Linda Kaplan Published in Al-Hikmat Magazine

image002Attorney Linda Kaplan recently had a book and movie review on “The Grand Mosque of Paris” and “Free Men” published in both Al-Hikmat magazine and Chai-Lights. You can read the article as it appeared in Chai Lights here, or read below.

Recent additions to the KJCC library include the children’s book “The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews during the Holocaust,” written by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durlan DeSaiz, and the movie “Free Men,” a fictional story inspired by the events described in the book, co-written and directed by Ismael Ferroukhi.

Jewish Book World Magazine gave “The Grand Mosque of Paris” its top five-star rating and recommended it for children aged 8- 11. The fascinating story will interest young adults as well as not-so-young adults. The book is remarkable not just for the narrative but also for the beautiful double-page oil paintings, which convey both hope and the danger and desperation of the Nazi occupation of Paris.

“The Grand Mosque of Paris” tells the story of how Muslims at the Paris Mosque rescued Jews during the Nazi occupation. The Grand Mosque was built in 1926 when Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were under French rule and many Muslims had come to Paris from those countries. It included a community center, library, steam baths, gardens, clinic, restaurant, and apartments for those who worked there. The land for the mosque was a gift from the French government to thank the half-million Muslims who fought for France during WWI.

In July of 1942 almost thirteen thousand Jews were arrested in Paris. The book quotes a letter, believed to have been written during the summer of 1942, which was found in the papers of a Tunisian-owned Paris café. It was translated from Kabyle (a language from the Atlas Mountains of Algeria):

“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 own 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.”

The book speculates whether the letter was read out in the café, or circulated among the Kabyle workers of Paris or the boarding houses where the men lived, but concludes that this letter seems to be a call to action, and proof of the strong bond between the North African Muslims and Jews.

The book explains that the people of North Africa, Jew and Muslim, lived as neighbors, shared similar cultures, referred to each other as brothers and looked very much alike. This is why Salim, a gay Jewish man from Algeria, was able to safely live in the Mosque and pretend to be Muslim. Some of the people who worked and lived at the Mosque had children, which allowed them to hide North African Jewish children among their own.

Below the sub-basement of the mosque were tunnels, damp rooms (in which the Jewish adults were harbored) and hundreds of miles of dark passageways in which one could easily be lost or, if you knew the corridors, make your way to an escape on the River Seine. Jews who could not pass for North African Muslims were hidden for a few days at the Mosque, until they could escape via a barge to a central wine market on the banks of the Seine. Two of the people who escaped via the barge were Albert Assouline, a Jew, and Yassa Rahal, a Muslim, who were friends from North Africa. After they escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany they managed to get to Paris, and sheltered at the Mosque for a few days until they could be smuggled onto the barge and hidden among the wine barrels for their escape.

Ahmed Somia, a Muslim doctor from Tunisia, worked to protect Jewish children at risk of arrest by fabricating illnesses and sending them to clinics away from Paris. They provided some with false identity papers showing them to be Muslim or Christian. At the Muslim hospital where he worked, he and the other doctors hid Allied parachutists and pilots (whose planes had been shot down by the Nazis) by day, and treated them at night. Some of the patients treated had come to France as spies. After they were treated, they were transported to shelter at the Mosque.

The book includes a glossary and an extensive bibliography. It includes the message: “Save one life, and it is as if you’ve saved all of humanity” which is both an Islamic Hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) and a Jewish Proverb.

The movie “Free Men,” which was inspired by the story in “The Grand Mosque of Paris,” premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film weaves fictional characters into the story alongside real characters. Algerian-born Jewish historian Benjamin Stora acted as an adviser on “Free Men.” Younes, a fictional character, is a young Muslim man from Algeria who sells cigarettes, eggs, and whatever else he can sell on the black market. He is caught by the French Immigration Police, who recruit him to spy on the Mosque. In his efforts to spy for the police, Younes meets the rector of the Mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit and Salim Halali (both real people.)

Si Kaddour Benghabrit was considered to be the most influential Muslim in France. Salim was a young Berber Jew from Algeria, a celebrated singer, pretending to be Muslim. After the rector mentors him, Younes begins to assist him and Salim in aiding the escape of the Jews in Paris. Younes becomes interested in Leila, a beautiful Jewish woman living as a Muslim in the Mosque.

Salim had been provided a Certificate of Conversion to show that his grandfather had converted to Islam. When the Nazis began suspecting that the Mosque was providing false Muslim birth certificates and fake conversion certificates to Jews, the rector arranged to have an unmarked tombstone in the Muslim cemetery engraved with Salim’s family name. That saved his life when the Nazis picked him up.

The movie was selected as Film Movement’s DVD of the month for new, awardwinning independent and foreign film. They said, in part, “Free Men…. does not tell a story we have already heard a million times, but rather brings to light a very little-known chapter of French history – a surprising and powerful story of camaraderie, tolerance and humanity between religions that is as relevant today as it was in Vichy Paris. Moreover, the film does not merely rely on its fascinating background but develops complex characters, builds suspense, pays incredible attention to detail in its set design, costumes and lighting and features stellar performances from some of the biggest names in French cinema today, including the veterans Michael Lonsdale and the young César Award winner Tahar Rahim.

Both the book and movie are available in the KJCC library. The film is also available on Amazon Prime.

Linda M Kaplan