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Operation Torch and the Liberation of 400,000 Vichy Jews in North Africa

(November 1942 - May 1943)
By Edith Shaked

Following the 1940 Franco-German armistice, Field-Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, head of the new French Vichy regime, governed the southern part of metropolitan/continental France and French North Africa as unoccupied territories, while most of the northern part of metropolitan France came under direct German military administration. A total of 700,000 Jews (300,000 in France and 400,000 in North Africa) came under the German sphere of influence because Pétain decided to collaborate with Hitler.

“In the name of France and state anti-Semitism,” and to solve “the Jewish question,” Pétain enacted two anti-Semitic laws – Statut des Juifs – in October 1940 and June 1941 applicable in Vichy-controlled areas. Jews under occupation were identified, counted, ostracized, isolated, systematically discriminated, objectified, diabolized, and deprived of their civil rights and property – the preparatory measures foreshadowing their eventual annihilation.

In the fall of 1942, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe, planned Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. U.S. officials informed the Algerian resistance and requested their help by attacking strategic locations in Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca. The underground failed in Oran and Casablanca, but seized part of Algiers and neutralized the French XIX Army Corps on November 8, 1942, the same day U.S. and British forces stormed the beaches of Algeria and Morocco. Of the 377 resistance members who took Algiers, 315 were Jews.[1]

Click on map to enlarge

The Allied landings triggered the invasion of Vichy France Tunisia by Hitler’s forces on November 9. An Einsatzkommando (a unit of the Einsatzgruppen) led by Walter Rauff of the SS also entered Tunis to continue implementation of the “Final Solution.” He was empowered to “‘take executive measures against the civilian population,’” Nazi jargon for robbery, murder and enslavement.”[2]

During its six months of occupation, the ruthless Nazi regime “forced the creation of local Judenrat, and imposed anti-Semitic policies, including fines, confiscation of property, and the forced wearing of the yellow badge (Star of David) by Jews.” [3] Approximately 5,000 Jews were sent to roughly 40 forced labor camps where they engaged in backbreaking work overseen by sadistic guards.[4]

On November 10-11, 1942, U.S. officials, acting on President Roosevelt’s orders, negotiated the cessation of Vichy resistance with the Vichy High Commissioner for France in North Africa Admiral Jean Francois Darlan. Consequently, Algiers became the new capital of France, and about 310,000 Jews were about to be liberated.

The Jews of French Morocco celebrated their freedom by reading “Megillat Hitler.” That megillah describes the rise of Hitler, his deadly plan to deport all the Jews in Vichy North Africa to the death camps, and how that plan was foiled because of President Roosevelt (Persian King Achashveroch). Today, one can see “Megillat Hitler displayed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.”

In May 1943, the Allies liberated Nazi-occupied Tunisia, where 260 Jews are known to have died in the forced labor camps. Altogether Operation Torch saved approximately 400,000 Jews in French North Africa from the mass deportations to extermination camps that took place in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Today, the Jews of the French protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco, and of the three departments of French Algeria, who suffered during Nazi occupation of France, receive Holocaust compensation, just as the Jews of the Metropole (mainland France) do.

Edith Shaked is an Advisory Board Member of H-Holocaust, an international academic consortium for scholars of the Holocaust. 

[1] Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands, PublicAffairs, (October 9, 2007), pp. 40-41.

[2] Von Jan Friedmann, “New Research Taints Image of Desert Fox Rommel,” Der Spiegel, (May 23, 2007).

[3] Satloff, pp. 49-50.

[4] Satloff, pp. 50-51.

Map: U.S. Military Academy.