Libyan Jews returning from Bergen Belsen camp
Tonight is the start of Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. Awareness is growing that the Holocaust not only affected European Jews, but also communities in North Africa. If they were largely spared, it is because the Nazis ran out of time.
Here is a detailed account of the impact of the Holocaust on North African Jews on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
The Jews of North Africa were relatively fortunate because their distance from German concentration camps in central and eastern Europe permitted them to avoid the fate of their coreligionists in Europe. They were also fortunate not to have had to live under German rule. The Germans never occupied Morocco or Algeria. Though they briefly occupied Tunisia from November 1942, after the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria, until May 1943, the Germans never had the time or the resources to subject Tunisian Jews systematically to the measures implemented in areas under direct German rule in Europe.
Nonetheless, attacks on Jews and Jewish property by local European antisemites and native Muslims, which had taken place before the war in all three countries (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), continued unhindered by the Vichy authorities.
Even before World War II, the French government had set up internment camps in the French Pyrénées region to hold Spanish Republicans who had fought against Franco's fascist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, persons suspected or convicted of political crimes, and Jewish refugees who had sought refuge from Nazi Germany in France.
After the armistice with Germany was signed, Vichy authorities sent foreigners (including Jews) who had volunteered for and fought in the French army against the Germans in 1940 and foreign Jewish refugees to work camps in Algeria and Morocco. Upon their arrival, the Jewish refugees received aid from local Jewish committees, as well as from the Joint Distribution Committee and the HICEM, an international Jewish migration organization. These organizations also tried to obtain visas and organize travel to the United States for the refugees.
The Vichy administration sent other Jewish refugees to camps in southern Morocco and Algeria to work as forced laborers on the pan-Saharan railroad line. There were approximately thirty camps, including Hadjerat M'Guil and Bou-Arfa in Morocco and Berrouaghia, Djelfa, and Bedeau in Algeria. Conditions were extremely harsh for the over 4,000 Jewish labor conscripts working on the railroad.