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the holocaust and north africa

28 january 2019

We don't usually think of the Holocaust as having touched North Africa, except in the sense that the Holocaust touched every part of the world, from China to Peru. But North African Jews were deprived of property and civil rights, deported, and killed during the second world war. The legacy of those events, which ties into the legacy of colonialism, is now the subject of a new collection of essays from Stanford, The Holocaust and North Africa, edited by Aomar Boum and Sarah Abrevaya Stein.

These studies are important for many reasons, argue Boum and Stein. The world's third-largest Jewish community lives in France – most of them North African Jews who immigrated after the war, and their descendants. During the war, these people were stripped of citizenship and persecuted by Vichy authorities. A similar pattern obtained in Libya, under Italian control as the war began. "These populations experienced different legal and political regimes before the war and thus experienced World War II in different ways as colonial rule was complexly overlaid with fascism," the editors argue (3).

The factual background is very complex; the opening essays in The Holocaust and North Africa provide exposition. Daniel J. Schroeter discusses Vichy racial laws, meant as much to reassert French control over the North African empire as to mirror German racism. Jens Hoppe treats the situation in Libya in parallel terms. Ruth Ginio ventures to French West Africa, where very few Jews lived, and several were vital to the colonial administration – but where the Vichy government was determined to enforce racial laws anyway.

At times in these chapters, ascription of blame on minutely-parsed legal grounds takes precedence over narrative – indeed such ascription is necessarily crucial in German reparations courts. But the situation was enormously complicated, and there is blame enough to go around. Germans pressed their allies to persecute Jews, but the British too on their watch, says Hoppe, turned a blind eye to persecutions of Jews by Gentiles and Muslims.

The details of the various persecutions inflicted on North African Jews can be bizarre. In the second part of the book, scholars examine specific cases. Susan Slyomovics looks at the Bedeau camp in Algeria, a place with a long history of serving to keep various populations under control. During the second world war, Bedeau was a prison for Algerian Jewish troops of the French armed forces. With the defeat of France and the ascendancy of Vichy, these veterans lost both their citizenship and their freedom. Young Jewish men were apparently conscripted into the Vichy army as they came of age and sent straight to forced labor in Bedeau.

By contrast, in rural Morocco, the war and Holocaust barely touched the lives of Jews and Muslims who lived only tenuously under the authority of a sultan himself nominally sovereign over a French protectorate. Morocco's Muslim sultanate was not exactly pro-Jewish, but they were anti-racist; in ways that parallel policies of the Vatican during the same period, the sultan objected to persecution of Jews who had converted to Islam (who were by Vichy and especially Nazi lights still fully Jewish, because their race, not their religion, was what mattered). Aomar Boum and Mohammed Hatimi conclude that relations between Jews and Muslims proceeded as they had for centuries, and were not exacerbated by the war (except as the war exerted economic pressures on the whole world).

Daniel Lee, in a fascinating and sharply-observed piece, argues that Tunisia presents a special and overlooked case of the larger Holocaust at work in the colonies. Tunisia was briefly occupied by German forces, and several hundred Tunisian Jews were deported to camps in Europe and killed there. But the large majority of Jews in Tunisia suffered "only" expropriation and loss of civil rights under Vichy or even Nazi rule during the war. "Comparées aux souffrances subies par les Communautés juives d'Europe, celles de la Communauté juive de Tunisie sont apparues insignifiantes," says historian Claude Nataf (171) – compared to what the Jews of Europe went through, the suffering of Tunisian Jews appears trivial. But Lee argues that the injustices, though interrupted by the war, were of a piece with those inflicted elsewhere, especially by the Vichy regime in Europe. Vichy administrators set about implementing Vichy anti-Semitic policies with a will, and spoliation and segregation were grim stages along the road to extermination.

Chapters by Boum and by Lia Brozgal examine literary works by survivors of forced labor and ghettoization in Algeria and Tunisia (Max Aub in the former case and Paul Ghez, Robert Borgel, and Gaston Guez in the latter). Alma Rachel Heckman looks at the experiences of Moroccan Jewish communists during the war.

These nine main contributions take up about 2/3 of the volume. Documentation is substantial, but there are also some briefer pendant contributions from scholars including Susan Rubin Suleiman and Omer Bartov. These brief essays make the case for a diverse, intersectional, and multicultural approach to the Holocaust, one that engages postwar Jewish history with its the great migrations of North African Jews to France and to Israel. The extensive scope of The Holocaust and North Africa offers eye-opening perspectives on a history with broad and terrible consequences.

Boum, Aomar, and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. The Holocaust and North Africa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. DS 135 .A25H65