The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews during the Holocaust
Book Review by Rafiq Ebrahim
Glen Ellyn IL

In these days when hatred ­ expressed or unexpressed ­between Muslim and Jew communities, The Grand Mosque of Paris comes as a breath of fresh air, having the potential to heal the hearts of this disease of hatred. It is this feeling and subsequent actions that are responsible for the vast ongoing deaths and destructions in today's world. Peace has said goodbye and Love has perished, and there is no hope of any salvation at the end of the tunnel.

Written and illustrated by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland Desaix, it is published by Holiday House Book and priced $ 17.95. Bouquets should be presented to the authors for bringing a historical fact to light after a lot of research, and informing the readers how Muslims and Jews lived as brothers in the past.

This forty-page hard cover book with a fascinating jacket and illuminating illustrations on almost every page is an interesting read. It is set in the time period of 1939 when the World War Two started with Nazi soldiers invading Poland and spreading the Nazi regime across Europe. Jews, their main victims, were in grave danger and were hunted down. Many of them fled to France in the hope of being safe, but in 1940 the Nazis conquered France. A new French government of collaborators was set up and as per the order of the Nazis, many anti-Jewish laws were passed. The new government rounded up Jews of all ages, mercilessly tortured them and sent them to the death camps. Those Jews who were still uncaptured began to seek shelter and refuge at some places. A large number of them found help in extraordinary place.
It was the Grand Mosque, the center of the Islamic Community in Paris, "... an oasis hidden behind high walls right in the middle of the city."

The authors have projected the Mosque more as a place of refuge and sanctuary than as a place of worship, and in doing so have further glorified the Islamic view of helping people in distress.
An excerpt from the book: "The Grand Mosque shimmered like a mirage, the white dome and the glittering mosaics of the minaret in shark contrast to the mutated colors of Paris. When the mosque was built in 1926. the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were under French rule, and many Muslims had come to Paris from those countries. The land for the mosque was given by the French government. in exchange for a symbolic payment of one franc, to thank the half million Muslim soldiers who had fought for France during the First World War."

The mosque with its graceful columns, arches, spacious courtyards and blooming gardens and cascading fountains had a library full of rare manuscripts and books, steam baths, a clinic and a restaurant. Everything happening in the Muslim Community like births, marriages and deaths were duly recorded at the mosque.

This short book pays tribute to some notable persons who played dynamic roles in France and unflinchingly helped Jews ­ women, children, aged and also able-bodied people who sought refuge. There was Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the incharge of the mosque, who was a diplomat and writer. He kept the gates of the mosque open for Jews, housed and fed them, and kept them safe from prosecution. In some cases he even
issued fake birth certificates to them to prove that they were Muslims. A young Jew from Algeria, Salim Halali, had a great desire to be a singer. In France, he was given protection in the mosque. Benghabrit secretly asked a stone carver to inscribe the family name on an unmarked tombstone in the Muslim cemetery, to convince the Nazis that Salim was a Muslim.
Other notable figure at that time was Dr Ahmed Somia, who cared for and protected the young children who were sick.
Besides these peoples, many Muslims in the French Resistance, helped Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied Paris. Various means were adopted to disguise Jews.
They were supplied with Fez (traditional tasseled wool felt hat) so that they could be passed over as Muslims. They operated a secret network that smuggled helpless Jews out of Paris to safety, sometimes through secret tunnels under the basement of the .mosque. These passageways twisted and turned beneath the streets for miles and miles till they reached the bank of River Seine, a safe haven for the Jews.
The authors Ruelle and DeSaix lament the fact that most of the important
documents and manuscripts were either destroyed or lost during the Nazi invasion.
After a long and laborious search they could obtain a few ones that threw
light on the historical facts chronicled in the book. One letter, as the authors say, “… was recently found among the old papers of a Paris café owned by a Tunisian…… the café owner said that it dated from World War 11. It read: Yesterday at dawn, the Jews of Paris were arrested. The elderly, the women and the children.
In exile like ourselves, workers like ourselves. They are our brothers. Their children are like our children. Anyone who encounters one of his children must give that child shelter and protection for as long as misfortune – or sorrow – lasts. Oh man of my country, your heart is
generous. Was this letter read out in the café? Did it circulate among the Kaybele workers of Paris, making its way through the crowded boardinghouses where these men lived? It certainly seems to be a call to
action. Without a doubt, it is a recognition of the strong bond between North African Muslims and Jews.”
When the World War 11 ended, Si Benghabrit kept on serving in the mosque as its rector till his death in 1954. He was buried by the mosque... Jewish singer Salim Halali lived a long, successful life,
and is revered as the father of modern North African song. Dr Ahmed Somia continued his selfless devotion to sick till his death. The Grand Mosque of Paris, written in simple English, is surely a book that must be cherished. The only drawback – if it could be called a drawback
– is that it is very concise, doesn’t describe in details the incidents and
works of the people mentioned in book. A little more enumeration would
have been most welcome.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.