Who saved most of the Jews during World War II

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

The Middle East conflict is often interpreted unilaterally as a "religious war", which is not true, since Jews and Muslims have always lived together peacefully for a longer period of time - both in the Orient and in the Occident. However, examples of this peaceful coexistence or even mutual aid are far less well known than those that allegedly prove the eternal clash of civilizations.

During the Nazi era of racial madness, some Muslims risked their lives to save that of Jews. But their courageous commitment has long been forgotten. One such case occurred, for example, at the great mosque in Paris. The "Grande Mosquée de Paris" was opened in 1926 and is probably one of the most beautiful Islamic places of worship in Europe. It is seen as a token of France's thanks to those Muslims who once fought against the German Reich with the "Tirailleurs", the colonial auxiliary troops. At that time, 70,000 Muslims died under the French flag.

After the German invasion of France in 1940, the lives of the Jews there were also in danger. At that time, Si Kaddour Benghabrit was the rector and chief imam of the Paris mosque. He was of Algerian descent. So it came about that many Mizrahim, oriental Jews, turned to him for protection. Among them was the young Salim Halali, who would later become a popular singer and actor and who died in 2005. Benghabrit took many of these Jews into the mosque and camouflaged them by giving them a Muslim identity.

Since oriental Jews do not look very different from their Muslim brothers and sisters, speak the same language and have similar names, it was not too difficult for Benghabrit to mislead the occupiers. He obtained documents for each and every one of them that proved their alleged Muslim roots and thus saved them from being deported to the concentration camp. It is not certain how many Jews Benghabrit was able to successfully hide, it could have been up to 2,000. Many resistance fighters as well as numerous women and children are said to have been among them.

Iranian Jews as Aryans

Another man who also risked a lot in Paris during World War II was Abdul Hussain Sardari, who was head of the Iranian consulate at the time. He was able to save around 2,000 Iranian Jews who were then living in France by misleading the National Socialists with the help of their own propaganda. Since the Nazis viewed the Iranians as Aryans, Sardari claimed that Iranian Jews were essentially Aryans too.

Regrettably, Sardari's deeds have now been forgotten not only in Europe, but also in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both the story of Benghabrit and that of Sardari are reminiscent of that of Oskar Schindler. Schindler saved well over a thousand Jews through his heroic action. A brilliant, multiple award-winning film was made about him. After the war, Schindler was honored for his actions, including the Federal Cross of Merit.

He is also remembered in Yad Vashem, the "Memorial of the Martyrs and Heroes of the State of Israel in the Holocaust" in Jerusalem. In contrast, almost no one knows the names Si Kaddour Benghabrit and Abdul Hussain Sardari. Both men who saved as many people as Schindler, perhaps more, and who risked their own lives in the process, are not honored at Yad Vashem.

Yad Vashem looking for contemporary witnesses

In the "Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations", which commemorates the heroic deeds of the Holocaust, almost 24,000 names are listed. There are very few Muslims among them. Last year, Yad Vashem added the first Arab to this list. That was Mohammad Helmy, an Egyptian doctor who had lived in Berlin in the 1940s. During this time he hid Jewish friends in his apartment. Because of his "non-Aryan" parentage, he himself had several problems. All the Jews that Helmy hid survived thanks to his efforts.

But historical commemoration is always related to current political considerations. With the intensification of the Middle East conflict and after the Islamic revolution in Iran, such Muslim rescuers of the Jews have been forgotten. However, Yad Vashem denies that this was done on purpose and repeatedly refers to the approximately 60 Muslims who can be found on the list.

Si Kaddour Benghabrit is still not to be found there. When the war was over, some people who found shelter in the Paris mosque reported about his rescue operations. They wanted the next generations to know that Arabs also saved many Jews from death. Yad Vashem has tried in the past to find survivors or to track down their descendants. Relevant documents from that time were also searched for.

Unfortunately, to this day, the search for contemporary witnesses or documents has been unsuccessful. "If such evidence is found, one will certainly consider admitting Si Kaddour Benghabrit to the 'Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations,'" Yad Vashem said. The same applies to the Iranian diplomat Abdul Hussain Sardari.

Nonetheless, the actions of both men show that Muslims and Jews get on more than well. Especially nowadays, against the background of the again escalating conflict in the Middle East, it is important to preserve and relive such memories.

Emran Feroz

© Qantara.de 2014