During the early years of World War Two, leaders of the Grand Mosque in occupied Paris played a little-known role in protecting hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. With determined ingenuity, they created false Islamic identities supported by forged documents for endangered Jews, often concealing and caring for them within the Mosque. As deportation to concentration camps intensified, groups of Jewish refugees were guided through disused passages and catacombs beneath the Mosque to escape, hidden in wine barrels, aboard boats waiting on an underground tributary of the Seine.
It was almost half a century after the War before a documentary film reported this daring operation. Later, attempts were made to gather first-hand accounts; and an information book published in the States told the story to young readers. Hiba Noor Khan spent time living in the Mosque researching wartime events and becoming familiar with the neighbourhood; now, her debut novel draws upon established facts but also imagines the experiences of a Muslim family whose home was in the Mosque.
10 year-old Safiyyah has much enjoyed a childhood with her loving parents, her grandmother and younger sister in an apartment within the Mosque. Her father – her Baba – is involved with the everyday running of the Mosque, including its finances, working closely alongside the Imam and the Rector. Safiyyah’s secure world crumbles as the Germans occupy Paris. Now she lives in a humiliated city, restricted by curfews, with food in ever decreasing supply and hostile soldiers on the streets. She desperately misses her closest friend, whose family was among the many who fled Paris to Southern France, England or the States.
Even her home is different. Her much-loved Baba has become oddly secretive, often seeming exhausted; and Safiyyah is sure she hears strange noises during the night. She is puzzled, then alarmed. Her grandmother, Setti, comforts her with the wisdom of a long life; she had to leave her native Northern Africa to find refuge in Spain and then in Paris. Safiyyah’s loving trust in Setti is absolute.
Almost by chance, Safiyyah discovers that Baba, the Rector and the Imam and like-minded Muslims around the city have devised a network to enable Jews to evade the Germans. As Nazi suspicions are aroused about the Mosque’s activities, those running the operation realise that they have no option but to make use of Safiyyah’s offer of help. She and her friend Timothee, an 8 year-old refugee shepherd from Northern France, can slip unnoticed through the streets, carrying information, documents or supplies to Jews in hiding.
Safiyyah and Timothee are intrepid, even in extreme danger. She is also articulate, compassionate and insightful with young and old. Readers, who will often be in the 10-14 age range, may be surprised to find such resourceful qualities in protagonists of 10 and 8; but they will probably not be distracted from this unusual story of faith translated into courageous, risky action. Though the shadow of the occupying forces is ever-present, there is little direct violence; the writer’s focus is rather upon the suffering of the persecuted and the courage of their helpers. That suffering is embodied in individuals – for example, one of Safiyyah’s Jewish classmates, reduced to sickness and mute terror, unable to recognise her former school friend, not knowing her parents’ whereabouts or even if they are still alive. Safiyyah’s family take her in and love her as their own until she is well enough to attempt escape.
For all involved in this Resistance operation, their creed lies in the principle, common to both Islamic and Jewish belief, ‘For whoever saves a single life, it is as if they have saved all humanity’.