During the Nazi occupation of Paris, no Jew was safe from arrest and deportation to a concentration camp. Few Parisians were willing to risk their own lives to help. Yet many Jews found refuge in an unlikely place, the sprawling complex of the Grand Mosque of Paris. Not just a place of worship but also a community center, this hive of activity was an ideal temporary hiding place for escaped prisoners of war and Jews of all ages, including children.
I thought the illustrator did a great job on the opening page of using texture, color, and the lines of the bayonets to introduce the Nazi occupation of Paris. The dark, fogginess and sameness of the eyeless faces added a lot of meaning and mood to the setting. I noticed that she used the most color to portray the mosque, which seemed to be symbolic of the safety and light this mosque held for the Jewish people hidden there. I like how the author wrote in very clear, easy to understand language. It makes the book, with a complex topic, very accessible. I think this is an excellent book to add to children's understanding of world history and of the complexity of religious and cultural differences and interactions. I love how the authors includs a lot of information on the Muslim community in Paris and the functions of the mosque, both topics that many children may find unfamiliar. I think it's important to tell stories of Muslim people and communities that disrupt the often stereotypical or fearful images we are given in the news or other media. I also think that it's important that the creators of this book included a section that explained where they got their information and why they wrote the book. It is important for children to learn that they need to verify whether the information in a book is trustworthy.
This story deserved to win because of the light in which the Muslim people are described. The characters were positive examples of Middle Eastern people. One of the criteria for this award states that Muslim people are described with respect and accurately. This was done in this story. The story also has an easy to follow plot and was easy to read. History can be a difficult subject to describe and both the Muslim culture and the holocaust are difficult subjects to digest. For a children’s book to dive into this realm requires skill and artistry. The author captured the feeling, and the importance of this piece of history in her book. I believe the art helped support this text as well.
Curricular connection - Unit on WWII
Oh man of my country, your heart is generous..."
So reads a World War II era letter, recently discovered amongst the papers of a Tunisian-owned cafe in Paris, and written in Kabyle, the language of one of North Africa's Berber peoples. It points to a little-known footnote in the history of that terrible time: the courageous actions of Si Kaddour Benghabrit - the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris - and the other Parisian Muslims who sheltered and saved Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, members of the French and North African resistance, and Allied parachutists caught behind enemy lines.
Built by North African immigrants between the two world wars, the Grand Mosque was not simply a place of worship, it was an entire community - complete with gardens, apartments, a clinic, a library, and a restaurant - and a hotbed of resistance to the Nazi occupiers. Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Surland DeSaix, who also collaborated on Hidden on the Mountain, which chronicles the courageous actions of the people of Le Chambon in hiding Jews during World War II, turn their attention to a similar episode in The Grand Mosque of Paris.
There is much that is not known about this story - much that will never be known. Most, if not all, of the rescuers are dead. They came from a tradition which emphasized oral storytelling, and left few written records behind documenting their heroism. Many of those they rescued were young children at the time, and may have forgotten the Grand Mosque, which usually provided a brief stopover, before refugees were smuggled through Paris's subterranean passages to the River Seine. Perhaps most tragic of all, subsequent developments - the onset of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the widespread denial of the Holocaust in the Muslim world - have led many to ignore and/or suppress this story.
The authors note, in their afterword, that the Grand Mosque's register of children's names for that period - uncovered by filmmaker Derri Berkani when he first began to research this story in 1974, and which he believed proved that the Mosque had saved over 400 Jewish children - have since disappeared. Although one North African Jew, Albert Assouline, claims that the Mosque saved as many as 1,732 souls, the current rector is far more reticent, and Gray and DeSaix were not granted access to the archives.
The Grand Mosque of Paris sets out a story of courage, compassion and honor - a story most worthy of telling. But more importantly, it seems to me that is a story that needs telling. A story that can teach Muslims that in denying the Holocaust they aren't just denying the humanity of the Jewish people, but their own as well. A story that can teach Jews that Muslims didn't always hate them, and aren't a predestined enemy. What could be more necessary?