In the brief period when they had a chance, the Germans and their allies made a significant start toward their murderous goal for North Africa’s Jews. For three years — from the fall of France in June 1940 to the expulsion of German troops from Tunisia in May 1943 — the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators, and their Italian Fascist allies applied in these areas many of the same tools that would be used to devastating effect against the much larger Jewish populations of Europe. These included not only statutes depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence, and free movement, but also forced labor, confiscations, deportations, and executions.
Virtually no Jew in North Africa was left untouched. Nearly 10,000 suffered in labor camps, work gangs, and prisons, or under house arrest. By a stroke of fortune, relatively few perished, many of them in the almost daily Allied bombings of Tunis and Bizerte in the winter and spring of 1943 when the Germans forced Jewish workers to stay at their jobs clearing rubble. But if U.S. and British troops had not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and perhaps Egypt would almost certainly have met the fate of their brethren in Europe.
Particularly hard hit was Tunisia, the only Arab country to come under direct German occupation. In just six months, from November 1942 to May 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators implemented a forced-labor regime, confiscations of property, hostage-taking, mass extortion, deportations, and executions. They required thousands of Jews in the countryside to wear the Star of David, and they created special Judenrat-like committees of Jewish leaders to implement Nazi policies under threat of imprisonment or death. Tunisia was also the training ground for some of the most notorious Nazi killers — like SS Colonel Walter Rauff, who had earlier invented the mobile death-gas van.
Nevertheless, of the three European countries that brought the Holocaust to Arab lands, the most malevolent by far was France. In Morocco and, especially, Algeria, France implemented strict laws against local Jews, expelling them from schools, universities, and government employment, confiscating their property, and sending a number of local Jewish political activists to harsh labor camps. In some respects, Vichy was more vigorous about applying anti-Jewish statutes in Arab lands than in metropolitan France.
Not content with this, Vichy also dispatched more than 2,000 European Jews to forced-labor camps in North Africa. The origins of this tale lie earlier, in the 1930’s, when France’s relatively liberal Third Republic provided safe haven to thousands of Central European Jews fleeing their homelands while they still could. Many of these new arrivals promptly joined the French army. Indeed, when war arrived in 1939, a Jewish veterans’ organization operating out of a single office in Paris reportedly registered 10,000 volunteers, all non-citizens, in a mere ten days.
Sources: Excerpted with permission from Robert Satloff, “In Search of “Righteous Arabs,” Commentary, (July 04, 2004)