WASHINGTON, April 27, 2017 – One of the little-known stories of the Holocaust is that of Muslims who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. Fortunately, on this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, more attention is being paid to this important record of bravery and idealism.
At Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., Holocaust Remembrance Day honored the Vesili family, Albanian Muslims who sheltered Jews when the Nazis occupied their country. In 1943, Refik Veseli, a photographer’s apprentice, smuggled his mentor Moshe Mandil and Mandil’s family across Albania to escape the Nazis. Mandil, who had already fled the Nazis in Yugoslavia, was his friend, and it seemed natural to 17-year-old Veseli to help. Veseli’s Muslim parents agreed, and they hid the Mandils and another Jewish family in their home in the village of Kruje for over a year. Had the two families been discovered, the Veseli’s could have been killed.
Veseli died in 2000. His wife and two of his children attended the ceremony in Washington.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf reported that the synagogue had sponsored a family from Syria and declared that,
“We will not stand by while people in positions of power reduce you to hateful stereotypes. We will not stand idly by while leaders defame your sacred religious beliefs and practices, and as your own people have done for us, we are ready to do what it takes to protect you from any harm.”
Imam Yahya Hendi, a Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, who attended the ceremony, said it brought him to tears several times.
“Jews know what pain is and know what it is to be turned away,” he said. “Hearing that the Jews of America will stand up for the Muslims of America, those were powerful words, that we’re all in this together.”
The Albanian ambassador to the U.S., Floreta Faber, pointed out that there was a different quality to the assistance provided to Jews in Albania than elsewhere in Europe. While most Jews in hiding stayed invisible, “In Albania, they were in the open as ‘friends’ or ‘guests” or ‘cousins from Germany.'”
He noted that there was not a single known case of a Jew in Albania being turned over to the Nazis, and Albania was the only country in Europe that had more Jews at the end of World War II than at the beginning.
Moslems in Albania were hardly alone in saving Jews. Some 4,000 Notth African Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, but the Jews of Morocco survived virtually unscathed thanks to the efforts of Sultan Mohammed V, who had been placed on the throne by the French in 1912 when they made his country a protectorate. When Paris fell to the Nazis in July, 1940, the sultan was put in a precarious position as Morocco came under the rule of the collaborationist Vichy regime.
Among the first acts the Vichy regime sought to impose were anti-Semitic laws. Jews had lived in what was then Morocco since well before Carthage fell and numbered over 250,000 in 1940. Members of the community had served the sultan’s court as ministers, diplomats, and advisors.
Mohammed V took his role as “commander of the faithful” seriously. He viewed this as including all “people of the book,” meaning Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. He told the Vichy regime, “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only Moroccan subjects.”
Vichy authorities soon forced the sultan to promulgate two laws restricting certain professions and schools to Jews and requiring them to live in ghettoes. He resisted and did not enforce the laws fully. In 1941, he made a point of inviting senior representatives of the Jewish community to the annual banquet celebrating the anniversary of his sultanate and placing them in the best seats next to the French officials.
Mohammed V ensured that there were never round-ups of Jews in Morocco. Vichy rule lasted more than two years. During this period, no Moroccan Jews were deported or killed, nor were they forced to wear yellow stars. Not a single Jew living in Morocco was sent to a concentration camp.
Within France itself, while Nazis occupied Paris and the Vichy regime carried out anti-Semitic policies, the Grand Mosque of Paris, led by Si Kaddour Benghabru, did its best to rescue Jews.
The Grand Mosque occupies an entire city block on Paris’s Left Bank. The mosque provided sanctuary and sustenance to Jews hiding from Vichy and German troops, as well as other fighters in the anti-Fascist resistance.
In a 1983 article for Almanack du Combattant, the French veterans magazine, Albert Assouline, a North African Jew, recalled that,
“No fewer than 1,732 resistance fighters found refuge in its (the mosque’s) underground caverns. These included Muslim escapees but also Christians and Jews. The latter were by far the most numerous.”
According to Assouline, the senior imam of the mosque, Si Mohammed Benzouaou, took “considerable risk” by hiding the Jews and providing many (including many children) with certificates of Muslim identity with which they could avoid deportation and certain death.
French documentary filmmaker Derri Berkani was so moved by the story of the mosque that he made the 1991 film, “The Forgotten Resistance, The Mosque of Paris.” This movie aired on French television bringing this story of how Muslims saved Jews from the Nazis and their French collaborators to a wide audience.
Those who portray Islam as an inherently intolerant religion are misreading history. What we face now with ISIS and Islamic extremism is, in fact, an aberration. It is important to remember that when Jews faced the Inquisition in Christian Europe, they often found a Golden Age in the Muslim world.
In her book, “The Ornament of the World,” Prof. Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University explores the history of Jews under Muslim rule in Spain:
“Throughout most of the invigorated peninsula, Arabic was adopted as the ultimate in classiness and distinction by the communities of the two other faiths. The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive but, following Qur’anic mandate, by and large protected them, and both the Jewish and Christian communities in Al-Andalus became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd Al-Rahman’s arrival in Córdoba…In principle, all Islamic polities were (and are) required by Qur’anic injunction…to tolerate Christians and Jews living in their midst…Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the 20th century had a Jew as foreign minister.”
As Karen Armstrong notes in “A History of God”:
“The destruction of Muslim Spain was fatal for the Jews. In March 1492, a few weeks after the conquest of Granada, the Christian monarchs gave the Spanish Jews the choice of baptism or expulsion. Many of the Spanish Jews were so attached to their home that they became Christian, though some continued to practice their faith in secret…Some 150,000 Jews refused baptism, however, and were forcibly deported from Spain; they took up refuge in Turkey, the Balkans and North Africa. The Muslims of Spain had given the Jews the best home they ever had in the diaspora, so the annihilation of Spanish Jewry was mourned by Jews throughout the world as the greatest disaster to have befallen their people since the destruction of the Temple in CE 70.”
Jane S. Gerber, in her book “The Jews of Spain,” points out that,
“In the 15th and 16th centuries…it was the Ottoman Empire, then at the zenith of its power, that alone afforded exiles a place where ‘their weary feet could find rest’…Sultan Bayezid II, responding to the expulsion from Spain, reportedly exclaimed, ‘You call Ferdinand a wise King, who impoverishes his country and enriched our own.’ He not only welcomed Sephardic exiles but ordered his provincial government to assist the wanderers by opening the borders. Indeed, the refugees would find the Ottoman state to be powerful, generous and tolerant.”
It is our lack of understanding of history which enables religious bigotry to grow. Honoring those Muslims who sheltered Jews from the Holocaust is bringing a forgotten and important historic moment to life. Today’s Jews, Muslims, and Christians have much to learn from this story.
Religion should bring us together, not divide us. Jesus told us to “love our enemies.” Now, people find it difficult to respect those with whom they simply disagree on this of that subject. The Grand Mosque of Paris provided a guiding light in occupied France.
Our mosques, churches, and synagogues at the present time would do well to follow that example.
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