Today is Yom Hashoah, when Jews reflect on the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. The Holocaust is commonly treated as a European catastrophe, but Nazism had an impact on North Africa where Jews were stripped of their rights and some sent to labour camps. Several hundred Libyan Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Some 2,000 Jews born in Arab countries and living in Europe perished in the death camps. Here is an extract from a new book, Uprooted by Lyn Julius:
Victor 'Young' Perez, Tunisian-born boxing champion, was deported from France and died on the Death March from Auschwitz in 1945.
The Nazis incorporated the Jews of the French Maghreb in their
extermination plans at the January 1942 Wannsee conference. The statuts
des juifs – stripping Jews of their French citizenship, seizing property and
bank accounts and expelling Jews from state schools, universities and the
professions – were implemented in Morocco and Algeria under Vichy rule.
Tunisia was occupied by the Nazis for six months from November 1942
under the leadership of SS Commandant Walter Rauff, the inventor of
the mobile gas van. Rauff had been responsible for the deaths of over
90,000 Jews in Eastern Europe. But Nazi plans for the extermination of
the Jews – the Einzatsgruppen Ägypten death squad was standing by
in Greece – were thwarted by the Allied victory over General Rommel at
El-Alamein in October 1942.
Nonetheless, beginning on 9 December 1942,
some 5,500 male Jews – some as young as 17 – were rounded up and sent
to labour camps. Jewish property was pillaged and hefty fines imposed on
the community ‘to pay for the damages caused by Allied bombing’.Scores
were killed. Jewish eye-witnesses claim that the Germans had begun building
gas chambers in Tunisia: had the Americans not recaptured the country in
May 1943, the extermination of the Jews would have been underway two
In 1938, Italian racial laws came into force in Libya. Some 600 Libyan
Jews died from starvation and typhus in the country’s notorious Giado camp.
Around 870 Libyan Jews of British nationality were deported to Bergen-
Belsen, though the majority are thought to have survived.
Legend has it that the Moroccan sultan, the future Mohamed V, saved
Moroccan Jews from being deported to concentration camps in Europe: but
deportation across the Mediterranean was never a realistic possibility.
philo-Semitic sultan famously declared: ‘ There are no Jews, only Moroccan subjects’. It might be fair to say that he may have prevaricated, but he did not
fail to sign every single Vichy anti-Jewish decree: Jews were shunted back
into the teeming Jewish ghettoes from the European quarters of Moroccan
cities, they were forbidden to employ Muslim maids, and as in Algeria and
Tunisia, an inventory of Jewish property was drawn up, quotas were
instituted in schools and universities and Jews excluded from public service
and the professions. The sultan was branded, in a recent feature, ‘just but
powerless’ by the Moroccan medium Tel Quel . Real power lay with the
Servicemen of the defeated French army, together with political prisoners
from Spain, were sent by the Vichy regime to thirty forced labour camps on
the Moroccan-Algerian border. They included 2,000 European Jews interned
at the Bergent camp. Dozens died from starvation, torture and neglect in
the camps, as they built the Trans-Sahara railroad. The Moroccan sultan
raised not a single objection.
The governments of Egypt and Iraq were pro-British and tens of
thousands of Muslims served in the British and Free French armies – but
popular feeling was largely pro-Nazi in the Arab world. In his diary Walter
Rauff described the Tunisian Arabs as ‘depressed’, the Jews ‘hopeful’ at the
Allied advance in early 1943. A majority of Egyptians supported the
Germans.The Jews of Alexandria fled to Cairo, and the Jews of Cairo
moved to the old quarter of Fostat. They watched with trepidation as the
front line between Egypt and Libya shifted back and forth during 1941. In
Morocco, Jews were subject to mob attacks as soon as General Patton’s troops
landed in late 1942 (Operation Torch).
Albert Memmi remembers the atmosphere before the Allies recaptured
Tunisia from the Nazis in May 1943:
"I have described in Pillar of Salt how the French authorities coldly left
us to the Germans. But I must add that we were also submerged in a
hostile Arab population, which is why so few of us could cross the
lines and join the Allies. Some got through in spite of everything, but
in most cases they were denounced and caught."
Uprooted : How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world Vanished Overnight by Lyn Julius is released in paperback from today.