Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Tunisian wartime story with a happy ending



Abridged from an article in two parts on Harissa  (French)

 Sheikh Roubine was a leader of the Judenrat (Jewish leadership council) during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia between 1942-3. He would sign attestations on behalf of Jews who were forced to work in the Nazi labour camps (presumably so that they were later eligible for reparations). When he was accused of treason by his predecessor, however, the case was adjudicated by the Tunisian courts who cleared Roubine of any wrongdoing. A relative, Abraham Bar-Shay (Benattia), tells this curious story.


"We called him Baba Roubine. The friends of the family called him Sheikh Roubine. His whole demeanour invited respect. He held a beautiful baquita (cane) which he did not need for walking. The end of the cane only touched the ground after he had taken four steps. After the first two steps, he pointed the end of the cane at a 45-degree angle in front of him. It was only after two other steps that he pointed it towards the ground. When I was a teenager, I tried to imitate his gait.

He was not rich but comfortable. When my nuclear family lived in a single room, with several other families, around a large yard, he had a 'large' house with three bedrooms and a courtyard. He lived in a house twice the size of that of the great Rabbi Haim Houry. I had not forgotten these little details, even after we had moved to the capital in late 1947.

Baba Roubine ran a transport company between Gabes and Tunis ( a distance of 450 km) and often travelled with the goods he shipped between the two cities. When he was in Tunis, he came to see us and taste the food my mother was preparing for him. He often  teased her, that she cooked almost as well as Aunt Bhila, his wife.

Knowing our economic situation, he took advantage of each visit to bring with him all the provisions that we lacked - enough to last several days. He returned towards noon with his bottle of red wine for a family meal.

For us it was a festive and memorable day - until the next visit. These meals strengthened the ties we had with Baba Roubine more than with the other members of the family.

The Sheikh Roubine family made its Aliya in 1964, seven years after ours. We were already well established in Israel. We settled in southern Israel, in Kiryat Gat, a new immigrant city and administrative center for the Moshavim of the region.


The immigration authorities knew nothing of the services he had rendered to the community in the old country. This octogenarian was no more than the shadow of his former self in my memory, but he still kept his dignity as a sheikh and his "chechia" (Tunisian red hat) always had the long plume of black threads that fell on his shoulder.


In Israel he continued until the end of his life what he had done in Tunisia : to sign attestations for all Jews who had been sent to work in the Nazi camps of Gabes. 

It was only since my arrival in Israel, that I learned from my cousin Nissim (six years my senior)  that Sheikh Roubine (his uncle) was accused of having betrayed his community during the Nazi occupation of Gabes. The case was brought before the courts in Tunis, who acquitted the sheikh of all the accusations. He could not show me any document on this chapter in the history of our family.

Nearly a year ago, I received a mail from a Tunisian scholar, Professor Mohsen Hamli, who asked me for details about Sheikh Roubine Ben-Attia. He was researching the Jewish Sheikhs in Tunisia during the Nazi occupation and I owe him thanks for his service to my 'tribe' and the history of our community.

After a few months I received the documents (one is presented here). There was  urgent need to make these documents public, here, and then pass them on to the archives of Yad Vashem.

The Sheikh's role was, among other things, to represent the Jewish community before the local authorities and to deal with the rights and duties of individuals and the community as a whole.

In the 1930s, Houati Haddad  served as a sheikh of the Jews of Gabes. His service was not good enough for the notables of the city (judgment was passed by the Governor) who dismissed him and appointed Baba Roubine in his place. It was just before the invasion of Tunisia by Rommel's Afrikakorps and their retreat from Libya. Gabes was a city located not far from the Libyan border and a strategic point. There was a French military base with an airport in operation.

Sheikh Roubine and Chief Rabbi Haim Houry, who were in fact neighbors, were charged with fulfilling the most abject tasks the Nazis had inflicted on the Jews of Gabes, from the seizure of personal wealth (jewellery and bank accounts) to the forced recruitment of Jewish workers in the Nazi camps.

I understood that the Nazis had forced Baba Roubine to fulfill the role of the Judenrat of the community of Gabes. A complaint of treason had been filed against him, by the person who had fulfilled his role before the Nazi invasion. The Tunis court ruled that the complaint was a blow against Roubine and acquitted him of any suspicion.


With these documents I was able to trace the history of the time, personalities and the happy ending for Baba Roubine.


After the victory of the Allies and the departure of the Nazis from Tunisia, a group was organized, probably under the instigation of Mr. Houati Haddad, and filed a complaint of five accusations against Sheikh Roubine. These indictments "were" supposedly "based on investigations and testimonies of the notables of the community."



Baba Roubine in local costume 

The governor, who subsequently investigated the case, discovered that the facts cited were null and void, congratulated Roubine on his moral fibre and granted Houati Haddad the compliment of being "a man of questionable morality and lack of scruple."

Our story had a happy ending, which even Shakespeare would have judged incredible for "Romeo and Juliet". Verona is not Gabes and Kippur returns every autumn to erase the grudges of yesterday's generations. Despite the controversies and tense relations between the sheikhs Roubine and Houati, the grand-daughter of the first married the youngest son of the second. They lived 50 years together, until the husband's death a few months ago.

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 Below: letter by French Captain Le Bourhis vouching for Baba Roubine's good character.
Cross-posted at Clash of Cultures, Jerusalem Post

Saved by a liqor glass, betrayed by friends

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