The 27th of January, 2015 marks the 70th Holocaust Memorial Day – a day of sadness and reflection for the Jewish community and a constant, terryfying reminder to us all of the extent to which man can go in his anger and his lust for power. The terrible events of World War 2 has shaped much of today’s political landscape and left a lasting imprint on the world.
In today’s hostile climate and with constant mention of ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘Anti-Semtitism’, it seems an apt moment to shed light on a little known and often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust, namely the courage and bravery shown by Muslims at the time in protecting Jews that were being indiscriminatley and unjustifiably persecuted.
The following exceprts are only a few examples of the extraordinary efforts undertaken by Muslims during the Nazi Occupation in protecting the Jewish community. The sentiment displayed by the Muslims reflected the true nature of Islam and provides a unique bridge between the Jewish and Muslim communities. It speaks volumes that both scriptures imbibe mirroring sentiments of peace, unity and the importance of working for a common good.
The Grand Mosque of Paris
The most poignant historical excerpt takes place in the setting of the Grand Mosque of Paris. After Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940, the government began persecuting Jews. The lives of thousands of North African Jews living in Paris were in danger. Dalil Boubakeur, the current head of the mosque, 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.
“The mosque represented the sensibilities of the Muslims of North Africa toward their Jewish brothers,” he said “It was very courageous. Courageous and natural at the same time,” he added.
The Efforts of 17 Year Old Refik Veseli
Most of the 2,000 Jews of Albania were sheltered by the mostly Muslim population. Refik Veseli, a 17 year old Muslim boy, took in the family of Mosa and Gabriela Mandil, including their five year old son Gavra and his sister Irena, then refugees from Belgrade but originally from Novi Sad. When the Germans took over from the Italians, he took them, and another Jewish family by night on long journey to his family village at Kruja, where they were protected by his parents for the war’s duration. His example inspired his whole village to risk their lives in order to protect Jews. The story became better know after Albania’s surviving Jewish community was allowed to perform aliyah in the 1990s and many survivors told how their Albanian hosts vied for the privilege of offering sanctuary, on the grounds that it was an Islamic ethical obligation.
The Story of the Saravejo Haggadah
The story of Bosnian Muslims who went to great lengths to preserve Jewish tradition by safeguarding the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 600-year-old manuscript which narrates the Exodus from Egypt every Passover. In 1492, when Spain expelled the country’s Jews, a refugee carried the book to Italy. It was then taken to Bosnia by a rabbi who passed it down through his family until a descendant, Joseph Cohen, sold it to the National Museum in 1894. When a Nazi official came to seize the Haggadah during World War II, two men spirited it through Nazi checkpoints, carrying it to a village in the mountains above Sarajevo. A Muslim cleric kept it hidden beneath the floor of a mosque until the war ended. During Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, Dr Enver Imanovic, the Muslim museum director, and several Serb policemen risked sniper fire to reach the museum, and concealed the Haggadah in a safe at the National Bank, where it remained until the end of the war.
Reflecting on these stories shows us that there is always hope. It is important that we continue to educate others on the strong relationships that Jewish and Muslim communities have and combat, through interfaith unity, the toxic ideoligies that seek to divide us.