Praise Poems Depict North African Jewish Response to Events of World War II

North African Jewish praise poems are precious documents of the Second World War.
July 12, 2022
A group of Jews in Morocco at the gate to the ‘mellah’, as the ghetto is called locally. (Photo by Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)

In the lead up to the Second World War, many North African Jews relied on musical tradition to alert their community to the rise of fascism in Europe, and to warn of the danger this movement posed to humanity. After the successful Anglo-American landing in North Africa in November, 1942 (known as Operation Torch), a number of these qsidot, or praise poems, were published in Tunisia and Morocco. They capture the daily experience of a global conflict, tracing its development and tragic consequences across Europe and North Africa.

In praise poems, North African Jews weaponized local oral tradition. These songs lampooned Hitler, ridiculed Nazism, celebrated the Axis defeat and expressed their gratitude to the divine.

Composed largely in Judeo-Arabic and sometimes in Hebrew, praise poems are today among the key sonic archives of World War II. They highlight the perspective of indigenous North African Jews, amplifying their anxieties, fears, and daily struggles. These sources provide evidence of how local Jewish communities perceived and responded to the rise of Adolf Hitler, France’s collaboration with the Third Reich, Italian Fascism and the Allied powers.

Across the Mediterranean, Nazi and Vichy French representatives were also using music as a weapon of war: a vehicle to cleanse Germany and France from what they saw as “degenerate” culture that threatened their national purity. But North African Jewish praise poems were more than bald propaganda. They were uniquely Jewish and uniquely North African forms of political intervention and social commentary.

They were uniquely Jewish and uniquely North African forms of political intervention and social commentary.

The qsidot follow a common structure. Their story begins with Hitler’s ascendance to political power in Germany, describes the Nazis’ wartime campaigns in Europe, and narrates the introduction of anti-Jewish laws and the Nazis’ genocidal campaign. They end on a triumphant note, heralding the arrival of Allied forces and the rescue of Jewish communities from annihilation.

Mattatiya ben Simhon, a native of Essaouira, published one of the earliest praise poems about Hitler in the form of a piyyut—a liturgical poem designed to be sung or recited during a religious service. His narrative includes these words:

In the days of Hitler the gangster enemy
He and his friend the traitor Mussolini
Connived to annihilate and destroy
The people of God

On November 11 He performed a merciful act for me
By the beloved Allies
Therefore I will sing songs
About the redemption of the people of God.

Praise poems like ben Simhon’s were drafted in real time—months or years after Hitler’s rise to power.

Many praise poems were composed in the tradition of the Megillah and Hagaddah (texts that are read during the Jewish holidays of Purim and Passover). Prosper Cohen, writing in Meknes, Morocco, compared the antisemitic language of the Nazi regime to attacks on Jews by the Persian Empire during the fourth century BCE. This parallel allowed Cohen to liken Hitler to Haman, the villain of the Megillat Ester. “Everything that could be linked to Hitler’s Germany, to misfortune, to anything or anyone that might cause material or moral harm, takes the name of Hitler, the Haman of the twentieth century,” Cohen wrote: “Even children know this name and its unfortunate reputation.”

Praise poems like Cohen’s contained inflammatory material, which put their authors and readers at considerable risk. In January 1940, L’Avenir Illustre, a Moroccan Jewish newspaper, published a few stanzas from the foreboding poem “Les Hitlériques” by Isaac D. Knafo. The young poet from Essaouira was named after his father, the grand Rabbi Joseph Knafo. His poem, which was drafted in pamphlet form just after the German occupation of Poland in the fall of 1939, depicts a world on the brink of destruction. So fearful was Knafo upon completing his poem that he paced the city of Essaouira collecting every copy for incineration. Little did Cohen know that his words had already appeared in print.

North African Jewish praise poems are precious documents of the Second World War. They reflect how local Jews tracked, narrated, and responded to the rise of Nazism in Europe and the outbreak of war, suggesting that they understood the conflict’s enormity—and the threat it posed to their region and communities. Through qsidot, North African Jews repurposed traditional, religious genres in canny, inventive and, most of all, timely fashion.

Through praise poetry, we can grapple with how ordinary North African Jews resisted the horrors lurking on the global stage, and made sense of the world as it shifted around them. These forgotten sources allow us to amplify voices that history has forgotten.

Aomar Boum is professor and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. He is the co-author of the forthcoming graphic novel, “Undesirables: a Holocaust Journey into North Africa” and the co-editor of “Wartime North Africa: A Documentary History, 1934-1950.” Twitter: @aomar_boum

Sarah Abrevaya Stein is Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the Viterbi Family Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies at UCLA. She is the author or editor of ten books including, most recently, “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century” and, with Aomar Boum, “Wartime North Africa: A Documentary History, 1934-1950.”  Twitter: @sarahastein

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