Top Nazis hammered out many concluding details of the Final Solution at the infamous Wannsee Conference, held in Berlin during January 5702/1942. At this meeting, officials produced a master list of the 11 million Jews dwelling in countries they already controlled or intended to control in the future. Incomprehensibly, this list recorded unoccupied southern France, controlled at that time by the Vichy government, as having a population of 700,000 Jews, even though only about 200,000 Jews lived there.
NOT ENOUGH TIME
From what magician’s hat had the Nazis plucked a nonexistent population of half a million Jews? This extra half million were the Sephardic Jews living not in France itself but in French controlled territories in North Africa, including Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. (Libya’s Jews were not included in this list, as this country was under the control of Germany’s ally, Italy.)
These half-million Jews survived not because of German compassion or indecision, but simply because the Allies drove the Germans out of Africa before they had time to carry out their intentions.
In the final analysis, four or five thousand North African Jews perished in the African Holocaust, almost 1 percent of the entire Jewish population of approximately 400,000. Some of these died in camps in Europe, while some died in the inhumane labor camps set up in Africa by the Germans and the Vichy French. Many Jewish forced laborers died during Allied air raids at Tunisian air bases and ports.
The Imrei Emes of Ger explained that African Jewry was spared greater tragedy due to the tremendous respect Sephardim traditionally accord their shuls. Many years earlier, in a similar but opposite vein, the Tosafos Yom Tov said that the Cossack pogroms of Tach V’Tat were a punishment for speaking idle talk in shuls.
The African Holocaust was divided into three parts: French, Italian, and German.
When Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain became head of Vichy France, after Germany captured northern France in a giant blitzkrieg, one of his first acts was to deprive Algerian Jews of their French citizenship. Overnight, 105,000 Algerian Jews suffered the same fate German Jews had suffered under the Nuremberg Laws of 5693/1933. The French then established about sixty labor camps in Morocco and Algeria, where the stateless Jews toiled and suffered beatings under the blazing African sun.
Algerian Jews who had moved to France were rounded up and were among the few African Jews murdered in European death camps.
During 5702/1942, Mussolini decreed that Libya’s Jews be rounded up and locked in internment camps, resulting in the imprisonment of 2,500 victims. Within six months, 562 of them had died at the Giado Camp, mostly of typhus; there were more deaths there than at all the other African camps combined. As internee Rafael Dadosh recorded, people died there like flies – “I looked to one side, one died; I looked to the other side, another died.”
Three thousand Jews were sent to another labor camp at Sidi Aziz, where, as Shalom Arviv of Tripoli testified, “There was no mercy; to kill a person was like swatting a fl y nowadays.”
In the Giado Camp, there were instances of Arab compassion, something not totally absent during these years. Yehudah Chachmon reported in later years that Arab supervisors in the Giado Camp were far more humane than the brutal Italians.
“We had good relations with them,” he said. “When they see a Jew, they don’t talk to him, they don’t torture him, they don’t make trouble for him. The trouble only came with the Italian major in the camp. … The attitude of the Italian police was different from that of the Arab police.”
In reality, the reaction of Arabs to Jewish persecution was threefold. While most Arabs were indifferent to the Jews’ fate, and a large number of them actively participated in their persecution, a few Arab officials and private individuals went out of their way to save Jews from death and persecution.
Some populations behaved better than others. Jose Aboulker, who led the Jewish resistance movement in Algiers, praised the Arab population there for its neutral stance:
“The Arabs do not participate [in fighting the Vichy]. It is not their war. But as regards the Jews, they are perfect. The [Vichy] functionaries [and] the German agents try to push them into demonstrations and pogroms, in vain. When Jewish goods were put up for public auction, an instruction went round the mosques: ‘Our brothers are suffering misfortune. Do not take their goods.’”
Similarly, the Moroccan sultan, Muhammad V, and the Tunisian rulers, Ahmed Pasha Bey and Moncef Bey, are well remembered for their attempts to alleviate Vichy oppression.
Of course, everything depended on circumstances and locale. Some Jews claimed that the rural Arabs treated Jews better than did Arabs living in towns.
UNDER THE GERMAN JACKBOOT
By 5703/1943, the Nazis had lost the Battle of El Alamein and invested huge energies in preventing the Allies from seizing North Africa and turning north into the soft underbelly of Italy, especially after the Allied invasion of North Africa in Operation Torch, which at the time was the greatest amphibious assault in history. Until then, North Africa had been held by Vichy France. Now it was up to the Germans to throw out the British and Americans.
“To give up Africa means to give up the Mediterranean,” Hitler ranted. “[It] would mean not only the ruin of our revolutions, but also the ruin of our people’s future.”
Within days of the Vichy’s defeat, German paratroopers swooped down in Tunis and a vast German army followed. Now was the time to exterminate at least some of the region’s Jews. From November 5703/1942 to May 5703/1943, 8,000 Italians and 3,000 Germans tried to hold a much larger Allied force at bay, fighting throughout Tunisia.
During these six months, they did their best to trigger a Holocaust, forcing Jews to wear the Jewish star, extorting money, and sending the infamous SS Col. Walter Rauff to get things rolling. Rauff was the inventor of the mobile gas van in Poland, and, according to recent findings of German historians, had been earmarked to lead the special death squad, “Einsatzgruppe Egypt,” into Palestine to massacre its Jews once Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had broken through.
On Dec. 6, Rauff sprang into action, ordering the Chief Rabbi of Tunis, Rav Chaim Bellaiche, to supply him with 2,000 Jewish workers within 24 hours. All the Jews were to wear large yellow stars on their fronts and backs so “that they could be recognized even from afar and shot in case of attempted escape.”
When the required number failed to show up on the morning of Dec. 9, German troops broke into the Great Synagogue and the Alliance Israelite School and seized the requisite number from the refugees seeking shelter there.
Over 1,500 Jews began a 40-mile forced march to a distant work site. The first Jew killed by Germans on Arab soil was 18-year-old Gilbert Mazus, a cripple who depended on an orthopedic device in his leg. When Mazus tripped just before stopping for the night, a German soldier shot him in cold blood.
However, even in German-controlled Africa, the Holocaust in Africa never really got going. It lacked the cold efficiency of Europe; people died at the whim of individual sadists rather than at the planning of calculating monsters.
This is what Jacques Cacoub said of his time in the German-run labor camp at Bizerte:
“The soldier Walter, nicknamed ‘the Killer,’ is the perpetrator of the murder of my brother-in-law, Victor Lellouche. The soldier nicknamed ‘Grandma’ is the murderer of Alfred Hababou and Elie Saadoun. The soldier nicknamed ‘Little Fella’ beat the Jews with sticks and bones. The soldier, ‘Momento,’ in addition to blows with sticks and whips, applied to certain workers the torture of freezing showers in the middle of winter. Lt. Elfess was a Nazi fanatic. … It was he who gave the order and agreed to the murder of three Jewish workers.”
At its height, 5,000 Jews worked in the inhumane Tunisian camps; toward the end, the number dwindled to 1,500 as German morale plunged.
As in Europe, the Germans tried to extort the Jews out of their very last penny. In mid-February, the Germans arrived at the ancient kehillah of Djerba on Shabbos and demanded a ransom of 10 million francs within two hours. Instead, the Jews offered to collect 40 kilos of gold, and the local rov and community leaders hurriedly drove around the island collecting gold and ornaments from rich and poor. In the end, they only managed to scrape together 36 kilos total. The Germans promised to return for the rest but the occupation was over before they got the chance.
British troops saved the vast majority of Tunisian Jews from almost certain death had the Nazis extended their stay. In his memoirs, journalist Phillip Jordan described the fervent joy of the Jews of the small town of Kairouan when the British liberators rode in:
“No Arabs came to greet us, but the Jews turned out in force, clapping and crying. The bolder among them tore the yellow stars from their lapels and set them on fire with the matches we gave them. These book matches have a V printed on the cover, and these they tore off in a kind of hysterical frenzy and pinned them on their coats.
“The Jewish leader, an old gentleman with a great beard, stopped the car and from a piece of paper read a message to us. What was written there were these words: ‘I wish say you goott morning and goott nite.’”
During the ’50s, most of these Jews moved to Israel, where they continue to comprise a massive proportion of the country’s population.
(Source: Satloff, Robert. “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands,” Public Affairs. New York: 2006.)