PARIS - The brutal murder of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor has outraged France's Jewish community as leaders warned the country on Monday, March 26, against the ongoing "nightmare" of murderous anti-Semitism.
Mireille Knoll, 85, was stabbed multiple times and set on fire in her Paris apartment on Friday, March 23, in what Jewish advocacy groups are calling anti-Semitic hate crime.
The murder took place Friday, the same day as the terrorist attack in the southeastern city of Trèbes, in which four people, including one French police officer, were killed in a hostage standoff at a local supermarket.
For now, French authorities have taken two suspects into custody, according to a judicial official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the case and would only tell The Washington Post that one of the suspects was born in 1989.
A murder investigation was formally opened, but authorities have not commented on the motives of either suspect at this stage.
Speaking on French radio Monday morning, Francis Kalifat, the head of France's largest Jewish advocacy organization, the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations, or C.R.I.F., bristled at the suggestion that investigators use caution before considering the murder an anti-Semitic attack.
"Prudence? Obviously," he said. "But prudence doesn't mean we should exclude the possibility that this could have been an anti-Semitic act."
In France, authorities have often formally hesitated to ascribe a clear motivation of "anti-Semitism" to any number of similar attacks on Jews in recent years. This has often been a point of contention between Jewish leaders and the French government, even as French President Emmanuel Macron has recently sought to improve relations.
The Knoll case bears striking similarities to the murder of Sarah Halimi, a 66-year-old Orthodox Jewish physician and kindergarten teacher whom authorities suspect was murdered by her Muslim neighbor, Kobili Traoré, in April 2017.
"This was the same Paris arrondissement, several streets apart," said Noémie Halioua, a French journalist with Actualité Juive and the author of a new book on the Halimi case. "And both victims were elderly women who lived alone and who had both previously complained of threats."
Like Knoll, Halimi also lived alone in an apartment in the 11th arrondissement (or district) on the eastern side of Paris, an area traditionally home to immigrant populations but that in recent years has seen tremendous amounts of gentrification.
"There is also the barbarity of the crimes, and the fact that in both cases the victims were fragile women," Halioua said.
After the attack in her modest flat, a public-housing project, Halimi's body was thrown out the window into the courtyard below. Knoll, meanwhile, was reportedly stabbed 11 times and then left to burn, according to accounts given by Jewish leaders, citing her family members.
The Halimi murder became a national scandal when French authorities initially declined to investigate it as an anti-Semitic attack, despite revelations that her family had testified that the suspect had confronted her with verbal slurs on a regular basis.
The same was true in the 2006 murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cellphone salesman who had no relation to Sarah Halimi and who was murdered by the so-called "Gang of Barbarians," a band of immigrant criminals from the Paris suburbs.
In that case, the gang had targeted Halimi because he was Jewish - and had even demanded massive ransom sums from his middle-class family, whom the gang members assumed would be wealthy because they were Jewish. For months, French authorities refused to consider that case anti-Semitic.
In the Sarah Halimi case, public outrage reached such a level that Macron intervened in July 2017 and it has now been investigated as an anti-Semitic act.
Earlier this month, in a speech at the C.R.I.F. annual dinner, Macron brought up the case again.
"I took a stand by calling on justice to shed light on the anti-Semitic dimension of Sarah Halimi's murder," he said, "and I am glad that this dimension could finally be recognized. That is what an investigation must be used to do, to establish the circumstances of a crime and to qualify it precisely."
But in a time when Holocaust survivors are disappearing, the brutal murder of Knoll proved a dark addition to a general narrative that has already provoked considerable concern among many European leaders, especially as instances of historical revisionism take root across the continent.
As a child, Knoll apparently survived the infamous "Vel d'Hiv" roundup of Parisian Jews in July 1942, according to Meyer Habib, a right-leaning French parliamentary deputy and confidante of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Habib issued a statement on the case Sunday, drawing on a conversation with Knoll's relatives.
Two years into Nazi occupation, French police forces carried out mass arrests of approximately 13,000 Jews living in the capital, who were then deposited in the now-demolished "Velodrome d'Hiver" stadium near the Eiffel Tower. Most of those arrested were subsequently deported to Auschwitz.
Story by James McAuley. McAuley is Paris correspondent for The Washington Post. He holds a PhD in French history from the University of Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar.