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How a Paris Mosque Sheltered Jews in the Holocaust

Article: Heroic Tale of Holocaust, with a Twist
Source: The New York Times (03/10/2011)

PARIS — The stories of the Holocaust have been documented, distorted, clarified and filtered through memory. Yet new stories keep coming, occasionally altering the grand, incomplete mosaic of Holocaust history.

One of them, dramatized in a French film released here last week, focuses on an unlikely savior of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France: the rector of a Paris mosque.

Muslims, it seems, rescued Jews from the Nazis.
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It was simpler than it sounds. In the early 1940s France was home to a large population of North Africans, including thousands of Sephardic Jews. The Jews spoke Arabic and shared many of the same traditions and everyday habits as the Arabs. Neither Muslims nor Jews ate pork. Both Muslim and Jewish men were circumcised. Muslim and Jewish names were often similar.

The mosque, a tiled, walled fortress the size of a city block on the Left Bank, served as a place to pray, certainly, but also as an oasis of calm where visitors were fed and clothed and could bathe, and where they could talk freely and rest in the garden.

It was possible for a Jew to pass.
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The historical record remains incomplete, because documentation is sketchy. Help was provided to Jews on an ad hoc basis and was not part of any organized movement by the mosque. The number of Jews who benefited is not known. The most graphic account, never corroborated, was given by Albert Assouline, a North African Jew who escaped from a German prison camp. He claimed that more than 1,700 resistance fighters — including Jews but also a lesser number of Muslims and Christians — found refuge in the mosque’s underground caverns, and that the rector provided many Jews with certificates of Muslim identity.

In his 2006 book, “Among the Righteous,” Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, uncovered stories of Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and included a chapter on the Grand Mosque. Dalil Boubakeur, the current rector, confirmed to him that some Jews — up to 100 perhaps — were given Muslim identity papers by the mosque, without specifying a number. Mr. Boubakeur said individual Muslims brought Jews they knew to the mosque for help, and the chief imam, not Benghabrit, was the man responsible.

Mr. Boubakeur showed Mr. Satloff a copy of a typewritten 1940 Foreign Ministry document from the French Archives. It stated that the occupation authorities suspected mosque personnel of delivering false Muslim identity papers to Jews. “The imam was summoned, in a threatening manner, to put an end to all such practices,” the document said.

Mr. Satloff said in a telephone interview: “One has to separate the myth from the fact. The number of Jews protected by the mosque was probably in the dozens, not the hundreds. But it is a story that carries a powerful political message and deserves to be told.”

A 1991 television documentary “Une Résistance Oubliée: La Mosquée de Paris” (“A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris”) by Derri Berkani , and a children’s book “The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Saved Jews During the Holocaust,” published in 2007, also explore the events.

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