Who Was Mohammed Helmy, The Doctor Who Saved Jews During The Holocaust?

The story of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved the lives of more than 1,000 persecuted Jews during the Holocaust, is one of the most famous tales of defiance against the Nazis from World War II. Schindler's accomplishments — and those of his wife and workers who aided in the rescue efforts — have maintained their fame in recent decades partly thanks to the novelization of his true story by the Australian author Thomas Keneally, "Schindler's Ark." The book won the Booker Prize in 1982 and was later turned into Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning classic "Schindler's List."

But other heroes of the Holocaust are still in the process of having their stories told. One of these is Mohammed Helmy, an Egyptian-German man from Khartoum, Sudan, who in 1922 at the age of 21 traveled to Berlin, Germany, to study medicine and later serve as a physician. Reportedly, Helmy wasn't actively opposed to the Nazis in the early days, according to the Times of Israel. But the cruel ideology that underpinned the fascist movement would soon become very real.

Helmy took a position as a urologist at Berlin's Robert Koch Institute, where, after the Nazis came to power in 1933, he saw the fascists' racist ideology put into action. First, Jewish doctors were fired from the institute, with many Jewish professionals detained after the first concentration camps came into operation. Then new laws called for other "non-Aryan" groups, such as Arabs — whom the Nazis referred to as "Hamites" — to also leave their posts, and Helmy was fired in 1938.

A doctor's resistance

Mohammed Helmy's first act of resistance was to secretly open a private practice through which he could continue to serve his patients, operating without a medical license and in great danger. By 1939, the Nazis were rounding up German residents of Egyptian descent and interning them at a camp in Wülzburg, near Nuremberg, for the purpose of swapping them for German detainees held in Egypt (via the Holocaust Encyclopedia). Mohammed Helmy was arrested in October 1939 shortly after the passing of anti-Hamite legislation and taken to the camp, where his health suffered. After a short period of release, Helmy was recaptured in January 1940.

The Egyptian Embassy eventually secured the sick doctor's release, and he was soon recruited to a medical practice in Charlottenburg, West Berlin. Helmy established himself as a vocal critic of the Nazis even as their hate campaign against "non-Aryan" races intensified as greater numbers of Jews from across Nazi-controlled Europe were captured and taken to concentration camps (pictured). Helmy had long been engaged to a German woman, Emmy Ernst, who Nazi legislation forbid Helmy from marrying on account of his Arab heritage.

But Helmy and Emmy's greatest resistance during the period was to shelter the Jewish family of one of his patients, a woman named Anna Boros. Boros herself lived secretly in the Helmy household throughout the war, while her mother, stepfather, and grandmother were also helped into hiding. Though Boros' mother was later arrested and the rescue was close to being uncovered, Helmy masterminded a false story that Boros had tricked him into believing she was Muslim, and had then vanished.

Helmy and Emmy

Anna Boros and her family survived the Holocaust thanks to the brave actions and quick thinking of Mohammed Helmy and his fiancee, Emmy. Despite years of struggle during the war — during which it was doubtful that their story would have a happy ending — Mohammed Helmy and Emmy Ernst eventually got their wish to be together and married shortly after World War II ended. They would stay together for the rest of their lives.

The Boros family — who emigrated to America having survived the horrors of the Holocaust — never forgot the actions of Helmy and Emmy, nor those of a woman named Frieda Szturmann, who also hid members of Boros' family. They continued to broadcast his actions and call for Helmy to be honored throughout the decades. He died in 1982.

In 2013, it was announced that Helmy would receive a special honor from Israel's Yad Vashem memorial center and be named Righteous Among the Nations, a special award given to non-Jewish people who assisted in saving the lives of persecuted Jews during the Holocaust. On his 122nd birthday in 2023, Helmy was memorialized by a Google doodle, sparking a wave of news outlets to report his story and raise greater interest in his and Emmy's incredible bravery.

[Featured image by Mutter Erde via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 4.0]