January 28, 2020

North Africa and the Holocaust

As I was working with the team creating the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Human Rights Center, we decided to tell the story of the Holocaust geographically rather than thematically and chronologically. After all, the fate of Jews varied country by country. German policy differed in various countries, in part depending on German attitudes toward the local population, German plans for the geographical area after their assumed conquest, and the attitudes of the local population toward their own Jews, whether they be citizens or not. 

Furthermore, the Holocaust happened at different times in different countries. For the Jews of Germany, Nazi policy evolved over six years (1933-1939) before World War II even began, and eight years before the Final Solution – the systematic annihilation of the Jews — became German state policy. In occupied Poland, ghettos preceded the murder of Jews and lasted for between two and four years. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, ghettoization followed the massive massacre of Jews in what has become known as the Holocaust by bullets. There could be no doubt in these regions that the intent of the German occupation was the annihilation of the Jews — in Nazi-speak: extermination.

 In Macedonia, ghettoization was a matter of weeks, deportation a matter of days. Hungarian Jews were persecuted by the German-allied Hungarian government and were taken for slave labor but not murder until after the German invasion of March 1944. Ghettoization followed swiftly in April and early May and deportation began on May 15. By the first week of July 1944 the countryside was Judenrein, without Jews, and all that remained were the Jews of Budapest.

As we explored the Holocaust geographically, one of the problems we faced was how to describe the fate of the Jews of North Africa, who lived under French or Italian or even, during World War II, German occupation. Should we treat those countries independently of their European colonial rulers, or treat them as an offshoot of France and Italy, the dominant colonial rulers?

I wish I could say that we debated the issue philosophically. In the end it was merely determined by spatial considerations, and I shall leave it to future museum visitors to consider the wisdom of our choice. 

I read Aomar Boum’s and Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s book, “The  Holocaust and North Africa” — the result of a 2015 conference sponsored by UCLA and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum —with great interest and considerable gratitude, for it explores the fate of Jews in North Africa during World War II, when colonialism and the Holocaust met.

In each North African country, the fate of the Jews differed by the nature of colonial rule, the colonial power’s attitude toward collaborating with the Nazis on implementing the Final Solution, and the duration of German or allied and collaborationist colonial powers’ control in these lands. As Christians persecuted Jews in countries with an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority population, the attitude of the Muslim population, and most especially its leaders, impacted the fate of the Jews. What also determined Jews’ fate was how swiftly liberating Western allied powers came to control these countries, replaced colonial leadership and reversed anti-Jewish policies imposed by the colonial powers allied with or occupied by Germany.

“Any consideration of the Holocaust in North Africa operates under a handicap… The accepted narrative is that the Holocaust was only a European event.

Any consideration of the Holocaust in North Africa operates under a handicap, as many of the authors remind us repeatedly. The accepted narrative is that the Holocaust was only a European event. North Africa is regarded as a peripheral issue at best, a footnote if considered at all. And while a variety of camps were in North Africa, there were no death camps. Furthermore, with the post-colonial collapse of these Jewish communities by migration to Israel, France or North America, their experience during World War II often takes a back seat toward their more recent trauma, and their sense of loss is the loss of their homes and the demise of their communities that took place in the 1950s and ’60s. The events of the 1940s fade into oblivion. 

There was never any doubt that Sephardim were also victims of the Holocaust. All scholars must consider the European dimensions of the fate of Sephardic Jews in Greece — the great Jewish community of Salonika was deported in 1943 — and in the Balkans, where the Jews expelled from Spain found a haven, but most have avoided North Africa as it does not fit into the Europe-centered narrative. This book is an overdue and most necessary offering that should force a reconsideration of the issue. 

The role of the Holocaust in Israeli national identity further complicates the matter, as the greater the concern with the Holocaust, the more Mizrahim in Israel feel neglected and disregarded. There may also be a sense of “Holocaust envy.” How can their experience during the Holocaust or in exile from their homeland compare as a catastrophe? And there certainly were significant omissions in terms of compensation, reparations and the recovery of property.

“The Holocaust and North Africa” is a carefully chosen title. Notice that it is not entitled “The Holocaust in North Africa.” The term Holocaust evokes ghettos and death camps and more recently murder by bullets, and little of this occurred in North Africa. The book could have also been titled “Where Colonialism and Holocaust Meet” or “Where Colonialism and Fascism Come Together.”

The book is divided into four parts. The first considers the meeting together of colonialism and fascism in consideration of the French colonies of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and the Italian colony of Libya, which for a time was occupied by Germany. Ironically, Jews fared better under French colonial rule than they did in Vichy France and quasi-independent but strongly collaborationist France; and certainly far better than they did in German-occupied France, where Jews had greater rights before the German invasion. Colonialist Italian rulers were more lax in enforcing anti-Jewish legislation than their counterparts in Italy, and in both Italy and Libya conditions deteriorated dramatically after the Germans invaded Northern Italy and reinstated Mussolini. 

The second part of the book deals with diverse experiences of different North African Jewish populations. Occupation, internment and race laws differed country by country, often year by year, and even within some countries by regions, whether rural or urban.

The third part considers the narratives of this period of time, the joining of memory of the past with contemporary efforts to find a useful history; and the final part deals with the efforts, mostly by Holocaust historians, to find a place with the greater narrative for the experience of North African Jews.

One wonders how many more narratives remain to be discovered and how deeply historians of this generation and the next will probe this region. One also wonders whether fictional accounts of the time will be written, and whether this material, mostly in French, will be translated into English or Hebrew. The admirable work of the Yitzhak Ben Zvi Institute, dedicated to the history of Sephardic Jewry, simply cannot compete with the intellectual and economic powerhouse of Yad Vashem.

Conferences vary in the quality of presentations and their written record is usually uneven. Most often, their impact is ephemeral. Not so the conference that resulted in this book. The chapters offer a consistency of quality and perspective, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Future historians will have to consider the fate of North African Jewry, country by country, region by region. This reviewer hopes that future historians do not end their research and their writings at the borders of Europe. “The Holocaust and North Africa” proves that there is much to be learned.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.