The Myth of the Mosque

My July column for the Jewish Voice and Herald is a follow-up to a post I wrote back in May.

Have you heard about the Grand Mosque in Paris? According to the story, while the Nazis and the Vichy government murdered 11,600 French Jewish children, 1700 were saved with help from the Mosque’s rector. You can read about it on the web and in a picture book. Some accounts mention children being given Muslim aliases. Others say kids were hidden in underground tunnels. One version describes someone being smuggled down the Seine on a barge, inside an empty produce barrel.

It’s a great story. Too bad it’s not entirely true.

Ethan Katz, an historian of French Jewish-Muslim relations, says that while some Jews clearly were rescued through the Mosque, the number is probably exaggerated. And the rector also exposed some Jews who were trying to pass as Muslim. So while the story is basically accurate, it has been stretched and simplified – that is, turned into a myth.

And one person’s hero story can be another’s cautionary tale about a blunder. At Pakistan Defense Forum, one of many websites that carry the story, a reader comments, “Stupid mistake. I wonder how many of those Jews we saved ended up as Israeli citizens living on some poor Palestinian’s land?”

Last month, my husband attended a conference in Paris, and I tagged along. When I realized our hotel would be near the Mosque, I decided to go there. Which version of the story would they tell? And how would they spin it? I pictured a commemorative plaque, and imagined meeting the imam. Maybe I’d talk to someone who remembered those days.

The first morning of my husband’s meetings, I set out on my own, meandering through the Latin Quarterin the general direction of the Mosque. I admired a 17th-century church.

I took pictures of passageways, store windows, flowers, graffiti.

The unmistakable clamor of children at play echoed through the streets. The wall that hid the schoolyard was affixed with a plaque.

“In memory of the children, students of this school, who were deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were Jewish, innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Never forget them. January 11, 2003.”

The sign didn’t mention anyone being saved, let alone through the Mosque. But according to my map, I was almost there. Wasn’t it likely that some of the rescued children also attended this neighborhood school?

A staircase descended a wall of flowers.

Workers in white coats stood outside a hospital, smoking. I stepped into the Jardin des Plantes, taking a moment to enjoy the smells of growing things.

Across the street, I found the Mosque.

The arch of the windows was unmistakable. A doorway opened to a courtyard café, where some women chatted and snacked. They wore Western clothes, their heads bare. Continuing along the outside of the building, I caught sight of the minaret. A sign announced the daily prayer schedule. Another explained that the Mosque was built in 1922 to honor North Africans who’d helped France during the First World War. There was no mention of the conflict that followed.

A women in a turban and a flowing dress, her skin the color of French coffee, accepted my three Euros admission. Two men quietly mopped the gleaming marble floor of the broad courtyard inside. [Click on images to expand.]

Kaleidoscopic mosaics and stone window screens pierced with patterns as intricate as fine lace lined the colonnade.

School children sprawled comfortably among the fountains and steps of the garden, drawing pictures.

The effect was at once dazzling and austere, expansive and enclosing, a welcoming sanctuary from the workday world of the street, a physical embodiment of prayer.

The woman in the turban was conducting a tour. “Regardez les colunnes,” she said, pointing to the columns. But the rest was lost on me. Even if I could have followed her accent, I lacked the vocabulary.

When I set out that morning, I hadn’t expected to discover that my historian friend’s skepticism was unfounded. At best, I’d hoped to find evidence that at least some Muslims in Paris considered the myth of 1700 saved Jews cause for pride. What I came away with were impressions I hadn’t even thought to expect: the uplifting sound of the school yard and the awe-inspiring beauty of the Mosque.

I also came away with a new understanding of Kaddish. The central liturgy of Jewish mourning doesn’t rail against death. It praises life. Standing in those spots where terrible things happened, where some were sent to their deaths, and others saved from extermination, my overriding experience was of life renewed. Listening to those children and experiencing that sacred architecture, I was wordlessly magnifying and sanctifying the privilege of being alive.

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