A new French film by Ismaël Ferroukhi tells a little-known story of how a Paris mosque saved some Jews from the Nazis.
In “Les Hommes Libres” (“Free Men”), a new wartime French film based on true stories, Tahar Rahim, seated, is a black-market operator and Michael Lonsdale portrays the rector of the Grand Mosque of 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.
“Les Hommes Libres” (“Free Men”) is a tale of courage not found in French textbooks. According to the story, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder and rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, provided refuge and certificates of Muslim identity to a small number of Jews to allow them to evade arrest and deportation.
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.
“This film is an event,” said Benjamin Stora, France’s pre-eminent historian on North Africa and a consultant on the film. “Much has been written about Muslim collaboration with the Nazis. But it has not been widely known that Muslims helped Jews. There are still stories to be told, to be written.”
The film, directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, is described as fiction inspired by real events and built around the stories of two real-life figures (along with a made-up black marketeer). The veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale plays Benghabrit, an Algerian-born religious leader and a clever political maneuverer who gave tours of the mosque to German officers and their wives even as he apparently used it to help Jews.