As distressing as last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris proved to be, they were not the first, and certainly not the worst, acts of terrorism the French people have endured in living memory. During the German occupation of France in the early 1940s, Christian soldiers scoured the streets and homes of France arresting, gaoling, and murdering thousands of Jewish citizens. In that terrible time, the French people demonstrated their capacity to endure and overcome racism, terrorism, and inhumanity.
My own father, Edmond Nyst, was caught up in that terror. When his father was suspected by Nazi authorities of hiding Jews in and around Marseilles, Edmond and his brothers were themselves forced into hiding to escape internment in Nazi concentration camps. They were hidden in the French countryside by farmers and innkeepers, ordinary French men and women with nothing to gain in harbouring a fugitive, but absolutely everything to lose. At a time when insubordination often meant immediate arrest and potential extermination of whole families, their only motivation was their abiding sense of humanity.
At the inn in central France where my father was hidden as a young teenager, an old Jewish man was living in the ceiling cavity. Pale and wisened, he told my father he had been a mathematics professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris before the war, and had been saved from arrest by Nazi troops when the inn-keeper and his family took him in and gave him sanctuary.
I was reminded of the courage of that family when I read the story of Lassana Bathily, the 24-year-old Muslim shop assistant originally from Mali in West Africa. When terrorist gunmen attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris, where four hostages were executed by the Islamic terrorists, Bathily risked his own life to hide fleeing shoppers in a basement cold storage room. As the gunmen rampaged through the store, Bathily ushered the terrified shoppers into the cold room, turned off the light and the refrigeration, told them to stay calm and quiet, and went back out to face the terrorists. Elsewhere in Paris, Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabat was shot dead endeavouring to protect the streets of Paris from a terrorist onslaught.
This week millions of Parisians, young and old, Muslim and Jew, black and white, came together to express their solidarity against the murderous fanatics who slaughtered 17 innocent people. Leading them were more than 40 world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who linked arms in unity with the French President François Hollande.
Three quarters of a century ago, in German-occupied France, ordinary, decent Christian folk risked everything to protect innocent Jews from terrorist madmen. Last week in Paris, two brave Muslims laid their lives on the line to defend their Christian brothers and sisters from the same insanity.
It’s not about race, nation or religion, it’s about right and wrong.
Vive la France. Vive l’humanité.