Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit
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.
Amid the contemporary controversies in the Middle East, some stories of Muslims providing shelter to Jews have been forgotten or overlooked. Perhaps the telling and reclaiming of such stories can support new perspectives across lines of ethnic and religious difference, opening possibilities for reconciliation.
One such story involves the heroic efforts of the imam and congregation of the Grande Mosque de Paris during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Imam Si Kaddour ben Ghabrit led a mosque-based resistance effort that provided shelter and travel assistance to as many as 1,700 French Jews.
When the German army conquered France, the Grande Mosque de Paris first sheltered resistance fighters and North Africans who had escaped from German POW camps. The Algerian immigrants in the mosque were mostly Berbers, mostly from the Kabylia region. They used their Berber Tamazight dialect to communicate, which made their resistance cells virtually impossible to infiltrate. At the heart of the mosque’s resistance work was ben Ghabrit. Ben Ghabrit had three nationalities—Algerian, Moroccan and French—which allowed him to slip in and out of many contexts.
On July 16, 1942, the French Vichy government ordered the Paris police to round up the 28,000 Jews listed on the census the Germans had ordered. Because some police officers leaked word of the sweep only 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children were seized. Ben Ghabrit produced a tract in Tamazight that was read aloud throughout the immigrant hostels in Paris: “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.” The Jews captured in the July police raids were shipped off to Auschwitz. Around 1,700 Jews who evaded capture were provided short-term shelter either in the mosque itself or in apartments nearby. Ben Ghabrit set up an alternate system that allowed the Jewish fugitives to hide if the Germans or French police came to the mosque, even if necessary going to the women’s prayer room where men were not admitted. The imam wrote many false birth certificates and other forged documents to hide Jewish children under Muslim identities.
After providing initial sanctuary, the members of the mosque helped smuggle the Jews out to safety in Algeria or Spain. Some slipped out through the sewers directly underneath the mosque. Others were able to get out on wine barges down the Seine, hiding in barrels as Kabyl men steered the barges south.
Ben Ghabrit was viewed with suspicion by the German Gestapo. He was brought in for interrogation and threatened, but because the Nazis hoped to gain the support of France’s Arab subjects they never did arrest this community leader.
Now as new conflicts stir up hatreds to erase the heroism of people like Si Kaddour ben Ghabrit from memory, perhaps the line from his tract can be an inspiration to call us all to our deeper human oneness and courageous compassion in the face of hatred and violence: “Their children are like our own children.”