To the contrary of common perceptions, the Holocaust was not a strictly European tragedy; the Jews living under colonial rule in North Africa were also victims of the Nazis. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Vichy rule was consolidated in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, thus posing an existential threat to the well-being of the Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews who were part of those ancient Jewish communities dating back to antiquity. In addition, Fascist Italian control of Libya posed a danger to the Jews who lived there. Though some areas of North Africa were worse than others, depending on the level of Nazi control. According to historian Robert Satloff:
“Virtually no Jew in North Africa was left untouched [by the Axis powers]“
Nevertheless, despite some local opposition from figures such as the King of Morocco, Satloff claims that between 4,000 and 5,000 North African Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, while an additional 1,200 North African Jews trapped in France were sent eastwards to Nazi death camps, where they would share the same fate as European Jewry. Satloff continues,
“If Allied troops had not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, two years before the fall of Berlin, then the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and perhaps Egypt and Palestine, too, would almost certainly have met the fate of their brethren in Europe.”
Although the Jews suffered from anti-Semitic Nazi-inspired legislation across North Africa, Tunisia was the only Arab country to come under full Nazi control during the Holocaust era. According to Yad Vashem, Jews in Tunisia were forced to wear Star of David badges, had their property confiscated, and over 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps, where some of the prisoners were tortured and/or murdered, while others were forced to build the Trans-Sahara Railway. The Jews of Tunis were also forced to establish a local Judenrat, with the expressed purpose of selecting which Jews were going to be sent to forced labor camps. The Great Synagogue of Tunis was converted into a horse stable by the Nazis during this period of time as well and Jewish civilians, both male and female, were tortured within the synagogue.
In Libya, thousands of Jews were also sent to concentration camps, where hundreds died of starvation. The Jewish Quarter of Benghazi was also sacked. The Jews of Algeria were stripped of their citizenship, required to wear an identifying mark, and suffered from quotas limiting Jews access to education. Despite the opposition of the Moroccan king, anti-Jewish regulations were also in place within Morocco as well.
Yet, despite the grave persecution suffered by the Jews of North Africa, there were righteous Arabs who tried to save Jews. For example, Khaled Abdelwahab heard that Nazi officials within Tunisia sought to abduct a Jewish woman by the name of Odette Boukris, take her to a brothel, and rape her. So, Abdelwahab went to Odette and her family, told them they had to evacuate and he took them to his farm, where he took care of them until the British chased the Nazis out of Tunisia four months later. Abdelwahab was the first Arab to be recognized as a Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Abdelwahab was not the only righteous Arab who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Satloff collected many other stories of Arabs who helped Jews during their hour of need in his book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.
To learn more, please watch this lecture on the Holocaust in North Africa!
By Rachel Avraham