Benghabrit (right) at the Elysee Palace in 1935
Benghabrit (right) at the Elysee Palace in 1935 Photo by Getty Images
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French actor in the film 'Les hommes libres'
French actor Michael Lonsdale (left) depicting Benghabrit, as he greets a German Nazi officer, in the film 'Les hommes libres.'

Salim Halali was a huge star in France and Morocco in the mid-20th century. The Jewish singer, who was born in 1920 into a poor family in Algeria, came to France when he was 14. Within a few years he became known far and wide as the best “Oriental” singer in Europe.

Now, seven years after his death,

Halali’s persona is back at center stage in a new French movie. The film, “Les hommes libres,” is being screened at the French film festival that is taking place at Cinematheques across Israel until April 5th.

The plot of the film centers on a heroic rescue tale, the details of which have yet to be studied fully by scholars, having to do with the Great Mosque of Paris having provided sanctuary and refuge to Jews, Halali among them, during the Holocaust. The film has sparked a renewed public debate over whether the honorific “Righteous Among the Nations” should be accorded to the mosque’s rector, who is depicted as one who placed Halali and other Jews under his protection.

“The film pays homage to the people of our history who have been invisible. It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that − with pride,” the film’s director, Ismael Ferroukhi, said in an interview with the New York Times.

The mosque at the center of the film is housed in an impressive fortress-like building with a striking green roof, which occupies an entire street on Paris’ Left Bank. The French government built it in 1926 in honor of the Muslim soldiers who were killed fighting for the country in World War I, and to bolster the bond between the state and its Arab immigrants − and through them with their countries of origin.

After Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940, the Vichy government began persecuting Jews. The lives of Halali and thousands of other North

African Jews living in Paris were in danger. Halali was 20 at the time, a young immigrant in a foreign city. The authorities knew he was Jewish, and harassed him.

When the danger grew, Halali turned to the mosque and sought help from its founder and rector, Si Kaddour Benghabrit. Like Halali, he was born in Algiers. And like many others, he too appreciated the young singer’s great talent. At first Benghabrit provided Halali with a fake identity as a Muslim. Later on, when it was feared that the counterfeit documentation would be exposed, he had the name of Halali’s grandfather engraved on a blank tombstone in a

Muslim cemetery nearby. In the movie, Nazi soldiers lead Halali to this cemetery at gunpoint. They release him only when he succeeds in locating the fake tomb and ostensibly proves that his grandfather was Muslim.

Halali performed at the mosque during the war. After the liberation of France, in 1944, he became Europe’s most popular North African singer. The club he opened in Paris in 1947 became the site for grand parties and hosted people in high places. He subsequently moved to Casablanca, Morocco, where he opened the biggest cabaret in North Africa, which was burned down years later − some sources say because of anti-Semitism.

Halali, whose influence extended among others to “the king,” Zohar Argov, in Israel, was wonderful at blending different musical styles: Moroccan, Arabic, Maghrebi, Berber, French, Spanish and Jewish. In his heyday he was crowned the “King of Shaabi” (a folk-music style), and some regarded him the greatest darbuka player of all time. Dozens of his songs became runaway hits, and to this day he is considered a classic performer among Jews and Arabs alike.

Halali died in 2005 in lonely anonymity. His records are sold today on the

Internet and his songs star on YouTube. The Moroccan-Israeli theater

El Maghreb recently put on a musical based on his songs.

“The man was an enigma. A homosexual surrounded by women, an outright anti-Zionist who came to appear in

Israel,” says Tom Cohen, the head conductor and artistic director of the Mediterranean Orchestra of Ashkelon. “Musically he was diverse as well, and was blessed with lots of color and richness. On the one hand, his singing was essentially Arab. On the other hand, he corresponds with styles that also spoke to Western ears. At heart he was a pop singer, the sort who performed in coffee shops and at weddings.”

Halali is played in the movie by the actor and musician Mahmud Shalaby, from Acre, “an Israeli Palestinian,” as he puts it. He learned French for the film, which was filmed in Paris and

Morocco. “As a Palestinian, I could identify with the suffering he endured as a Jew,” Shalaby says during an interview with Haaretz. “Halali is not Jewish only, but also an Arab with characteristics of Muslims from North Africa,” he adds. “At that time, religion was not of importance. Jews and Muslims lived together in brotherhood and love, without anything to come between them. Halali united everyone.”

The bond between the actor and Halali was helped by the fact that Halali was not a Zionist sympathizer. “In the ‘60s he performed in Jerusalem,” says Shalaby, “and he told the audience, in Arabic, ‘Long live the Arab nation.’ After they threw things at him on stage, he left and never came back,” Shalaby adds.

Halali never married and did not have children. Relatives from his extended family attended the film’s premiere in Paris a few months ago. “At the end of the screening they came up to me and told me that they were very impressed by the film and that the character as I present it is very close to who Halali was in real life,” Shalaby says.

Out of bounds

How many Jews like Halali were sheltered at the mosque and owe its rector their lives? The answer to that is unclear to this day, nearly 70 years after the

Holocaust ended. Benghabrit continued to run the mosque after the war, but his popularity waned because of his support of French colonial rule in Algeria. He died in 1954 and was buried at the mosque.

Posing as Muslims would presumably have been technically possible for some of the North African Jews living in France. The Jewish men, like the Muslim ones, were circumcised. Jews and Arabs had shared surnames. Their outward appearance and knowledge of Arabic also helped an unknown number of Jews assimilate into the Muslim community. But the Germans did not easily give up on their demand that someone suspected of being a Jew prove his origins. That was the context for their turning to the Great Mosque of Paris with requests that it rule whether a particular person was Jewish or Muslim.

“Sometimes, the mosque certified claimants as Muslims; sometimes, it rejected claims and the accused were considered, under the law, as Jews,” writes the Jewish-American historian Robert Satloff, in his 2007 book “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.” (Satloff’s book was published in Hebrew translation in 2010 by Yad Vashem and Dvir.) “The mosque, then, certainly had the opportunity to determine the fate of these people. Whether it deliberately chose to help Jews, protecting the real identity of the claimants regardless of the evidence, is the key issue,” he writes.

The source for the information that the mosque and the man at its head saved Jews is a North African Jew, who fled from Germany to France and found refuge at the Paris mosque. In an article he published in 1983 in a French magazine, the man, named Albert Assouline, wrote that “no fewer than 1,732 Resistance fighters found refuge in the cellars of the mosque,” and noted that most of them were Jews. He added that the rector “took a great risk” in hiding the Jews, and supplied them − and the many children among them − with Muslim identities.

In a short documentary film that was produced a decade later, this same witness recounted that in emergencies, Jews would crowd into the sacred part of the mosque, an area that was designated “out of bounds” to non-Muslims. He further said that Benghabrit installed a special button that sounded an alarm in case of a police raid on the mosque. But this testimony was never corroborated by another witness. No one but him ever spoke about this large-scale rescue operation.

Satloff, who is director of the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, uncovered the most important written evidence to date relating to the subject: a note from a bureaucrat in the French foreign affairs ministry to the foreign minister, dated September 24, 1940, which describes the Germans’ activity against the mosque. Here is what it says: “The occupation authorities suspect the personnel of the Mosque of Paris of fraudulently delivering to individuals of the Jewish race certificates attesting that the interested persons are of the Muslim confession. The imam was summoned, in a threatening manner, to put an end to all such practices. It seems, in effect, that a number of Jews resorted to all sorts of maneuvers of this kind to conceal their identity.”

Dalil Boubakeur, who heads the mosque today, confirmed the reports that the mosque had granted sanctuary to Jews in the Holocaust and supplied them with Muslim identity certificates that enabled them to survive. He estimated their number, however, at only 100.

“The mosque represented the sensibilities of the Muslims of North Africa toward their Jewish brothers,” he said during a conversation with Satloff seven years ago. “It was very courageous. Courageous and natural at the same time,” he added. But there is no documentation whatsoever naming those Jews who supposedly were sheltered at the mosque.

Dr. Simcha Epstein, a Paris-born historian at the Hebrew University of

Jerusalem who studies anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, sums up the problem for people researching this case: “The doubt is not about whether the mosque aided or did not aid Jews, but rather regarding the number of Jews the mosque helped. Nobody knows the exact number. The data is unclear. Naturally there is no documentation of it. Obviously the mosque itself would not write such things down, so as not to incriminate itself.” But, adds Epstein, “we are clearly not talking about numbers that amount to a thousand people. That is excessive and exaggerated.”

By contrast, Prof. Renee Poznanski, of Ben-Gurion University, a leading scholar of the subject of French Jewry during the German occupation, says that none of the story is familiar to her. “I have not come across any such thing in the documentation and testimonies. If it indeed happened, we are talking about a historically minor phenomenon, of very small dimensions, but important of course,” she says.

‘Not everyone was like that’

The film’s detractors say that it is one-sided and refrains from presenting the negative aspects of Jewish-Arab relations during the war years, first and foremost the collaboration of Arabs and Muslims with the Nazis.

“The film tends to depict the Arabs as being on the side of the good guys. In practice not everyone was like that. The reality is different from that shown in the movie,” says Epstein. “Along with Muslims and Arabs who saved Jews, there were ones who collaborated with the fascists and the Nazis. Just like Christians, some of whom behaved this way and others that way. The masses, in any case, were indifferent and neutral.”

Epstein says the movie should also be considered according to the target audience that it seeks to address, in his opinion: French viewers of Arab origin, who are hostile to Jews in France. “This film wishes to show today’s French public that the Muslims were on the good side of the story and not with the bad guys. The movie tries to portray positive, anti-Nazi, Muslim heroes also to stop the pro-Nazi surge now prevalent among young Muslims,” he says.

For Poznanski, too, the film might have a contemporary agenda: “The subject choice for the film is not necessarily related to the historical importance of the subject, but rather serves a cause that is important to its makers to raise on a public level,” she says.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial authority lists nearly 24,000 people as Righteous Among the Nations. Only a few dozen of these are Muslims. Not one is an Arab.

“Yad Vashem made a supreme effort to locate survivors who Benghabrit saved at the time of the Holocaust, and went to great lengths to gather archive material pertaining to the rescue operation at the Mosque of Paris, including applying to the mosque’s archive. Every effort was in vain. No testimonies from survivors or relevant documents were found,” Yad Vashem said in a statement. However, “if such were to arrive, we would be glad to bring up the matter of recognizing Benghabrit as a Righteous Among the Nations.”