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Film Depicts How Paris Mosque Sheltered Jews During WWII

A scene from "Les Hommes Libres"

A scene from "Les Hommes Libres"

A newly released film in France depicts for the first time how the Paris Mosque saved Jews and Muslim resistance fighters during World War II.

Troves of books, movies and articles have been released over the years in France describing almost every facet of World War II and the Nazi occupation here. But one historical nugget has been largely overlooked - the role played by Muslims during that dark period of French history.

A new movie aims to right the record. Released two weeks ago in cinemas across the country, "Les Homme Libres" - "Free Men" in English - describes how the former rector of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Gabrit, offered shelter and Muslim identity to Jews and resistance fighters. Just how many Jews is a matter of dispute. Some say very few. What is certain, is that gesture saved them from deportation and death.

The current rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, is no stranger to this story.

Boubakeur says he has tried for years to focus public attention to Ben Gabrit's acts through public conferences and the media. But he says he has had a hard time digging into the past. Many first-hand witnesses have died. Documents remain buried in government offices.

There have been a handful of accounts of the role played by the Paris mosque and Muslims in wartime France. But this is the first time it has been depicted in a movie.

Benjamin Stora, a North Africa expert who was a consultant for the film, say it is a first in other ways.

"Through the movie, French have learned that nearly 100,000 North Africans lived in France in the 1930s and '40s," Stora says. "Most were from Algeria. Some collaborated with the Nazis, but others joined the French resistance. Many French are only aware of the massive immigration of North African workers here after the war."

Stora says one reason that French know so little about the Muslim community of that era is that many later became resistance fighters during Algeria's war of liberation from France. Their World War II past was buried.

"Sephardic, or North African Jews, also lived in Paris during Nazi occupation. Like their Muslim counterparts, they spoke Arabic," said Stora. "The two communities shared the same food and love of Andalusian music."

Today, the relationship between French Jews and Muslims has deteriorated - reflecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paris Mosque rector Boubakeur is among a number of religious leaders trying to improve ties between the two communities.

Boubakeur believes the movie might improve relations between Muslims and Jews here - changing the way each looks at the other. And for French citizens in general, it highlights a time when Muslims here reached out a hand to help those in great danger.