Though the Holocaust is not exactly unspoiled cinematic terrain, movies that explore new angles should be welcome. So all should look forward to Les Hommes Libres, a French film whose American rights have been sold. Directed by a French-Moroccan and starring a Palestinian as a Jew, it depicts the real-life story of the Grand Mosque of Paris, which during the Nazi occupation saved Jews (estimates vary widely, from merely several dozen to a few thousand). Most of them were Sephardic and could therefore pretty easily pass, though at least one person has suggested her Ashkenazic mother was also protected by the mosque and its founder and leader, Si Kaddour Benghabrit.
You learn all of the above, and much more, in this dispatch from former Times Paris bureau chief Elaine Sciolino. Yet am I the only one who was put off by the “gee-whiz,” condescending tone of the piece, which basically takes the position that it is really quite remarkable that there were Muslims—yes, even Muslims—who were against shipping Jews off to gas chambers?
If you think I’m overstating my case, please consult the third paragraph: “Muslims, it seems, rescued Jews from the Nazis.” Muslims, of all people! Assuming for no particular reason that we would be confused or bewildered by the notion of Muslims wishing for Jews not to die, Sciolino reassures us, “It was simpler than it sounds.” Phew. “In the early 1940s France was home to a large population of North Africans, including thousands of Sephardic Jews,” she reports. “The Jews spoke Arabic and shared many of the same traditions and everyday habits as the Arabs.” Oh, so they only wanted to save the Jews because they were basically just like the Jews? Which they were! “Neither Muslims nor Jews ate pork. Both Muslim and Jewish men were circumcised.” Um, the more you know, I guess. (Also, why the past tense?) Truly this film is, as the headline proclaims, a “Heroic Tale of Holocaust, With a Twist.” The twist being that the Muslims saved Jews. Because ordinarily they want to kill Jews, you know.
Sciolino quotes a prominent historian: “Much has been written about Muslim collaboration with the Nazis. But it has not been widely known that Muslims helped Jews.” Does he really only mean Muslims? The article is written the way a French person would write it, protesting a bit too much and too loudly that not everyone was a bad egg, something which no non-French person would ever actually assume. That’s the messed up guilt of the French psyche for you: fine. Sciolino, on the other hand, is from Buffalo; she should know better. But this article (as well as her latest book, which was criticized, in her own paper, for being overly solicitous of sophisticated French mores that we American hayseeds tend to think of as misogynistic), indicates that she has gone native. Times readers deserve better.