Jews in North Africa: Oppression and Resistance

Mediterranean Basin, 1933The 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.

The Allies had been planning to establish a second front in North Africa since September 1942. Operation Torch called for British and US forces under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower to land on the beaches of Algeria and Morocco and capture Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. Because he wanted the Vichy administration in North Africa to switch sides and fight with the Allies against the Germans and Italians, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed coordination with Free French forces under General Charles de Gaulle. On November 8, the Allies landed successfully in Algeria and Morocco, and, after initially facing stiff resistance from Vichy forces, entered Casablanca on November 11.

In Algeria, underground resistance forces staged a coup d'état in Algiers and were able to neutralize the French XIX Army Corps. The Algiers coup was led by Jews Bernard Karsenty and Dr. José Aboulker as well as the “Committee of Five,” prominent Vichy supporters who were hostile to the Germans. Of the 377 participants in the coup, 315 were Jews. Although US officials had promised arms to the resistance leaders, these were never delivered. US officials, acting on Roosevelt's orders, negotiated a deal with Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, Vichy High Commissioner for North Africa, for the cessation of Vichy resistance to the Allied landings on November 10–11, 1942. Sacrificed in the deal were the leaders of the Gaullist resistance in North Africa, who did not gain power.

Immediately after the Allied landings in Algeria and Morocco, the Germans occupied Tunisia. On November 23, 1942, the Germans arrested Moises Burgel, the president of the Tunis Jewish community, and several other prominent Jews. Resistance to the German persecution of Tunisian Jews came from the sympathetic Vichy resident-general Admiral Estéva, the mayor of Tunis, Sheikh al-Madina 'Aziz Jallouli, and the Italians, who requested that any measures against Tunisian Jews exclude those Jews who were Italian citizens.

In early December, the Germans demanded that Burgel and Chief Rabbi Haïm Bellaïche dissolve Jewish community institutions and ordered the Chief Rabbi to provide Jewish workers for the Axis forces. By this time, the Germans had notified Vichy and Tunisian authorities that they could no longer interfere with German dealings with the Jews. Two days later, the Jewish leaders supplied a list of 2,500 Jews; only 128 Jews showed up for work. The Germans conducted a sweep of the Jewish neighborhood of Tunis and sent those Jews they captured to a camp at Cheylus, near the city. At the same time, the SS arrested one hundred Jewish notables in the Tunis community headquarters in order to compel them to provide Jewish workers for forced labor.

Approximately 5,000 Tunisian Jewish men were conscripted for almost forty detention camps and forced labor areas near the front lines. These camps were run by both the Germans and the Italians; the most important one was the military port at Bizerte, under German control. Conditions in the camps were awful, particularly those run by the Germans. The Jewish notables set up committees to improve the lives of the internees by classifying workers as sick and helping them escape. This became progressively easier because discipline in the camps broke down as the Axis hold on Tunisia weakened.

Despite being worn down by the Allied land and air strikes in spring 1943, German authorities continued to persecute the Tunisian Jews. For example, the Germans imposed fines on Tunisian Jewish communities, ostensibly to compensate civilian victims of Allied bombings. In March 1943, rightwing antisemitic French colonists robbed Jewish homes and stores and denounced twenty members of the anti-Vichy resistance, some of them Jews, to the German authorities. The Germans transferred those arrested to concentration camps in Europe.