out of sheer romanticism. These were the days when the Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler could be seen promenading along the Kurfürstendamm dressed as Yusuf, the flute-playing Arabian prince whose persona she adopted in her writings. In Hebräerland ("Land of the Hebrews"), a romanticized account of Palestine penned after her first visit there and published in 1937, Lasker-Schüler expresses a longing for reconciliation between the Jewish and Arab peoples, whom she characterizes as two stepbrothers named Joseph and Yusuf. A fellow Orientalist poet of the day was Lev Nussimbaum, whose books were then the talk of Berlin's salons and bars. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, the son of a Jewish oil trader, Nussimbaum had changed his name in 1922 to Muhammad Essad Bey and would turn up for his readings at the Café des Westens in a turban, harem pants and earrings.
When the imam of the Berlin Mosque – the oldest still-standing mosque in Germany, located in the Wilmersdorf district – first arrived in town in 1925 along with his assistant, they sublet from a Jewish family, the Oettingers, on the Kurfürstendamm. There had long been a tradition of interest in Arab culture among German Jewish scholars: in the 19th century, the reformist rabbi Abraham Geiger had studied Arabic and the Quran, and the open evenings of the Berlin Mosque were attended by so many Jewish guests that Gestapo informants visiting in 1934 reported the Muslim house of prayer was providing "a lair and flophouse for Kurfürstendamm Jews." What was more, informants claimed, the openness of this community was such that "at their gatherings, when the participants believe they are among comrades, they have apparently made derogatory comments about National Socialism and its Führer."
The Rise of the Nazis at the Berlin Mosque
Five years ago, two of Dr. Helmy’s descendants – an ex-Egyptian Army general and ex-officer respectively – agreed to meet me in Cairo to talk about their ancestor for the very first time. Producing photographs of Dr. Helmy dressed in a doctor’s white coat, and elsewhere in his tennis gear, they said that Dr. Helmy had met his true love, the Berlin-born Emmi Ernst, in Germany.
Dr. Helmy’s career as a doctor took an abrupt new turn in 1937 when he lost his job at the Robert Koch Hospital. "A doctor said at the time that it could not be tolerated that an Egyptian was treating German women," he reported after the war, which is noted in a reparation file. Most Arabs had left the country by 1933 when the Nazis rose to power, fearing their racist ideology. Helmy was one of just 300 who decided to stay, bound to both his patients and to his then-girlfriend Emmi.
From 1937 onwards Helmy was only allowed to treat patients privately. The Jewish teenager whose life he would go on to save, Anna Boros, first visited him as a patient because she was not permitted to see a German “Aryan” doctor. In 1938, Dr. Helmy witnessed Anna being forced to transfer to a Jewish school at the age of just 13.
After the war, Anna described what followed. "It would be too long a story to list all the humiliations and persecution we had to endure in school," she said, according to reparation records at the State archive in Berlin.
On November 9-10, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis would torch hundreds of synagogues across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland and trash and loot 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses. They also murdered hundreds of Jews. Following this horrific event and the closure of the Jewish school in 1940, Dr. Helmy began by degrees to take care of Anna. He hired her as an assistant and taught her how to conduct blood tests and use a microscope.
At the same time, Dr. Helmy was having to be increasingly cautious himself. In 1939, shortly after the Second World War began, a new regulation in Germany required citizens of “enemy states” to register with the police. That October many Arabs in Germany, Austria and areas of Poland annexed by Germany were arrested and deported to the Wülzburg internment camp near Nuremberg. Egyptians were detained in Wülzburg to be exchanged for German civilians interned in Egypt by British authorities. Arabs of high social standing or those with degrees were considered especially valuable by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the purposes of an exchange, and Helmy himself was first arrested on October 3, 1939, and held for four weeks in police custody before being transported to Wülzburg. He and 20 or 30 other Egyptians were released in early December 1939 – only to be re-arrested in January 1940 under a new decree that ordered the arrest of all Egyptians aged between 18 and 60. Eventually Helmy was released again due to his poor health.
By now the Nazis had changed tack, coming to see Arabs as potentially useful allies on the international stage. A pro-Arab Nazi campaign was accordingly launched in Germany. The face of the Muslim community in Berlin began to change from late 1941 onwards, with the Berlin-based umbrella organization the Islamisches Zentralinstitut continuing to amplify the Nazis’ brand of hateful rhetoric against Jews, delivering propagandistic radio broadcasts and sermons at the Berlin Mosque.
According to the present-day imam of the mosque, Amir Aziz, this did not sit well with what remained of the pre-war Muslim community. Before the rise of the Third Reich, there had been romances between Jews and Muslims in Germany, and mixed marriages had been celebrated at the Berlin Mosque: notably that of the Indian student Khwaja Abdul Hamid to his fiancée Luba in 1928. The community welcomed Jews who had converted to Islam, such as the young artist couple Leopold Weiss and Elsa Schiemann-Specht.
Despite having converted to Islam himself, the mosque’s manager, Dr. Hugo – later Hamid – Marcus, had continued to identify as a member of Berlin's Jewish community. According to the historian Marc David Baer, Dr. Marcus saw no contradiction between the two religions, arguing that they both shared a clear monotheism without the adjunct of a son of God or the power of an established church. Adopting Islam, Dr. Marcus claimed, had allowed him to retain his existing worldview while providing him access to some of the ground-breaking thinkers of human history.
When Dr. Marcus was forced into exile, Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who was invited to Berlin by the Nazis in 1941 and made head of the Islamisches Zentralinstitut, made every effort to ensure the city’s Muslims remained on the Nazis’ good side. Some members of the Muslim community began to assist the Nazis, helping promote the regime’s antisemitic policies and propaganda and translating Mein Kampf into Arabic. Others – such as Mohamed Helmy – saw in the Mufti’s relationship with the regime an opportunity to take on a role in resisting the persecution of Jews.
In March 1942, Anna’s family received their summons from the Gestapo for deportation to concentration camps. By then Anna was 17 years old, and it was at this point that Helmy decided to help her go underground. He first hid her in his girlfriend Emmy's garden shed in the suburb of Buch. When this became too risky, he took her to stay at acquaintances’ homes, introducing her to them as his Muslim niece. Dr. Helmy also helped Anna’s mother, Julie Wehr, and her grandmother Cecilie Rudnik, by arranging for Cecilie to be hidden in the home of one of his patients, Frieda Szturmann. For over a year Szturmann hid and protected the elderly lady and shared her food rations with her.
At the same time, Helmy was working on a plan to ensure Anna’s permanent safety. The first step was Anna’s “conversion” to Islam. A seemingly official document dated June 10, 1943, which was filled out at the Islamic Central Institute in Berlin, appears to confirm this. In reality it had been forged by an old university friend of Helmy’s, Kamal Eldin Galal, who was secretary-general of the Berlin Mosque committee at the time. By day Galal designed pro-Nazi propaganda aimed at the Arab world, but in this instance he was willing to go behind the backs of his contemporaries, stealing an official letterhead and stamps to produce the document.
Helmy went a step further. By passing himself off as Anna’s father, he was able to obtain a certificate in Arabic claiming that Anna had married an Egyptian man at a ceremony held in Helmy’s home on June 16, 1943. Abdelaziz Helmy Hammad, a 36-year-old Egyptian who had been jailed with Helmy in 1939, agreed to play the part of the “husband” and his name also appears on the document.
A Legacy and a Lesson
Anna did not leave Berlin throughout the remainder of the war and on one occasion in 1944, her garden shed hideout was discovered. Dr. Helmy had to follow a Gestapo summons and produce the relevant paperwork in front of insistent Nazi officers. How he got out of this situation alive no one knows.
Thanks to his efforts, Anna, her parents and her grandmother survived the Holocaust, and after the war, they emigrated to the United States. In the 1950s and 60s she and her family wrote letters on behalf of Helmy and Frieda Szturmann to the Berlin Senate, asking for them to be recognized as rescuers of German Jews. Anna was also able to visit Helmy in Berlin, with her young daughter Carla in tow, in 1969.
On June 2, 1960, Anna Boros raised her right hand in front of New York notary Theodora W. Joven Hoyt and made a sworn affidavit that Helmy had saved her and her family’s lives, which was sent to the Jewish community in Berlin and to the Berlin Senate. In it, she asked for Dr. Helmy, "this wonderful human being," to be honored, though he had wanted no formal recognition.
Dr. Helmy was still living in Berlin in the 1960s, after finally being able to marry his fiancée Emmi and becoming director of the hospital in Buch. He died in 1982.
Decades later, Anna’s letters and petitions were discovered at the Berlin Archives and sent to Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous. On March 18, 2013, after collecting all the available documentation, the Commission elected to honor Dr. Helmy posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations.
By 2010, some 22,765 people had been granted this honor by Yad Vashem, of whom 70 were of the Muslim faith. These included 63 Albanians and a handful from the Balkans and Central Asia. But Dr. Helmy was the first Arab rescuer of Jews to be awarded the title.
In the fall of that year a medal was engraved with a Jewish proverb taken from the Talmud, a similar version of which can also be found in the Quran: "Whosoever saves a single life saves an entire universe". The medal and accompanying certificate of honor were intended for Mohamed Helmy, but his relatives in Cairo refused to accept it because it had come from Israel. "We would be delighted if another country honored him,” they said. “Helmy helped all people no matter what their religion. Now Israel wants to honor him specifically because he helped Jews. But this doesn't do justice to what he did."
In 2017, though, this was resolved through the efforts of Israeli filmmaker Taliya Finkel, who had set out to make a documentary about Dr. Helmy’s life. Her efforts led her to his great-nephew, Dr. Nasser Kotby, who is also a physician and travelled to Berlin from Egypt to receive the honor in his great-uncle’s name.
Though Anna Boros died in 1986, her family members, who live in New York, were eager to share the details of events from her point of view on being interviewed four years ago. Her daughter, Carla Greenspan, had gathered together her extended family in 2014: three children, brothers and half-brothers, coming all in all to 25 people. "We looked around the room, and we realized that none of us would be here today if Dr. Helmy hadn't existed," she says. "This room, filled with 25 people, would simply be empty."