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Anna & Dr Helmy by Ronen Steinke review – the Schindler of the surgery room | History books

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The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem honours 25,000 individuals who helped to save Jewish lives during the second world war. Among this roll call of the “Righteous among the Nations”, there is only one named Arab: Dr Mohamed Helmy. This remarkable book tells the story of Helmy’s life, in particular the years in which he helped a young Jewish girl, Anna Boros (later Gutman), evade the Nazis in the heart of Berlin from 1936 until the end of the war.

Ronen Steinke, a political commentator at German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung, has painstakingly pieced together these events from the state archive in Berlin, and from Gestapo correspondence, and interviews with the surviving relatives of Helmy and Gutman in New York and Cairo. His story, deftly translated by Sharon Howe, wears this research lightly. Steinke’s history sheds a light on what he argues is a deliberately forgotten world, the old Arabic Berlin of the Weimar period, centred around the grand mosque in the Wilmersdorf district, which was “open, progressive and far from antisemitic” and which welcomed Jewish luminaries, including Albert Einstein and philosopher Martin Buber, to its cultural events. “It is a perception shared by many Muslims in western countries that the Holocaust was nothing to do with them, that Muslim migrants played no part in that history,” Steinke writes. “This book is evidence to the contrary.”

Mohamed Helmy, the son of an Egyptian army major, had come to Berlin from Cairo in 1922 to study medicine. He was apprenticed to a professor of medicine at Moabit hospital near the largest synagogue in the city. The professor was Georg Klemperer, brother of Victor, later the forensic diarist of daily life under the terror of the Third Reich. Helmy witnessed first-hand the terrible day in 1933 when all the Jewish doctors at Moabit were rounded up and taken by Nazi stormtroopers to the hospital basement and savagely beaten; those who survived never returned to work. Helmy was spared this fate because he was in a nebulous category in the perverted hierarchy of Hitler’s race laws – not Jewish, not Aryan, and with a native German fiancee. He was promoted to run a department partly staffed by newly employed Nazi surgeons, “devoid of technical expertise”, who had been instructed in part to sterilise young women who had come before the “genetic health courts”. There is a photograph in this book of Helmy seated, surrounded by a smiling cohort of junior Nazi doctors, his murderous underlings.

Dr Helmy in the 1940s
Dr Helmy in the 1940s. Photograph: Anna Gutman Estate, Carla Gutman Greenspan Family Archives, New York

This arrangement did not last long. Helmy, a gifted consultant, was openly derisive of his colleagues and their political masters. When greeted in the hospital corridors with “Heil Hitler!”, he was brave enough to answer with a measured “guten tag”. In 1936, colleagues signed a petition against his continued employment, suspicious that he continued to treat Jewish patients out of hours. He held on for another year, with the help of the Foreign Office at the Reichstag, which did not at that time want to alienate Egypt, then a British protectorate, by persecuting Egyptian citizens. His contract was not renewed in 1937, however, and he was forced to set up his own practice, more or less in secret.

A year earlier, Helmy had visited the house of one of his elderly Jewish patients, Cecilie Rudnik. It was not entirely a medical call. Rudnik lived with her daughter, Julie, and granddaughter Anna, then 11. The greengrocer business that Rudnik’s husband ran had been an early victim of the new race laws: Jews were barred from visiting wholesale markets until the afternoons when all the sellable produce had gone. The persecution was getting worse by the day; shops in Moabit were being appropriated by the Nazis, money seized. Rudnik and her daughter offered tea to the doctor and pleaded with him to do something to help Anna.

The young Anna Boros
The young Anna Boros. Photograph: Anna Gutman Estate, Carla Gutman Greenspan Family Archives, New York

Helmy kept in touch with the family, and when Anna was 14, he took her on as his assistant at his GP practice. At the outbreak of war Helmy’s status was once more in jeopardy. He was imprisoned in 1939 by the Gestapo for apparently calling Rudolf Hess “an idiot”. Some months later, he was released as part of a change of heart at the Nazi foreign office in a bid to persuade prominent Muslims to their cause, or to hold them as future bargaining chips in prisoner exchanges. Helmy was unable to leave Berlin, but allowed to restart his practice. Anna remained his assistant. When the transports began, and Cecilie Rudnik was summoned to the embarkation point, Helmy helped her to go into hiding with a friend. Rudnik’s daughter, Julie, was safe for the time being because she was married to a German gentile. Anna’s status was less secure. Helmy decided, recklessly, to hide her in plain sight. He created the story that Anna had escaped to Romania, while giving her a headscarfed identity as his Muslim niece, Nadia, his new receptionist.

What follows is a tense and extraordinary account of their years of subterfuge, which also provides a visceral reminder of the bureaucratic and investigative lengths to which the Gestapo would go to discover Jews still hiding in their midst. With enormous courage and cunning, Helmy and Anna maintained their fiction despite SS raids and constant suspicion and the threats of denunciation and exposure (not least from Anna’s mother’s gossipy habits). Their connection continued in visits and correspondence until Helmy’s death in Berlin in 1982 (Anna lived a further four years in New York), by which time the story of an Egyptian Arab who risked his life for his Jewish friend had, as Steinke details, become a far more complicated one to tell.

Anna & Dr Helmy: How an Arab Doctor Saved a Jewish Girl in Hitler’s Berlin by Ronen Steinke (translated by Sharon Howe) is published by Oxford University Press (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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