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Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix,
The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust
Holiday House, 2009.

Ages 8-12

During the Second World War, French Jews were rounded up by both the Nazis in the north of the country and the Vichy government in the south.  This riveting history book in picture-book format brings to light a little-known but highly significant episode in Paris at the time, in which Jewish people of all ages, as well as escaped prisoners-of-war, found refuge in the city’s Mosque and a route to safety using a network set up by the French Resistance, who included many Muslims among their members. 

The book's authors and illustrators, Ruelle and De Saix provide plenty of well-researched context, both about the dangers to Jews living in Paris at the time and about the Kabyles, originally from Kabyilia in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, who made up the majority of the city’s Muslims.  Although so many years later, they were not themselves able to locate any Jews who had been saved at the mosque, they have brought together many "tantalizing pieces" of evidence which allow them to make the ringing assertion that, "The lives of Jews were saved by the Muslims of the Grand Mosque of Paris". We learn of the heroic actions of individuals like the rector of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, and a Muslim doctor, Dr. Ahmed Somia – and we learn about some of the people whose lives were saved, like the revered Jewish singer Salim Halali, who lived in safety in the Mosque until the end of the war with false papers stating that he was a Muslim convert.

The atmospheric illustrations complement the text beautifully in helping to convey the anxiety and tension in the city, as well as the veneer of calm and normality in the Mosque. Readers’ imaginations will be caught by, for example, the image of a delivery man transporting people under the noses of the police…

By being produced in picture-book format, The Grand Mosque of Paris is immediately accessible to a wide range of readers, including those children who might more generally be put off by the idea of reading a history book.  Whether read alone or as a class resource, readers will come away enriched and inspired, since what lies at this story’s heart is just as relevant in today’s society.  A glossary, bibliography and further recommended books and films sections, as well as a detailed index, invite deeper exploration of the Holocaust and Islam, with particular reference to the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Kabyle people. We can all learn something from this wonderful story of people risking their lives to save others, especially those of a different faith; and it is fitting that the authors have chosen to introduce the book with a quotation from both Islamic and Jewish cultures: “Save one life, and it is as if you’ve saved all of humanity”.

Marjorie Coughlan
January 2009

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