A new film tells a story about the Holocaust that deserves a wider hearing. “Les Hommes Libres” (Free Men) dramatises the true history of how Muslims in Nazi-occupied France gave protection to Jews. By REBECCA DAVIS.
The “Oskar Schindler” character in this case was Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, who provided shelter and certificates of Muslim identity to Parisian Jews in order that they wouldn’t be arrested and deported, to face certain death in Germany.
The Grand Mosque was enormous, with large gardens and a warren of underground caverns. Here, Jews came for refuge and to be provided with certificates of Muslim identity – while Benghabrit calmly gave tours of the mosque to German officials and their wives.
The best-known case of a man helped in this way was the most popular Arab-language singer of the time, Simon Hilali, who changed his name to Salim and survived the Holocaust by pretending to be an Arab, with the assistance of Benghrabit. For the sake of authenticity, Benghabrit even had the name of Hilali’s imaginary Muslim grandfather carved on a headstone in a Parisian cemetery.
Part of the reason that the story isn’t better known is because it’s impossible for historians to say how many Jews were saved in this way. Some estimates have it as high as 1,700, but this is almost certainly exaggerated. Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has said that the number of Jews protected by the mosque was probably in the dozens.
It’s not clear whether the film will make it to South Africa. Reviews have been mixed so far, but the director, Ismaël Ferroukhi, is unconcerned. “It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace,” he told the NY Times. “We have to remember that – with pride.” DM
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