Aomar Boum and Sarah Abrevaya Stein knew the wartime experiences of North African Jews are often overlooked in Holocaust history, so they decided to write a book about it.
“Opening up these stories about North African experiences of the second World War and, in some cases, the Holocaust, can not only teach us about this region, but really change what we know about Holocaust history and Jewish history as a whole, and that is a really profound investment and yield for students, for readers and for academic research,” said Stein, chair of Sephardic studies and director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.
The National Museum of American Jewish History hosted a webinar about the book, “The Holocaust in North Africa,” on April 9. Josh Perelman, NMAJH’s chief curator, interviewed the two scholars about pre-war Jewish life in North Africa, the impact of colonialism and fascism on the region and the research they conducted for the project.
Boum, associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, said most North African countries were under the colonial rule of European powers on the eve of WWII. France controlled Algeria, Tunisia and northern Morocco, Italy controlled Libya and Spain controlled southern Morocco. He estimated between 480,000 and 500,000 Jews lived in these countries.
Stein said these Jews were a diverse population that migrated from different regions, spoke different languages, came from different classes of society and participated in different political movements. Some Jews in urban centers adopted European lifestyles, while others lived more traditionally.
Since the North African countries had Muslim majority populations, as well as settler colonialists from Europe, Jews had varying relationships with their neighbors. Some lived among Muslims and Christians, others stayed in mostly Jewish communities.
Perelman asked the speakers about North African Jews’ rights and how European politics impacted their standing. Stein said their legal status was determined by colonial ruling countries.
“North Africa is unique in the context of second World War Holocaust stories in that it is…a place where fascism and colonialism are not only intersecting, but reverberating off of each other in interesting ways,” Stein said.
Since Tunisia and Morocco were protectorates of France, neither Muslims nor Jews were offered citizenship. This was also true for colonial subjects in Libya. Since Algeria was considered a department of France, Jews were offered citizenship, but Muslims were not.
This meant that when fascist governments began issuing anti-Semitic laws stripping Jews of their rights, Jews in North Africa felt the impact differently. In some countries, Boum said, Jews were ordered to move back to the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods where they previously were forced to live, known as mellah in Morocco and hara in Tunisia. Some countries also confiscated property owned by Jews and restricted them from employment in educational institutions and other industries.
In southern Morocco, where Boum conducted many of his interviews, he found that several laws were not applied because administrators from the Vichy regime, France’s fascist government, realized that preventing Jews from continuing their occupations as peddlers, merchants and artisans would destroy the region’s economy. As a result, many Jews moved from countries like Algeria to Morocco, where they would have more opportunities.
Stein said that North African Jews were part of the Nazi’s calculus of global Jewry to exterminate, and some were deported to Europe and killed in concentration camps. However, while many North African Jews had their rights stripped away like their European counterparts, there was no centralized effort to exterminate them.
Instead, the Vichy regime sent them to labor camps, along with Muslims deemed enemies of the state for their political affiliations, Spanish Civil War soldiers who fought against fascism, French Foreign Legion soldiers and European refugees. In Tunisia, Jewish men and boys were interned and forced to work on infrastructure projects.
During his research, Boum discovered he had a personal connection to the camps: When he visited the site of a mining camp located near his home village in Morocco, he learned that his father and other locals had worked there.
“I’ve always thought about it as something that connects me indirectly to the history of these European refugees, Jewish or non-Jewish,” he said.