A newly released film in France depicts for the first time how the Paris Mosque saved Jews and Muslim resistance fighters during World War II.
Troves of books, movies and articles have been released over the years in France describing almost every facet of World War II and the Nazi occupation here. But one historical nugget has been largely overlooked - the role played by Muslims during that dark period of French history.
A new movie aims to right the record. Released two weeks ago in cinemas across the country, "Les Homme Libres" - "Free Men" in English - describes how the former rector of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Gabrit, offered shelter and Muslim identity to Jews and resistance fighters. Just how many Jews is a matter of dispute. Some say very few. What is certain, is that gesture saved them from deportation and death.
The current rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, is no stranger to this story.
Boubakeur says he has tried for years to focus public attention to Ben Gabrit's acts through public conferences and the media. But he says he has had a hard time digging into the past. Many first-hand witnesses have died. Documents remain buried in government offices.
There have been a handful of accounts of the role played by the Paris mosque and Muslims in wartime France. But this is the first time it has been depicted in a movie.
Benjamin Stora, a North Africa expert who was a consultant for the film, say it is a first in other ways.
"Through the movie, French have learned that nearly 100,000 North Africans lived in France in the 1930s and '40s," Stora says. "Most were from Algeria. Some collaborated with the Nazis, but others joined the French resistance. Many French are only aware of the massive immigration of North African workers here after the war."
Stora says one reason that French know so little about the Muslim community of that era is that many later became resistance fighters during Algeria's war of liberation from France. Their World War II past was buried.
"Sephardic, or North African Jews, also lived in Paris during Nazi occupation. Like their Muslim counterparts, they spoke Arabic," said Stora. "The two communities shared the same food and love of Andalusian music."
Today, the relationship between French Jews and Muslims has deteriorated - reflecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paris Mosque rector Boubakeur is among a number of religious leaders trying to improve ties between the two communities.
Boubakeur believes the movie might improve relations between Muslims and Jews here - changing the way each looks at the other. And for French citizens in general, it highlights a time when Muslims here reached out a hand to help those in great danger.
1942, in German-occupied Paris. Younes, a young unemployed Algerian, earns his living as a black marketeer. Arrested by the French police but given a chance to avoid jail, Younes agrees to spy on the Paris Mosque. The police suspects the Mosque authorities, among which its rector Ben Ghabrit (played by Michael Lonsdale), of aiding Muslim Resistance agents, as well as helping North African Jews, by giving them false certificates. At the Mosque, Younes meets the Algerian singer Salim Halali, and is moved by Salim’s beautiful voice and strong personality. A deep friendship develops, and soon after Younes discovers that Salim is Jewish. In spite of the risks it entails, Younes stops collaborating with the police, and gradually develops from being a politically ignorant immigrant worker into a fully-fledged freedom fighter
How is the movie born?
Everything started with a “Le Nouvel Observateur” article in which I read that the Mosque of Paris had hidden some members of the Resistance and Jews during World War II. After doing some research, I discovered that there was an important community of people from North Africa in Paris who had emigrated before the war. These people were working in factories; there were also Arabic cabarets, a Muslim hospital in Bobigny and a cemetery. I was really surprised since I had never heard of it before. Trying to find more information about Kaddour Ben Gabrit, creator and director of the Mosque, I discovered a generous but complex and deeply religious man. He was both reserved and open, being part of the Parisian life and also interested in music and art. Then a friend of mine told me that Ben Ghabrit saved his Jewish grandmother during the war. I wanted to write this story as soon as possible. “If Ben Ghabrit did not exist I would not be here today” said my friend who had never mentioned this before, though I’ve known him for years. This had a great impact on me. What kind of research did you perform?
I worked with two historians: Benjamin Storam, specialist of the Maghreb region, and Pascal Le Pautremat, who has been working for years on the subject of Islam in France. I needed to be surrounded by experts to get historical documents. I wanted to have some historical and realistic background to be able to explore fiction after
Ensemble (Film Short)
Based on the true, yet still nearly unbelievable story of the life and actions of Si Kaddour Ben Gabrit, the rector of the Paris Mosque during WWII, who saved as many as 1600 Jews from the Nazis, Ensemble is a fictional retelling of this story through the eyes of Isaac, a boy on the run who finds refuge at the Paris Mosque, and its Imam, Ahmed. This is a short film that will leave a lasting impression.