Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Paris Muslims who saved Jews from the Nazis

Elder of Ziyon has found some interesting material about the French Muslims who saved Jews in Paris during World War ll. As this blog has already pointed out, they also happened to be Kabyles (Berbers) from Algeria:

From Missing Pages: Stories from World War II:
Si Kaddour Benghabrit
In Paris, a grand mosque built in honour of the 100,000 Muslim soldiers who died fighting for France in the First World War, became a sanctuary for Jews escaping persecution less than three decades later. Si Kaddour Benghabrit was a French Algerian who was deeply loyal to France. During World War I, he was appointed honourary consul-general and served the religious needs of Muslims in the French army. After the war came to an end, he worked in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs until 1920, when the parliament decided to acknowledge his loyalty by asking him to establish a mosque in Paris. Six years later, the Great Mosque of Paris became a reality and Benghabrit was appointed its rector.

When war broke out in Europe again, and Jewish lives were in danger, Benghabrit used the mosque as a hiding place, issuing each person with a fake certificate of Muslim identity. One North African Jew named Albert Assouline who had escaped from a German prison camp, wrote of his experience hiding in the mosque, “No fewer than 1,732 resistance fighters found refuge in its underground caverns. These included Muslim escapees but also Christians and Jews. The latter were by far the most numerous.” Accounts differ on the number of those saved, yet it remains a shining story of human solidarity.
In tracing the story down it seems that the main witness was Assouline. As described by the American Council for Judaism in a book review of Robert Satloff's Among the Righteous:

According to Assouline, he and an Algerian named Yassa Rabah escaped together from the camp and stealthily traversed the countryside across the French-German border, heading for Paris. Once in Paris they made their way to the mosque, where, evidently thanks to Rabah’s connections to the Algerian community, the two found refuge. Eventually Assouline continued his journey and joined up with Free French forces to continue the fight against the German occupation ... the most fantastic part of the story was his claim that the mosque provided sanctuary and sustenance to Jews hiding from the Vichy and German troops as well as to other fighters in the anti-Fascist resistance.

In a 1983 article for Almanach due Combattant, a French veterans’ magazine, Assouline wrote [that] the senior imam of the mosque, Si Mohammed Benzouaou took “considerable risk” by hiding Jews and providing many (including many children) with certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could avoid deportation and certain death. Assouline recalled one “hot alert” when German soldiers smelled the odor of cigarettes and, convinced that Muslims were forbidden to smoke, searched the mosque looking for hidden Jews. According to Assouline, the Jews were able to escape via sewer tunnels that connected the mosque to nearby buildings.

Read post in full

8 comments:

Sammish said...

I have read this entry on the Elder blog few days ago. To be honest, I did not know what to make of it. The article deals with an issue that I somehow feel ambivalent about. Nobody can say anything negative, let alone be suspicious about such actions taken by the Paris mosque Imam Kadour during the times when Jews were hunted down to be interned at Drancy transit camp before the Eastern rail transport to the death camps of Poland. This applies to all Jews now living and those who have perished. But I am not sure this will sit well with Arabs and Muslims, back then and more crucially nowadays. Let me explain.

It is my belief that if we show the Imam’s actions to the general population of Arabs and Muslims and ask them to comment on his humanitarian and righteous personality, they would certainly and without a doubt label him as a traitor and an apostate. Someone may even search his resting place and desecrate his grave just to show the unchanging position of Jew-hatred among the Muslim population. And we always ask ourselves why? Why such actions (imam’s one) are deemed unworthy in the eye of the majority of Arabs? If his actions are the exception to rule, is there optimism of the possibility of human understanding?

The article raises more pertinent questions than it delivers about the possibility of reconciliation and common understanding and respects between creeds. Why are Jews always digging for some historical facts showing a Muslim with power (albeit limited during wartime yet useful) saving Jewish lives. Do not take me wrong here, I agree that we should be aware of these blessed souls who have saved countless people, and that spreading their stories can only bring good and understanding among nations, yet I feel that Jews are trying so hard to be accepted (or maybe hope for a change in attitude toward them) only in relation to those other non-Jewish people who have nourished, helped, hide, saved Jewish people from the evil of hatred and ignorance.

It is the hope (HaTikva)… and it is always HaTikva for everything… for a state, for freedom and for peace, for respect and recognition…and that’s all we have by being aware of Imam Kadour’s actions and spreading the news … which is to see a rapprochement in Jewish and Muslim relations based on understanding and the respect. As for the rest, all is wishful thinking….

bataween said...

Sammish
It is true that most Muslims / Arabs find it embarrassing that any of their kind might have rescued the 'Jewish enemy'. That's why Satloff, when researching his book, found it so hard to find Arabs and Muslims who would admit to saving Jews and often knew more about the stories of rescue than the families of the saviours themselves.

Lately there has been an interfaith trend to highlight the few individual Muslims who saved Jews for propaganda purposes in order to dissociate the bulk of Arabs/Muslims from complicity with the Holocaust.

The fact that these 'good' Muslims were Berbers is relevant - they are more likely to find common cause with the Jews, and have less to lose if accused of being traitors.

Ethan Katz said...

I am a historian about to publish a long article exploring both the historical reality -- more complex than the mythology -- of this story, and the issues of memory surrounding it. It is not necessarily the case that Arabs and Muslims reject those who helped Jews. Look at the last section of Robert Satloff's book. On the other hand, they often do show at best a great deal of ambivalence toward such stories. But then so do many Jews, who are reluctant to see Arabs as anything other than the new Nazis, let alone as having helped Jews. My article will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Jewish Quarterly Review, and will explore all of these issues in much greater depth based on years of research in many archives.

bataween said...

Sounds very interesting - do let us know when your article is published.

I'm not sure that Jews play down the stories of Muslim rescue because they are reluctant to see Arabs as the 'new' Nazis. There were plenty of 'old' Nazis around, and it is the current tendency to whitewash their past that rankles.

Anonymous said...

Well I dont see the muslim who saved the Jews as traitors. Why wudnt one save them from such evil actions. I am a muslim.

bataween said...

Afia! Delighted to hear it. But how many others agree with you?

Anonymous said...

I would say all who understand religion and read for themselves, rather than hearsay. Those who do not have their political agendas hidden beneath their religious alter motives. Do we all forget we are humans first? If people only put themselves in other shoes.

Usman said...

Sammish,

I diagree with you that Muslims will hate that Imam and label him as traitor. I am a Muslim and very proud of his humanitarian role and kindness towards Jews who were inhumanely being hunted and killed. Kindness and helping the oppressed is something I learn from our Prophet Muhammad (SAW).