The Great Mosque of Paris that saved Jews during the Holocaust
Salim Halali was a huge star in France and Morocco in the mid-20th century. The Jewish singer, who was born in 1920 into a poor family in Algeria, came to France when he was 14. Within a few years he became known far and wide as the best “Oriental” singer in Europe.
Now, seven years after his death, Halali’s persona is back at center stage in a new French movie. The film, “Les hommes libres,” is being screened at the French film festival that is taking place at Cinematheques across Israel until April 5th.
The plot of the film centers on a heroic rescue tale, the details of which have yet to be studied fully by scholars, having to do with the Great Mosque of Paris having provided sanctuary and refuge to Jews, Halali among them, during the Holocaust. The film has sparked a renewed public debate over whether the honorific “Righteous Among the Nations” should be accorded to the mosque’s rector, who is depicted as one who placed Halali and other Jews under his protection.
“The film pays homage to the people of our history who have been invisible. It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that − with pride,” the film’s director, Ismael Ferroukhi, said in an interview with the New York Times.
The mosque at the center of the film is housed in an impressive fortress-like building with a striking green roof, which occupies an entire street on Paris’ Left Bank. The French government built it in 1926 in honor of the Muslim soldiers who were killed fighting for the country in World War I, and to bolster the bond between the state and its Arab immigrants − and through them with their countries of origin.
After Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940, the Vichy government began persecuting Jews. The lives of Halali and thousands of other North African Jews living in Paris were in danger. Halali was 20 at the time, a young immigrant in a foreign city. The authorities knew he was Jewish, and harassed him.
When the danger grew, Halali turned to the mosque and sought help from its founder and rector, Si Kaddour Benghabrit. Like Halali, he was born in Algiers. And like many others, he too appreciated the young singer’s great talent. At first Benghabrit provided Halali with a fake identity as a Muslim. Later on, when it was feared that the counterfeit documentation would be exposed, he had the name of Halali’s grandfather engraved on a blank tombstone in a Muslim cemetery nearby.
In the movie, Nazi soldiers lead Halali to this cemetery at gunpoint. They release him only when he succeeds in locating the fake tomb and ostensibly proves that his grandfather was Muslim.