Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'We could have been Honorary Aryans'

 The Venetian quarter, Livorno

Tunisian Jewry comprised two communities - the indigenous Jews and the relative newcomers from Leghorn (Livorno) - less religious, free thinking Italian patriots. In this fascinating piece on the Tunisian site Harissa, Giacomo Nunes describes his wartime experiences  as a schoolboy in Tunis (with thanks: Michelle):

 In my family we almost all shared the liberal Jewish ideas of my father. Only my Grandmother Eugenia was an exception. Her Cattan family were religious. They were also from Leghorn : I recently learned that their name is not from the Hebrew for "small" but is a contracted form of " Catalan " . Grandma undertook to supplement my education. She had imposed kosher food on her husband, my Grandpa Maurizio, and was shocked to discover him one day, hiding in the lounge, which was always locked and dark, eating unmentionables. Grandfather was a doctor and his Sicilian patients often paid him in kind, for example with home-cured hams, which he adored.

Grandpa Maurizio picked me up every day at 4 pm at the Regina Margherita school and I stayed with grandmother Eugenia. She prepared my tea and took advantage of my presence to compensate for my father's shortcomings in religious education. My mother came to pick me up at dinner time. I learned from Grandma not only the broad outlines of the history of the Jewish people but also the rules of kashrut and other traditions.

Without a moment's hesitation back at home, I demanded Kosher dishes for the approaching Passover holidays, while my father cried out:"She teaches him all these superstitions." In turn he tried to clear my mind of all " this nonsense. "  This is how I benefited from a dual education. I found it suited me well, I admit. I was both a liberal Jew like my father, but I'm also proud of my membership of this small nation - so gifted and resilient. And I also consider myself a citizen of the world as many Leghorn Jews did, heirs of the great ideas of the French Revolution.

This sense of belonging became even stronger when, during the summer of 1938, Mussolini introduced racial laws and the Nazis of the German Afrika Korps arrived after the German defeat of El Alamein in Libya. We were in our Kram villa, our summer residence, near a beach located about ten kilometers from Tunis on the day when our "dear Duce "pronounced the unbearable words: " Jews are not Italians ."

We were appalled. In our family we gave ample proof of our patriotism: Gastone Nunez, the brother of my father and Giacomo Cardoso, the brother of my mother, had volunteered during the 1914 -18 war in the Italian army and had died of disease and injury during the fighting. And we had  all maintained our Italian citizenship for at least 150 years in a Tunisian and French environment that did not necessarily favour us.

These Livornese were dogged nationalists; some were even fascists and a tiny minority remained so until the end. In our little family, Mussolini's 1938 proposals and laws wounded us deeply. That is why most children from Leghorn were made to leave their ItaIian institutions and found themselves overnight in French schools. Thus I entered 6eme (aged 11) in the Lycee Carnot in the autumn of 1938. I had to change languages, learn the horrendous French spelling, and find new friends: My classmates of the Regina Margherita school had turned their backs on me in the street. I had become a plague for them. One even called me: " giudeo cane" ( Jewdog ) . Being a Jew became a sin, worthy only of insult. 

 However, the Italian Consulate had offered us exceptional status : we could be considered Honorary Aryans : Mussolini hoped to replace France as an occupying power and we would have been the leaders of the Italian Community. This was a role that the Sicilian population, large but uncouth, could not play. Of course the Consulate's proposal was rejected by most Livornese ; we were barely believers but "Honorary Aryans?" - Heaven forfend. 

And voila, one disaster followed another : France was defeated in 1940, and the Vichy regime brought to power Petain and Laval and so many other monsters. At Lycée Carnot, our History teacher, Mr. Paquel, turned up in class half-drunk, made a Hitler salute and shouted 'you yids.' Because we were almost all Jews at the Lycée Carnot. To which the class replied with jeers.However, we had to learn the words to " Marechal nous voila " and march through the center of Tunis singing this soothing hymn. As there were very few French from France at the Lycée, they put a beret on our Jewish heads and baptised us  "Companions of France". The Petainist youth movement advocated the New Order of the French State and wore the Francisque, Gallic equivalent  of the German swastika and the Italian fasces.

But when the war and the Allied bombing of 1942-43 came, all the Jews at the Lycée Carnot had to join the Sadiki College reserved for Muslim natives. Only two or three teachers protested - they were dismissed. I have already said that thousands of young Jews were sent to dig trenches in areas of the country bombarded by the Allies. Jewish notables, including my father, were taken as hostages by the Nazis. Half of our apartment was occupied by three German officers. There were fines and other vexations.

I was too young to react to all this other than by helping my cousin Lucien Soria who roamed the streets of Tunis at night stuffing seditious leaflets into mailboxes. An armed struggle was unthinkable because we did not have weapons and had no support from experienced people. Almost all the country's inhabitants of the country sympathized with the regime or were opportunists.

ortunately, one day in May, the nightmare ceased with the Allies arriving victorious from Algeria. Later, once France had been liberated, I could continue my studies, get to know France, Italy and many other countries. But for people of my generation the memory of this period is indelible. This is why my writings are a reminder of  my small group of ancestors from Leghorn whom few recall and who managed to survive for centuries before disappearing as a community. 

Read article in full (French)


cybob said...

The full story of this part of history is included in a recent book i read. http://www.amazon.com/Silencing-Past-Spring-Israel-Tunisia/dp/1492191426/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1387482825&sr=8-1&keywords=ron+boublil

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, I was looking for my ancestry. On my father's side Italian and from my mother's Iraqi.
After serious research by Levana's brother he found that our name Vidal went back to aproximately 1300. And when I went visiting there was a street (alley) called calle dei Vidal
At the end of the war, Musolini and his mistress were shot and hung up by their feet in Piazzale Loretto Milano And people came and spat on them!
I would really have loved to spit on Hitler and Nasser!!