Anna and Dr Helmy: How an Arab Doc­tor Saved a Jew­ish Girl in Hitler’s Berlin

Ronen Steinke

  • Review
By – January 31, 2022

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.

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