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The Great Mosque of Paris that saved Jews during the Holocaust

  • Published 10:56 23.03.12
  • Latest update 10:56 23.03.12

  • The Great Mosque of Paris that saved Jews during the Holocaust
    Focusing on the tale of Algerian-born Jewish
    singer Salim Halali, a new French film looks at the little-known, and
    hard to confirm, efforts of the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris to
    save Jews during World War II.

    Ofer Aderet

    Jewish World

    Salim Halali was a huge star in France and
    Morocco in the mid-20th century. The Jewish singer, who was born in 1920
    into a poor family in Algeria, came to France when he was 14. Within a
    few years he became known far and wide as the best “Oriental” singer in

    Now, seven years after his death,

    Halali’s persona is back at center stage in a new French movie. The
    film, “Les hommes libres,” is being screened at the French film festival
    that is taking place at Cinematheques across Israel until April 5th.

    The plot of the film centers on a heroic
    rescue tale, the details of which have yet to be studied fully by
    scholars, having to do with the Great Mosque of Paris having provided
    sanctuary and refuge to Jews, Halali among them, during the Holocaust.
    The film has sparked a renewed public debate over whether the honorific
    “Righteous Among the Nations” should be accorded to the mosque’s rector,
    who is depicted as one who placed Halali and other Jews under his

    “The film pays homage to the people of our history who
    have been invisible. It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews
    existed in peace. We have to remember that − with pride,” the film’s
    director, Ismael Ferroukhi, said in an interview with the New York

    The mosque at the center of the film is
    housed in an impressive fortress-like building with a striking green
    roof, which occupies an entire street on Paris’ Left Bank. The French
    government built it in 1926 in honor of the Muslim soldiers who were
    killed fighting for the country in World War I, and to bolster the bond
    between the state and its Arab immigrants − and through them with their
    countries of origin.

    After Nazi Germany conquered France in
    1940, the Vichy government began persecuting Jews. The lives of Halali
    and thousands of other North

    African Jews living in Paris were in
    danger. Halali was 20 at the time, a young immigrant in a foreign city.
    The authorities knew he was Jewish, and harassed him.

    When the danger grew, Halali turned to the
    mosque and sought help from its founder and rector, Si Kaddour
    Benghabrit. Like Halali, he was born in Algiers. And like many others,
    he too appreciated the young singer’s great talent. At first Benghabrit
    provided Halali with a fake identity as a Muslim. Later on, when it was
    feared that the counterfeit documentation would be exposed, he had the
    name of Halali’s grandfather engraved on a blank tombstone in a

    Muslim cemetery nearby. In the movie, Nazi
    soldiers lead Halali to this cemetery at gunpoint. They release him only
    when he succeeds in locating the fake tomb and ostensibly proves that
    his grandfather was Muslim.

    Halali performed at the mosque during the
    war. After the liberation of France, in 1944, he became Europe’s most
    popular North African singer. The club he opened in Paris in 1947 became
    the site for grand parties and hosted people in high places. He
    subsequently moved to Casablanca, Morocco, where he opened the biggest
    cabaret in North Africa, which was burned down years later − some
    sources say because of anti-Semitism.

    Halali, whose influence extended among
    others to “the king,” Zohar Argov, in Israel, was wonderful at blending
    different musical styles: Moroccan, Arabic, Maghrebi, Berber, French,
    Spanish and Jewish. In his heyday he was crowned the “King of Shaabi” ‏(a folk-music style‏),
    and some regarded him the greatest darbuka player of all time. Dozens
    of his songs became runaway hits, and to this day he is considered a
    classic performer among Jews and Arabs alike.

    Halali died in 2005 in lonely anonymity. His records are sold today on the

    Internet and his songs star on YouTube. The Moroccan-Israeli theater

    El Maghreb recently put on a musical based on his songs.

    “The man was an enigma. A homosexual surrounded by women, an outright anti-Zionist who came to appear in

    Israel,” says Tom Cohen, the head conductor
    and artistic director of the Mediterranean Orchestra of Ashkelon.
    “Musically he was diverse as well, and was blessed with lots of color
    and richness. On the one hand, his singing was essentially Arab. On the
    other hand, he corresponds with styles that also spoke to Western ears.
    At heart he was a pop singer, the sort who performed in coffee shops and
    at weddings.”

    Halali is played in the movie by the actor
    and musician Mahmud Shalaby, from Acre, “an Israeli Palestinian,” as he
    puts it. He learned French for the film, which was filmed in Paris and

    Morocco. “As a Palestinian, I could
    identify with the suffering he endured as a Jew,” Shalaby says during an
    interview with Haaretz. “Halali is not Jewish only, but also an Arab
    with characteristics of Muslims from North Africa,” he adds. “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 bond between the actor and Halali was
    helped by the fact that Halali was not a Zionist sympathizer. “In the
    ‘60s he performed in Jerusalem,” says Shalaby, “and he told the
    audience, in Arabic, ‘Long live the Arab nation.’ After they threw
    things at him on stage, he left and never came back,” Shalaby adds.

    Halali never married and did not have
    children. Relatives from his extended family attended the film’s
    premiere in Paris a few months ago. “At the end of the screening they
    came up to me and told me that they were very impressed by the film and
    that the character as I present it is very close to who Halali was in
    real life,” Shalaby says.

    Out of bounds

    How many Jews like Halali were sheltered at
    the mosque and owe its rector their lives? The answer to that is
    unclear to this day, nearly 70 years after the

    Holocaust ended. Benghabrit continued to
    run the mosque after the war, but his popularity waned because of his
    support of French colonial rule in Algeria. He died in 1954 and was
    buried at the mosque.

    Posing as Muslims would presumably have
    been technically possible for some of the North African Jews living in
    France. The Jewish men, like the Muslim ones, were circumcised. Jews and
    Arabs had shared surnames. Their outward appearance and knowledge of
    Arabic also helped an unknown number of Jews assimilate into the Muslim
    community. But the Germans did not easily give up on their demand that
    someone suspected of being a Jew prove his origins. That was the context
    for their turning to the Great Mosque of Paris with requests that it
    rule whether a particular person was Jewish or Muslim.

    “Sometimes, the mosque certified claimants
    as Muslims; sometimes, it rejected claims and the accused were
    considered, under the law, as Jews,” writes the Jewish-American
    historian Robert Satloff, in his 2007 book “Among the Righteous: Lost
    Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.” (‏Satloff’s book was published in Hebrew translation in 2010 by Yad Vashem and Dvir‏.)
    “The mosque, then, certainly had the opportunity to determine the fate
    of these people. Whether it deliberately chose to help Jews, protecting
    the real identity of the claimants regardless of the evidence, is the
    key issue,” he writes.

    The source for the information that the
    mosque and the man at its head saved Jews is a North African Jew, who
    fled from Germany to France and found refuge at the Paris mosque. In an
    article he published in 1983 in a French magazine, the man, named Albert
    Assouline, wrote that “no fewer than 1,732 Resistance fighters found
    refuge in the cellars of the mosque,” and noted that most of them were
    Jews. He added that the rector “took a great risk” in hiding the Jews,
    and supplied them − and the many children among them − with Muslim

    In a short documentary film that was
    produced a decade later, this same witness recounted that in
    emergencies, Jews would crowd into the sacred part of the mosque, an
    area that was designated “out of bounds” to non-Muslims. He further said
    that Benghabrit installed a special button that sounded an alarm in
    case of a police raid on the mosque. But this testimony was never
    corroborated by another witness. No one but him ever spoke about this
    large-scale rescue operation.

    Satloff, who is director of the Washington
    Institute for Middle East Policy, uncovered the most important written
    evidence to date relating to the subject: a note from a bureaucrat in
    the French foreign affairs ministry to the foreign minister, dated
    September 24, 1940, which describes the Germans’ activity against the
    mosque. Here is what it says: “The occupation authorities suspect the
    personnel of the Mosque of Paris of fraudulently delivering to
    individuals of the Jewish race certificates attesting that the
    interested persons are of the Muslim confession. The imam was summoned,
    in a threatening manner, to put an end to all such practices. It seems,
    in effect, that a number of Jews resorted to all sorts of maneuvers of
    this kind to conceal their identity.”

    Dalil Boubakeur, who heads the mosque
    today, confirmed the reports that the mosque had granted sanctuary to
    Jews in the Holocaust and supplied them with Muslim identity
    certificates that enabled them to survive. He estimated their number,
    however, at only 100.

    “The mosque represented the sensibilities
    of the Muslims of North Africa toward their Jewish brothers,” he said
    during a conversation with Satloff seven years ago. “It was very
    courageous. Courageous and natural at the same time,” he added. But
    there is no documentation whatsoever naming those Jews who supposedly
    were sheltered at the mosque.

    Dr. Simcha Epstein, a Paris-born historian at the Hebrew University of

    Jerusalem who studies anti-Semitism and the
    Holocaust, sums up the problem for people researching this case: “The
    doubt is not about whether the mosque aided or did not aid Jews, but
    rather regarding the number of Jews the mosque helped. Nobody knows the
    exact number. The data is unclear. Naturally there is no documentation
    of it. Obviously the mosque itself would not write such things down, so
    as not to incriminate itself.” But, adds Epstein, “we are clearly not
    talking about numbers that amount to a thousand people. That is
    excessive and exaggerated.”

    By contrast, Prof. Renee Poznanski, of
    Ben-Gurion University, a leading scholar of the subject of French Jewry
    during the German occupation, says that none of the story is familiar to
    her. “I have not come across any such thing in the documentation and
    testimonies. If it indeed happened, we are talking about a historically
    minor phenomenon, of very small dimensions, but important of course,”
    she says.

    ‘Not everyone was like that’

    The film’s detractors say that it is
    one-sided and refrains from presenting the negative aspects of
    Jewish-Arab relations during the war years, first and foremost the
    collaboration of Arabs and Muslims with the Nazis.

    “The film tends to depict the Arabs as
    being on the side of the good guys. In practice not everyone was like
    that. The reality is different from that shown in the movie,” says
    Epstein. “Along with Muslims and Arabs who saved Jews, there were ones
    who collaborated with the fascists and the Nazis. Just like Christians,
    some of whom behaved this way and others that way. The masses, in any
    case, were indifferent and neutral.”

    Epstein says the movie should also be
    considered according to the target audience that it seeks to address, in
    his opinion: French viewers of Arab origin, who are hostile to Jews in
    France. “This film wishes to show today’s French public that the Muslims
    were on the good side of the story and not with the bad guys. The movie
    tries to portray positive, anti-Nazi, Muslim heroes also to stop the
    pro-Nazi surge now prevalent among young Muslims,” he says.

    For Poznanski, too, the film might have a
    contemporary agenda: “The subject choice for the film is not necessarily
    related to the historical importance of the subject, but rather serves a
    cause that is important to its makers to raise on a public level,” she

    The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial authority
    lists nearly 24,000 people as Righteous Among the Nations. Only a few
    dozen of these are Muslims. Not one is an Arab.

    “Yad Vashem made a supreme effort to locate
    survivors who Benghabrit saved at the time of the Holocaust, and went
    to great lengths to gather archive material pertaining to the rescue
    operation at the Mosque of Paris, including applying to the mosque’s
    archive. Every effort was in vain. No testimonies from survivors or
    relevant documents were found,” Yad Vashem said in a statement. However,
    “if such were to arrive, we would be glad to bring up the matter of
    recognizing Benghabrit as a Righteous Among the Nations.”

    Added: Mar-24-2012 
    By: ElegantDecline
    Other Middle East
    Tags: Arabs, Jews, Peace
    Location: Paris, Île-de-France, France (load item map)
    Views: 5976 | Comments: 52 | Votes: 0 | Favorites: 0 | Shared: 0 | Updates: 0 | Times used in channels: 1
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