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Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Did French Muslims save Jews from the Nazis?



A recent film has sparked debate over the role of the Great Paris Mosque in saving Jews from the Holocaust.

'Free Men (Les Hommes Libres)' tells the story of an Algerian black marketeer caught by the Nazis and sent to infiltrate the mosque, suspected of harboring Jews. There he sees the horror of the Nazis actions against French Jews and forms an unlikely friendship with a Jewish gay man.

The film, screened last year in Israel, is one of a new wave examining the long buried reality of France under occupation.

It wasn't until 1969 that a French film truly confronted the reality of Vichy and collaboration. That was Max Orphuls' 'The Sorrow and the Pity', but it wasn't shown on French television until 1981. President Mitterrand refused to apologies for France's role in the deportations of Jews.

President Chiric finally acknowledged France's guilt in 1995. Last year Francois Hollande told the 70th anniversary commemorations of the mass roundup by French police of Paris' Jews that "the truth is that the crime was committed in France, by France." All Parisian students pay a visit to the internment camp at La Cité de la Muette ("The Silent City") in the suburb of Drancy.

In the film the head of the mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, is seen protecting Jews, largely through false papers saying they are Muslim. One who becomes friends with the protagonist is based on the famous singer Salim Halali, an Algerian Jew. After the Nazis become suspicious that Ben Ghabrit is forging papers, he has a false headstone placed in the cometary to show that Halali's grandfather was Muslim.

Says the film's director, Ismaël Ferroukhi:
It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that − with pride.
His point is underlined by Halili being played in the film by the Israeli Palestinian actor and musician Mahmud Shalaby.

Shalaby told Haaretz:
As a Palestinian, I could identify with the suffering he endured as a Jew. Halali is not Jewish only, but also an Arab with characteristics of Muslims from North Africa. At that time, religion was not of importance. Jews and Muslims lived together in brotherhood and love, without anything to come between them. Halali united everyone.
The ability of the mosque to aid Jews came from the fact that North Africa Jews and Arabs shared many similarities, including similar names. According to Jewish-American historian Robert Satloff, it is not clear whether the mosque deliberately and knowingly chose to help Jews. However witness testimony claims that 1,732 Resistance fighters including many Jews were hidden in the cellars, in a part of the mosque normally out of bounds to non-Muslims. A button would provide an alert when there was a raid.

One document has been sourced demonstrating the concern of the occupation authorities about the mosque. The current head of the mosque says that individual Muslims would bring Jews they knew to the mosque to be helped but they have no documentation confirming their role during the war, which would be unlikely to exist anyway as it would have incriminated them.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial authority says that they have done research on the mosque's role but have been unable to confirm any details. If evidence were found, they say, "we would be glad to bring up the matter of recognizing Benghabrit as a Righteous Among the Nations."

The film's success has brought new information to light. At one screening, a consultant on the film, Benjamin Stora, a French historian, was told by a woman that -- contrary to assumptions -- it was not just Jews of North African origin who were saved. She said that her Ashkenazim Jewish mother was one.

Film trailer with subtitles after the jump:



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