Arab doctor’s kin turns down honor from Israeli museum

Egyptian man hid Jews in Berlin during Holocaust

Irena Steinfeldt displayed a medal and certificate honoring Mohamed Helmy at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Irena Steinfeldt displayed a medal and certificate honoring Mohamed Helmy at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

CAIRO — A member of the family of the first Arab to be honored by Israel for risking his life to save Jews during the Holocaust says the family is not interested in the recognition.

The Egyptian doctor, Mohamed Helmy, was honored posthumously last month by Israel’s Holocaust memorial for hiding Jews in Berlin during the Nazis’ genocide, but a family member in Cairo said her relatives would not accept the award, one of Israel’s most prestigious.

‘‘If any other country offered to honor Helmy, we would have been happy with it,’’ said Mervat Hassan, the wife of Helmy’s great-nephew.


Mohamed Helmy was an Egyptian doctor who lived in Berlin and hid several Jews during the Holocaust.

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Last month, he was honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as ‘‘Righteous Among the Nations’’ — the highest honor given to a non-Jew for risking great personal dangers to rescue Jews from the Nazis’ gas chambers during World War II.

On Sunday, the museum criticized the family’s decision.

‘‘We regret that political sentiment seems to have overcome the human aspect, and we hope that one day the latter will prevail,’’ Yad Vashem said.

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


The certificate of inheritance of Helmy’s wife Emmi, who died in 1998, contained the names of three of his relatives in Cairo, and Hassan agreed to share her memories of Helmy.

Hassan said the family was not interested in the award from Israel because relations between Egypt and Israel remain hostile, despite a peace treaty the two nations had 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 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, a German historian who has conducted a body of 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’s 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 officials.

The four family members survived the war and immigrated to the United States.