Imams from their pulpits instructed Muslim congregations to refuse taking part in the injustices against Jews.

Stories from World War II

During the dark days of the Second World War, selfless acts of human compassion provided a bright ray of hope. These are the stories of Muslims who saved Jews.

  1. A sanctuary for Jews in Paris
  2. Protected by Tunisian aristocracy
  3. Algerian solidarity with Jews
  4. Jews sheltered by Sarajevo Muslims
  5. Defended by a Turkish diplomat
  6. Sultan defies anti-Jewish laws

A sanctuary for Jews in Paris Mosque

Mosque Refuge


Si Kaddour Benghabrit

In Paris, a grand mosque built in honour of the 100,000 Muslim soldiers who died fighting for France in the First World War, became a sanctuary for Jews escaping persecution less than three decades later. Si Kaddour Benghabrit was a French Algerian who was deeply loyal to France. During World War I, he was appointed honourary consul-general and served the religious needs of Muslims in the French army. After the war came to an end, he worked in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs until 1920, when the parliament decided to acknowledge his loyalty by asking him to establish a mosque in Paris. Six years later, the Great Mosque of Paris became a reality and Benghabrit was appointed its rector.
A mosque built in honour of Muslim soldiers who died fighting for France became a sanctuary for Jews escaping persecution. When war broke out in Europe again, and Jewish lives were in danger, Benghabrit used the mosque as a hiding place, issuing each person with a fake certificate of Muslim identity. One North African Jew named Albert Assouline who had escaped from a German prison camp, wrote of his experience hiding in the mosque, “No fewer than 1,732 resistance fighters found refuge in its underground caverns. These included Muslim escapees but also Christians and Jews. The latter were by far the most numerous.” Accounts differ on the number of those saved, yet it remains a shining story of human solidarity.

Benghabrit held his position at the mosque for nearly thirty years until his death in 1954. He is buried within the same walls that safeguarded so many lives from the Nazis. As well as standing testament to those thousands of Muslim soldiers, the mosque is also a legacy of Benghabrit’s bravery and stirring sense of brotherhood. Back to Top

Protected by Tunisian Muslim aristocracy

Tunisian protectors

Abdul Wahab


Moncef Bey

The coastal city of Mahdia in Tunisia has been home to both Jews and Muslims for centuries. This historic place was also home to a man who has been referred to as the ‘Arab Oskar Schindler’.

Born into an aristocratic family, Khaled Abdul Wahab, the son of a Tunisian historian, was a young man of thirty one when the Germans occupied Tunisia in 1942. He was interlocutor between the Nazis and the people of Mahdia. He shrewdly maintained relations with German officers in order to gain their confidence and hear of their anti-Jewish plans. Upon hearing of a German officer’s depraved scheme to rape a beautiful Jewish woman, Odette Boukhris, Abdul Wahab acted swiftly. He hid Odette, her husband and their family at his farm, along with two dozen other Jews. They stayed there under his protection for four months, until the occupation was over. For years afterwards, Abdul Wahab would join the Boukhris family for Sabbath dinner as an honoured guest. He is the first Arab nominated to receive the honour awarded by the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem’s ‘Righteous Among the Nations’.
Khaled Abdul Wahab has been referred to as the Arab Oskar Schindler. Also defying the Vichy regime and Nazi orders was Tunisian monarch Moncef Bey, who ascended the throne in June 1942. He extended protection to his Jewish subjects in as many ways as he could: he warned them of German plans, helped them avoid arrest orders and deportations; he even hid some Jewish individuals from the Nazis, as did other royal members of court who prevented their Jewish friends from being transported to labour camps. Moncef Bey proclaimed to his senior officials, “The Jews...are under our patronage and we are responsible for their lives. If I find out that an Arab informer caused even one hair of a Jew to fall, this Arab will pay for it with his life.” Back to Top

Algerian Muslims show solidarity with Jews

Algerian Solidarity


Shaykh Abdelhamid Ben Badis and Shaykh Taieb el-Okbi

Challenging the grip of the French Vichy regime in Algeria, it was the Muslim spiritual leaders who defied anti-Jewish laws and encouraged Muslims to show solidarity with their Jewish compatriots.

Although the Vichy regime, collaborating with the Nazis, attempted to seduce Algerian Muslims for support against Jews, the Muslims showed no interest in being courted. As part of their Jewish pogrom, Vichy stripped Jews and their descendants of citizenship in 1940. The regime further sought favour from the Muslims by offering Jewish goods, but the Muslims instead took a pro-Jewish stance. Historian Robert Satloff writes, “To their great credit, not a single Arab in Algiers stepped forward to accept Vichy’s offer...Despite the economic difficulties faced by Arabs during the war, they refused to take advantage of Jewish suffering for personal gain. And, true to their imams’ call, not a single Arab took the opportunity of quick financial gain.”

Of those committed to justice, was Shaykh Abdelhamid Ben Badis. Ben Badis was raised in a religious household, memorised the Quran by the age of thirteen, and later became a scholar in Islamic Sciences and Arabic. He was a reformer and wished to bring Islamic revival in Algeria. Founder of the unifying Algerian League of Muslims and Jews in 1931, Ben Badis also worked as a journalist, repeatedly denouncing the anti-Semitic acts and cruel propositions of the French. It was this commitment to a tolerant, inclusive Algeria that made waves in Muslim attitudes during the war. He died in 1940, before he himself could make a more direct impact, yet his colleague and friend, Shaykh Taieb el-Okbi took up his mantle.

El-Okbi held close ties with prominent Algerian Jews, and when he heard of Vichy’s anti-Jewish plans in 1942, he acted quickly. At risk to his own life, he issued a formal prohibition on Muslims attacking Jews as proscribed by the pro-Fascist officials. Imams preaching from their pulpits instructed the Muslim congregations to refuse to take part in the injustices and not to benefit from Jewish suffering; rather they must protect Jewish property and welfare. These stories, Satloff writes, “offer testimony to the fact that even the harsh realities of war could not extinguish simple human generosity.” Back to Top

Imams from their pulpits instructed Muslim congregations to refuse taking part in the injustices against Jews.

Jewish lives and heritage given shelter by Sarajevo Muslims

Saving the Haggadah


The Sarajevo Haggadah

While Bosnian Muslims formed a significant part of a multi-ethnic resistance force against the Nazis that saved many Jews, individual stories also tell the tale of human bravery.

Jews lived and prospered in Sarajevo since the sixteenth century, but by the time of the Second World War, things were tragically changing. The city was bombed by the Germans in 1942, and the home of Josef Kavilio, a Jewish man, was destroyed in the raid. He was captured by the Ustaše, a Croatian separatist movement whose ideology was a mix of fascism and Nazism. He joined other prisoners, chained at the ankles, to clear roads of heavy snow – roads that would lead them to the horrors of Jasenovac, a massive concentration camp sprawled over ninety three square miles. Zejneba, the wife of Josef’s Muslim friend Mustafa Hardaga, came across the scene, weeping, and returned bringing food for all the prisoners. Josef managed to escape. Weak and malnourished, he sought refuge with the Hardagas where he was nursed back to health. The Hardagas defied warnings plastered on the walls of Gestapo headquarters, which were dangerously nearby, that threatened death to those who harboured Jews. Josef feared for his protectors and fled to Mostar. After the war, he learned that Zejneba’s father had been transported to Jasenovac concentration camp for rescuing another Jewish family. A tree was planted for the Hardagas at Yad Vashem.

There were also those who protected the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. Dervis Korkut was the chief librarian of the Bosnian National Museum. He saved a precious Jewish medieval manuscript, the Haggadah, from the hands of the Nazis who wanted to ‘purge’ Bosnia not only of Jewish lives but also their history. The Haggadah, Hebrew for ‘telling’, contained the illustrated story of the Passover, and was one of the oldest Haggadahs in the world. Korkut hid the book in his jacket when the Nazis came to claim it, smuggled it out of Sarajevo and placed it into the safe hands of a Muslim imam in Zenica who hid the fourteenth century text within the floorboards of a mosque. The Haggadah survived the war and was returned to the Bosnian National Museum. Back to Top

Defended by a Turkish diplomat

Rhodes prospered under Ottoman rule for centuries, providing a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution from all over Christian Europe. That legacy of protection from the Islamic empire continued under the Turkish republic, a duty demonstrated during the occupation of the island by the Germans in 1943.

In the summer of 1944, the Gestapo ordered all Jewish people on the island to be transported to Auschwitz. A Turkish diplomat, Selahattin Ülkümen, resisted. He had authority over Turkish citizens, who included Turkish Jews, and he boldly challenged the German general, claiming the equality of all Turkish people, whether they were Jew, Muslim or Christian, and pressed him on Turkey’s neutrality in the war (Turkey did not join the Allies until February 1945). The general conceded. Turkish Jews were placed under Ülkümen’s protection. The diplomat’s bravado, however, earned him consequences. The Nazis retaliated by bombing the Turkish consulate at Rhodes, injuring Ülkümen’s pregnant wife who died of her wounds soon after giving birth. Ülkümen survived and was arrested and confined until the end of the war. Yad Vashem honoured him as a hero for his sacrifices, as one of the Righteous Among Nations.

Ülkümen was not alone in his acts of kindness, but his fellow compatriots also shared his sense of justice: Turkish consuls in Greece organised boats to ferry Jews to safety in Turkey, while Turkish guards on the Greek-Turkish border allowed Jews to cross it, though most of them had no papers. Turkish Muslims, out of a deep sense of loyalty, honour, and human camaraderie, saved the lives of thousands of Jews. Back to Top

Turkish Muslims, out of a deep sense human camaraderie, saved the lives of thousands of Jews.

Sultan of Morocco defies anti-Jewish laws

The Sultan's Defiance


Sultan Mohammed V with President Eisenhower in Washington DC

Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco was disgusted by Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws, and did everything in his power to resist these injustices as a sovereign of his country, which was colonised by the French. When he heard news of the French order to systematically track Jewish property, he formulated a plan to bring a group of prominent Jews secretly to his palace. Concealed under a covered wagon, the Jewish leaders safely reached the Sultan to hear assurances of his protection. As ‘Commander of the Faithful’, it was a duty-bound honour for the Sultan, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad, to honour his role of defending all his people, regardless of race and faith. In testament to his private promises, he also made his support to the Jews clear in public. At a gathering in the palace for the annual Throne Day, he purposefully invited Jewish leaders along with Vichy officials. There he boldly announced for all to hear, “I must inform you that, just as in the past, the Israelites will remain under my protection. I refuse to make any distinction between my subjects.”

From his acts of decency and sound leadership, Sultan Muhammad V has been revered by Moroccan Jews as a hero, as the historian Robert Satloff writes, “Moroccan Jewish lore celebrates Sultan Muhammad V as a saviour, one of the finest, fairest, and most tolerant ruler Jews have ever known.” Back to Top