Little did the firefighters in Paris, France, realize the national crisis they would bring to light when they were called out to an apartment blaze on Friday, March 23, 2018. The conflagration was in a block in the 11th Arrondissement, a cosmopolitan district to the east of the French capital’s center. When the firefighters accessed the address they were confronted by a horrific scene. They found the burnt body of Mireille Knoll, the apartment’s 85-year-old resident. It was later discovered that she had been stabbed 11 times. However, despite the fact that the grandmother had been mutilated and set alight, there was arguably an even more chilling aspect to the crime.
Mireille was a Jew, and that was a most important and poignant fact, considering the unhappy history of people of that faith in French history. Born in Paris on December 28, 1932, Mireille was just a young girl when the Nazis invaded France in May 1940. Her home town surrendered to Adolf Hitler’s forces without a fight on June 14. It would have terrible consequences for citizens of the French capital, but a tragic outcome for many of its Jewish population.
It is estimated that France had a population of some 330,000 Jews in 1939, their numbers swollen by refugees who had fled Nazi persecution in Germany. A further 10,000 had arrived in France in early 1940 after the Nazis had invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. By September of that year, something like 150,000 Jewish people were living in Paris, according to Nazi figures.
And shamefully, it did not take long for the occupying Nazis to start persecuting the Jews of Paris. In October 1940, seven synagogues were bombed and all Jewish-owned businesses were seized by law. Other measures targeting Jews, including the confiscation of telephones, radios and even bicycles, were introduced. A curfew extending from 8:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. was imposed.
Furthermore, Parisian Jews found themselves barred from parks, cinemas, swimming pools and just about every other public place. The Nazis staged virulently anti-semitic exhibitions. Jewish art and music were banned. It is thought that as many as 10,000 Jews were deported from Paris to transit camps in other parts of France during 1940 and 1941.
And things got worse for the beleaguered Jewish population as World War II progressed. In May 1942, the Nazi authorities issued a proclamation requiring all Jews to wear an easily identifiable Star of David insignia on their clothing. Also in that year, with the assistance of the Paris police force, more of the city’s Jews were sent to French transit facilities. Distressingly, many were sent on from there to their fate in concentration camps further afield.
So it must have been a terrifying time for poor young Mireille and her family. Nevertheless, the worst of the Nazi round-ups – carried out with the help of French collaborators – happened that summer. On July 16 and 17, 1942, Paris police arrested no fewer than 13,152 Jews, including more than 4,000 children. Most were incarcerated at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a cycle sport stadium near to the Eiffel Tower.
This, the largest single mass arrest of Jews in Paris during the war, became known as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Shockingly, most of the people detained there had the misfortune of being murdered at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. But, thankfully, it was about this time that nine-year-old Mireille Knoll got an incredible stroke of luck.
Indeed, just before the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, Mireille’s father somehow managed to procure a Brazilian passport for his daughter. This meant that the schoolgirl could escape Nazi-occupied France and she made her way south to safety. Mireille reached sanctuary in Portugal, which played no part in World War II, and stayed there until after the Nazis had been driven from France and defeated.
After the war, Mireille returned home to a Paris that had seen an estimated 50,000 Jews sent to their deaths in the Holocaust. Subsequently, Mireille married Curt Knoll, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. The newly weds moved overseas, and after some time living in Canada, the Knolls returned to Paris where they brought up two sons, Daniel and Allan.
Sadly, Mirielle’s husband died near the beginning of the 2000s but she continued life alone in her Parisian apartment. But happily, as Keren Bosh, one of Mirielle’s granddaughters, told Israeli current affairs website Ynet News in March 2018, the elderly widow found love again. “She spent five years with her last partner,” Bosh said. “He passed away at the age of 94 and to his last day, they enjoyed themselves, went out, laughed and took advantage of everything life has to offer.”
Indeed, here was a woman who loved life and made the most of it – despite the fact that she was afflicted by Parkinson’s disease. Mirielle’s son Daniel Knoll confirmed as much in an interview with French radio broadcaster Europe 1 shortly after her death. “Everybody came to see her,” he said. “If she could have, she would have welcomed the entire world into her home. She was nice and naïve. She thought that everybody was good like she was.”
It was amazing that she lived through such horror in her younger years and yet still had such faith in humanity. Tragically, however, it was this open-hearted generosity that may have made Mireille vulnerable to the terrible events which befell her in March 2018. In the aftermath, Noa Goldfarb, another of Mirielle’s granddaughters, told Israeli Radio, “Grandma didn’t believe in evil. That may be the reason she’s no longer with us.”
Apparently, one frequent guest at Mirielle’s 11th Arrondissement apartment was the son of one of her neighbors in the block. The elderly grandmother was later said to have known young Yacine Mihoub since he was a boy of seven. But the now 29-year-old Mihoub had grown up to be a troubled individual with experience of the French jail system.
In fact, the young man had only been released from a six-month jail sentence in September 2017. Reportedly an alcoholic with mental health problems, Mihoub’s crime had been the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. Moreover, the victim was actually the daughter of Mireille’s care worker. Surely the elderly pensioner must have been aware that he was a dangerous individual. Nevertheless, on the last day of her life, Mihoub is said to have spent time in her apartment, apparently drinking large amounts of port.
And it seems that the jailbird was not the only guest in Mireille’s 11th Arrondissement residence that Friday. With him was his 21-year-old friend, Alex Carrimbacus, who he had met in a previous stint in prison. After Mireille’s charred and disfigured body was discovered by the firefighters, the two jail buddies were swiftly arrested. They now face charges of homicide agravated by anti-semitism.
The exact facts of what transpired in Mireille’s apartment on Friday, March 23, 2018, remain murky. But, according to The New York Times, no less an authority than French interior minister Gérard Collomb has implied theft was the motive. He alleges that one of the perpetrators told the other, “She is a Jew, she must have money.” It has also been reported that Mihoub and Carrimbacus are blaming each other for the murder. The latter has apparently claimed that Mihoub shouted “Allahu Akbar!” as he committed the crime. This Islamic declaration of faith – meaning “God is greater” – has been defiled by terrorist usage in recent years. Both suspects of the Mireille Knoll murder are Muslims.
And it is the seemingly anti-semitic aspect of the homicide that has shocked and horrified the population of France. It has reignited fears that anti-semitism is taking hold in the country following similar atrocities. Less than a year earlier, elsewhere in the 11th Arrondissement, Sarah Halimi, a 66-year-old Jew, was beaten in her apartment and thrown to her death from a window. In chilling coincidence with Mireille’s murder, the suspect in Halimi’s case is both a neighbor and a Muslim.
And there have been other killings of Jews in France in recent times. A 2012 terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse saw the deaths of three children and a rabbi. The jihadi killer had already taken the lives of three soldiers – two of whom were actually Muslims – in the week before the slaying. Then there was the murder of four people in a kosher grocery store in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in January 2015. A dozen people were massacred at the satirical magazine’s office following the publication of a cartoon picturing the Prophet Muhammad. Any imagery of the religious founder is proscribed by Islamic law.
For French Jews, the prospect of anti-semitism rising again is terrifying after the horrors of Nazi occupation 70 years ago. In Paris, thousands joined a silent march through the city to commemorate Mireille Knoll and protest her hate-crime death. To underline the country’s stand against such hatred and intolerance, President Emmanuel Macron attended her funeral on March 28, 2018. Indeed, the fact that Mireille escaped the Nazis, only to die at the hands of contemporary anti-semites, is a wake-up call for France and the wider world.