Their Children Are Our Children

Robert Silvey

Posted Feb 1, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Their Children Are Our Children

Tonight at the Berkeley Zen Center Annette Herskovits spoke of how brotherhood can flourish in the most unlikely soil. She screened the French TV documentary “A Forgotten Resistance: The Paris Mosque,” by Derri Berkani, and described her own escape from the Holocaust as a child in France.

During the German occupation of World War II the Paris mosque was a refuge for Jewish children and others fleeing the Nazis. Kaddour Benghabrit, rector of the mosque, taught that Islam required believers to provide shelter and protection to all who were in trouble, whatever their religion. In the course of the war, over 1,700 Jews and Resistance fighters were hidden in the spacious grounds of the mosque, and not one asylum seeker was captured.

On July 16 and 17, 1942, nearly 13,000 Jews—4,000 of them children—were rounded up in Paris to be sent to concentration camps. Only 30 survived the war, none of them children. Those who escaped the initial dragnet remained in constant danger. While conducting research for his film, Berkani discovered a leaflet that was distributed among Algerian Muslims in Paris at that time. It expresses, simply but eloquently, the sense of solidarity that bridged the religious divide:

Yesterday, at dawn, the Jews of Paris were arrested—the old people, the women, and the children. They are in exile like us, workers like us. They are our brothers, and their children are our children. If any of you see these children, you must give them asylum and protection, for as long as these times of misfortune last.

Annette Herskovits was one of those children who survived. Her parents—Romanian Jews who had migrated to France in the 1920s—were among those who died in Auschwitz. At age five, she hid in a Paris hotel room while the building next door was demolished by Allied bombs, and she endured the screams of trapped victims for days. Her teenage brother cleverly contacted a clandestine network similar to the one described in Berkani’s film, and she was rescued to survive the war.

Herskovits is now a committed activist, and she has been working recently to help increase understanding between Arabs and Jews. She pointed out, for example, that many Israelis think of all Palestinians as terrorists, though nonviolent protest against the occupation is common. In Bilin, a village near Ramallah, the nonviolent demonstrations are unusually creative, as Mohammad Daraghmeh writes in the Daily Star (Beirut):

The first demonstration was restricted to women, and aimed to convey that they came to protest peacefully.… The second demonstration was restricted to children.

When occupation forces started bulldozing land and uprooting olive trees, the villagers expressed their attachment to their trees, some of which were more than a hundred years old, by tying themselves to those about to be uprooted. The villagers succeeded in delaying the soldiers’ work for over five hours while soldiers cut the chains connecting people to their olive trees.

Next, participants entered drums that close from the inside, showing their head only, and tied themselves to the trees. Another time, villagers surprised the soldiers with a march of white coffins, each carrying the name of a respected value, such as justice, humanity, rights, manners, etc. Once demonstrators taped their mouths shut while flying the flags of countries that are active in the international arena - symbolizing international silence towards the suffering of the Palestinian people.

These are times of misfortune for both Israelis and Palestinians. Protests, even nonviolent protests, are no substitute for a spirit of brotherhood and a shared desire for peace. Let us hope that both sides will embrace the words of those Algerian Muslims 60 years ago about the Jews of Paris: “They are our brothers, and their children are our children.”

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