Remembering Muslims Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust
Mohammad Mesli barely knew his father–he died in 1961 when Mohammad was only a young boy. But a few years ago, he found a suitcase filled with documentation of his father’s secret life as an imam who saved Jews from the Holocaust and the Nazi regime.
The old, untouched suitcase he found was full of notebooks, official documents, and photos of Abdel Kadir Mesli’s life from 1940 to 1945. Mohammad invited France 2, the French public television channel, to examine the suitcase and its contents.
Abdel Kadir was an Algerian orphan who arrived in Paris at seventeen years old. He began work as both a dockworker and carpenter then became a miner in Belgium. By the 1930s, he had become one of the five imams at the famous Grand Mosque of Paris, the oldest mosque in France.
A Refuge for Jewish People
Following the Battle of France, Germans occupied France and the Low Countries in June 1940. While General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French resistance kept fighting the Nazi and Vichy regimes, Nazi persecution policy endangered the lives of Jews in France and forced them to flee or go into hiding.
Imam Abdel Kadir Mesli and the imams of the Grand Mosque of Paris took action to save persecuted Jews. French filmmaker Derri Berkani found a note circulated among Algerian laborers at the time that read as follows:
“Yesterday evening, the Jews of Paris were arrested—the elderly, women, and children. In exile like us, workers like us, these are our brothers. Their children are like our children. If you encounter one of their children, you must give him asylum and protection until the time that the misfortune—or the sorrow—passes. Oh man of my country, your heart is generous.”
Muslim Algerians who had survived French colonization empathized with the persecuted Jews. And the Grand Mosque of Paris became a refuge for the Jewish people.
Imam Abdel Kadir Mesli used his position to write false certifications for many Jewish families declaring that they were Muslim and not Jewish. One letter was written for an Italian Jew named Jules Luzato, and his descendants confirmed that the Imam’s letter saved their lives.
Imam Abdel Kadir Mesli’s Punishment and Perseverance
The suitcase also included a letter written by the Vichy government in 1940, which demanded that the mosque’s rector punish the imams for writing false certifications for Jews.
Instead, the rector sent Imam Abdel Kadir Mesli to Bordeaux to support the Muslim prisoners of war there. Yet, even in Bordeaux, Imam Abdel Kadir continued helping Jewish fugitives by falsifying documents.
After four years, the Gestapo caught Imam Abdel Kadir and deported him to the Mauthausen concentration camp, known as one of the worst Nazi camps. Despite enduring endless torture, he never revealed the names of his network of imams who saved Jews from the Holocaust.
When the US Army liberated Mauthausen in 1945, the camp was overcrowded, lacked food and was overwhelmed with diseases, which led to mass deaths among prisoners that continued in the days and weeks after liberation. Imam Abdel Kadir only weighed 66 pounds (33 kg).
Imam Abdel Kadir Mesli’s son Mohammad told France 2, “I think it’s important that these kinds of stories don’t get forgotten… Muslims and imams who put their own lives in danger to save the lives of Jews and others. I think that today this story carries even more weight.” The imams of the Grand Mosque will be remembered for standing up for what was right and practicing the Golden Rule.
Remembering Muslims Who Saved Jews from the Holocaust
London’s Board of Deputies of British Jews (BDBJ) launched “The Righteous Muslim Exhibition” in 2013 to honor the Muslims who sheltered Jews from the atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II. According to the BBC, BDBJ hoped “to inspire new research into instances of collaboration between the Muslim and Jewish communities.”
The seventy Muslims included in the exhibition have also been awarded the title “Righteous among the Nations” by an independent public commission chaired by an Israeli Supreme Court Justice. Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem recognizes these Righteous Muslims alongside more than 20,000 others of many faiths and nationalities. The medal of honor for the Righteous bears this Jewish saying:
“Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe”
(originating in Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum temporarily featured the exhibition boards, supported by the accompanying booklet “The Role of the Righteous Muslims” written by Fiyaz Mughal, the director of the Faith Matters charity.
Mughal felt inspired to create this exhibition to encourage Jews and Muslims to learn about their historical partnerships and combat misinformation, adding: “That’s the best thing for empathy and cohesion: shared learning, and a common pride in who we are.”
Visit this blog post about a grassroots organization promoting interreligious exchange in Israel and Palestine!