The Imam who Saved Jews during World War II

By Emran Feroz from
Translated from German by John Bergeron

At a time when racist fanaticism raged under Nazi rule, some Muslims risked their lives in order to save Jews. Yet their courageous acts have long been forgotten. One such case took place at the Grand Mosque in Paris. The “Grande Mosquée de Paris” was opened in 1926 and is still considered to be one of the most beautiful Islamic places of worship in all of Europe. The Paris Mosque was constructed as a gesture of gratitude to those Muslims who fought against the Germans in World War I as members of the “tirailleurs”, the colonial auxiliary troops. In the Great War, some 70,000 Muslims died serving under the French flag.

After the German invasion of France in 1940, the country’s Jews found themselves in mortal danger. At the time, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a French Algerian, was the rector and head imam at the Paris Mosque. Many Oriental Jews, or Mizrahim, turned to him for help. One of these was the young Salim Halali, who later became a popular singer and actor and who died in 2005. Benghabrit welcomed many of these Jews into the mosque and masked their backgrounds by providing them with a Muslim identity.

It was not all that difficult for Benghabrit to fool the occupying authorities, as Oriental Jews do not look all that different to their Muslim brothers and sisters, they speak the same language, and they have similar names. He arranged forged documents for all the Jewish refugees that verified their supposed Muslim roots, thereby saving them from deportation to a concentration camp. It remains uncertain how many Jews Benghabrit managed to save, but it could have been up to 2,000 individuals. These not only included many resistance fighters, but also a large number of women and children.

In the “Garden of the Righteous among the Nations”, which commemorates heroic deeds during the time of the Holocaust, some 24,000 names are recorded. A tiny proportion of them are Muslim. Last year, Yad Vashem added the name of the first Arab to its list, that of Mohammed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor who lived in Berlin in the 1940s. During this time, he hid Jewish friends in his home. Due to his “non-Aryan” background, Helmy himself faced numerous difficulties. Nevertheless, thanks to his efforts, all of the Jews hidden by Helmy managed to survive the Holocaust.

Historical consciousness, however, always reflects current political considerations. With the exacerbation of the Middle East conflict and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, such Muslim rescuers of Jews have been almost completely forgotten. Yad Vashem, nonetheless, denies that this is intentional and points to the fact that there are approximately 60 Muslims on the list.