Holocaust – Africa

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. 

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. 

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.)

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