There is in the center of Paris a handsome mosque with a tall slender minaret and lovely gardens. It was built in the 1920s, as an expression of gratitude from France for the over half-million Muslims from its African possessions who fought alongside the French in the 1914-1918 war. About 100,000 of them died in the trenches.
During World War II, when the Germans occupied France, the mosque sheltered resistance fighters and North Africans who had escaped from German POW camps. (The French recruited 340,000 North African troops into the French army in 1939.) When the French police started rounding up Jews and delivering them to the German occupiers, the mosque sheltered Jews as well, most of them children.
The Nazi program called for eliminating all Jews, of any age. More than 11,600 Jewish children under 16, including 2,000 younger than six, were deported from France to be murdered at camps in eastern Europe. Still, 83 percent of the Jewish children living in France in 1939 survived. Most were "hidden," that is, given non-Jewish identities to keep them out of the authorities' reach. This required massive help from the French people.
Hiding children entailed a complex, extended organization. Rescuers had to get hold of the children, which often meant kidnapping them from detention centers or Jewish children's homes in full view of the Nazi occupiers. They had to procure false papers, find shelter (in foster homes, boarding schools, convents), raise funds to pay for upkeep, and send the payments without attracting attention.
They had to keep records, in code, of the children's true and false names and whereabouts, bring the children to their hiding places in small groups, and visit them regularly to ascertain that they were well treated. Many who participated in this work - both Jews and non-Jews - perished.
Innumerable French citizens provided aid of a less active kind: they remained silent, even when they suspected the children were fugitives. Many of the children were recent immigrants who spoke French with an accent and did not "look" French. A child might disclose his or her true name when surprised - or in defiance. Most at risk were very young children who needed repeated coaching.
I know this because I was a hidden child. When my parents were deported from Paris to Auschwitz in June of 1943, never to return, my 13-year-old sister and myself, just turned four, were in a foster home in the French countryside. With no more money coming for our keep and the danger to people sheltering Jews, our foster parents balked at keeping us. In the fall, I found myself hiding in a shabby Paris hotel room with my 17-year-old brother. My sister became a maid for a French family.
But by winter, thanks to my brother's astuteness and courage, my sister and I were taken in charge by a clandestine child rescue network, a secular organization in which Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and communist men and women participated. The organization saved 500 children, including my sister and me. As for my brother, he survived by his wits.
I learned of Muslims who helped rescue Jewish children only recently, in the newsletter of Enfants CachŽs (Hidden Children), an association of Jews who survived the Holocaust in France as children.
The mosque-based resistance network consisted of people from Algeria's mountainous Kabylia regions. Kabyls are one of several North-African groups who have preserved their Berber language and culture; the Berbers inhabited North Africa before the Arabs invaded and introduced Islam in the 7th century. At least 95 percent of Algerian immigrants to France came from Kabylia. The network's Kabyls communicated in their Berber dialect, Tamazight, making infiltration almost impossible.
The soul of the network was the mosque's rector, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a man with three nationalities - Algerian, Moroccan, and French - who moved with ease in all three worlds, and whose Islam was tolerant and inclusive.
More than 1,700 people are thought to have found short-term shelter in apartments on or near the grounds of the mosque. Benghabrit set up an alert system that allowed fugitives to disappear swiftly in case of a raid - if necessary to the prayer room's women's section, where men were normally not admitted. He wrote numerous false birth certificates making Jewish children into Muslims.
Access to Paris's sewers directly beneath the mosque's grounds provided an escape path, as did the mosque's proximity to the city's central wine market on the Seine, where barges laden with wine barrels came and went. One woman recalled being taken out of Paris on a barge; a Kabyl at the helm took fugitives concealed in his cargo to the south of France, where they could be smuggled to Algeria or Spain.
The French League against Racism and Antisemitism has asked Israel's Yad Vashem Institute to recognize Benghabrit as one of "The Righteous among the Nations," a title honoring non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Benghabrit would be the first Muslim to earn this distinction.
In these times of mutual hatred, a hatred that is sustained by distorted views of the "other," the story of Muslims saving Jewish children struck me as one Jews and Arabs especially should hear. This history strengthens my sense that mutuality and harmony make up the natural fabric of human relations. Division and cruelty are like torn places in that fabric. Surely, at certain times and places the tearing can be so thorough that it seems the fabric is not there. But that is an illusion.
My friend Mathis Szykowski, also a Holocaust survivor and a hidden child, testifies to this: "It must be said and repeated that in any account of survival, there are many people who will help, at great risk to themselves, people who appear almost mysteriously, whom you trust instinctively. No one can survive such circumstances by themselves. So it becomes obvious that in life as in death, we are all interdependent." A human being whose mind has not been distorted by ideology will instinctively help another in danger, especially a child.
Again and again over the years, I have heard stories of help that appeared unexpectedly, almost mysteriously, during those dark days. A friend recalls that when she was 11, living in Czechoslovakia, her parents were taken away by the Gestapo. By chance, she and her nine-year-old sister had been left behind, so they went to Gestapo headquarters themselves and told the guard they wanted to be reunited with their parents. The guard said "Go away!" several times, speaking softly so as not to be overheard, until they left. Somehow they survived. The SS guard had saved their lives.
Enmities between peoples come and go depending on intricate historical, psychological, and economic forces. Political powers will conceal or twist reality to suit their own ends. For most of the 1400 years since Islam's birth, Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony in Arab lands.
Like the Christians, Jews were dhimmis (protected people): Islam protected their lives, property, and right to worship. Jews enjoyed no such rights in the Christian world until the French Revolution. To be sure, dhimmis were placed below Muslims - they had to pay a special tax, could not ride horses, etc. - but the application of these restrictions varied; with enlightened rulers, the Jews prospered.
In his book Le PassŽ d'une Discorde: Juifs et Arabes du VIIe SiŽcle ‡ nos Jours (The Days Before the Breach: Jews and Arabs from the 7th Century to Today), Israeli historian Michel Abitbol writes about "the historical drama which, in less than half a century, ended two thousand years of Jewish life in the Arab countries." And he describes the "resplendent Judeo-Arab civilization, one whose inexhaustible intellectual and religious riches nourished the entire Jewish world until the dawn of modern times."
On July 16, 1942, Paris police set out to arrest 28,000 Jews on orders of the French Vichy collaborationist government. They had in hand names and addresses, obtained from a census of Jews the Germans had ordered soon after they occupied France. That day and the next, the police fanned out through the city, packing the arrested Jews into requisitioned city buses. They found only 13,000 - largely because some police officers had spread the word ahead of time and many Jews had fled. More than 4,000 children aged 2 to 16 were among those arrested.
On the second day, a tract was circulated through the miserable hotels that were home to immigrant Algerian workers. The tract, in Tamazight, was read out loud to the mostly illiterate men: "Yesterday at dawn, the Jews of Paris were arrested. The old, the women, and the children. In exile like ourselves, workers like ourselves. They are our brothers. Their children are like our own children. The one 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."
We can't know how much help these men were able to give.
Most of the children captured in that July raid were taken with their mothers to camps near Paris. There, French police used truncheons and water hoses to separate mothers from the younger children.
The adolescents and their mothers were taken to Drancy (the French camp from where trains departed for the east) and then deported to Auschwitz. The 3,500 younger children left behind had been taken on the initiative of Vichy's prime minister, Pierre Laval - the Germans had not requested it. The Vichy government waited for Berlin to authorize their deportation. When approval came, the children were packed into boxcars, each with a few adults. All were killed in the gas chambers on arrival.
The thought of such moments of ultimate darkness used to obscure the entire world for me. As I have pieced together the many stories I have heard and read over the years, I became able to simultaneously see light shining in many places. The story of the Muslims who saved Jewish children is one that affirmed that vision.
The words of the Kabyl tract read to poor immigrant men taught me to trust whispers of unity: Those dead children are like myself. They are like my own children. So are the Israeli children killed in bombed-out buses. So are Iraqi children lost as "collateral damage" and the million Palestinian children who every day must struggle with fear - of Israeli soldiers with machine guns, tanks, bulldozers, helicopters, rockets - and the many dead and wounded among them.
[With gratitude to Derri Berkani, whose film Une Resistance Inconnu: La MosquŽe de Paris introduced me to this story. This article initially appeared in Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.]