Jacques Guy Benhamou is the eldest of three sons born to an Algerian Jewish family. His Hebrew name is Yaakov, as it was traditional for the eldest son to carry his grandfather’s name. Jacques’s forebears lived in Debdou, Morocco, a small town on the road from Timbuktu to the Mediterranean. There were 12 large Jewish families in Debdou, and each family group had its own synagogue. The Benhamou family of Debdou made a living as peddlers supplying caravans. It was difficult for Jews in Debdou to make a living, and Guy’s great-grandfather and his family left for Algeria, when the French conquered the country in 1830.
Jacques’s father a stationmaster in Tlemcen, Algeria sadly passed away in 1938, leaving his mother with sons ages nine, six and three. After the death of his father, Jacques''s family moved in with their grandmother. Five Jewish families lived in his grandmother’s small property. His father’s death left his family poor, as women had no way to earn a living in those days. Young Jacques worked after school hand-copying documents for a notary.
Growing up, Jacques attended a French school, while Arab Muslim students attended separate schools. He went to Kabbalat Shabbat services every Friday night long after his Bar Mitzvah, and remembers that people attended mostly to hear the lovely melodies to which the prayers were chanted. There was no commentary on the Torah portion (parsha), and the tones for chanting the parsha had to be precise.
On the whole, the Jewish community of Tlemcen was well-organized. Jacques, remembers with gratitude the efforts of the Jewish community leaders. They rebuilt the synagogue and renovated the Jewish pilgramge site of Rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua’s tomb. There was an association to help provide poor girls with what they needed for their weddings, as well as a charity which gave funds to poor community members so they could celebrate Jewish festivals.
Jacques fondly recalls the celebrations honoring Rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua, who journeyed from Toledo to Tlemcen after the 1392 pogrom, a century before the Spanish Expulsion. The hilula (anniversary of death) pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua at Lag B’Omer was the highlight of a full week of festivities. The peak of the hilula festival was a pilgrimage to Rabbi Enkaoua’s grave. People knelt and kissed the grave, pouring water on sugar so that their prayers would be sweet. Pilgrims were received in the big synagogue, speeches were delivered, candles were lit, and dances and concerts of Judeo-Arabic music filled the air. Many souvenirs were sold, and it was a popular week to hold weddings.
The French Vichy regime, a collaborator with Nazi Germany, imposed their anti-Jewish laws in Algeria in 1940. The lives and livelihoods of Algerian Jews were increasingly threatened. It began with restrictions placed on Jews, as they were banned from practicing certain professions. Students were made to learn German songs. Jacques recalls being “scared to death” during the dangerous sports he was forced to play at school such as walking on a wall. Eventually, Jacques – along with most Jewish children – was forced to stop attending school altogether. French citizenship was revoked for Jewish residents, property was confiscated and many of the young men in Jacques’s Jewish community were forced into the Bedeau Jewish Labor Camp.
American troops landed in North Africa in 1942, clearing the region of German and Italian forces. Jacques befriended two American soldiers when they arrived in Tlemcen. They picked him up in their Jeep and asked him to show them around. The soldiers needed their shirts laundered, so he took the shirts home to his mother. They were pleased with her work, and Mrs. Benhamou began generating enough income for her family’s survival by laundering and mending soldiers’ clothes. She was paid in both money and food, supplementing the family’s limited rations.
Years later, in 1958, after President Charles DeGaulle came to power some Algerian Jews held hope that conditions would improve, but unfortunately they did not. The Algerian War of Independence raged on and terrorist attacks by the National Liberation Front (FLN) continued to erupt, including a bombing at the home of Jacques’s neighbor, who was the Chief of Police. Jacques, who by this time had become a teacher, recalls describes the impending violence: “I even had to check my own pupils from the school where I taught to open their schoolbags. For a week we had to watch the huge gas storage tanks to make sure there were no terrorists. Once we stayed in a camp where terrorists were imprisoned. I spent 2 hours at night in a “mirador” guard tower, with lights to watch.”
As a result of the detiorating conditions in Algeria, Jacques requested to be relocated to a school in France and was placed in Grenoble, along with his fellow Algerian Jewish teachers. Jacques reflects on emigrating: “It was a relief to leave Algeria. Yellow stars were already on stock in the town halls.” While France was safer, the treatment of Algerian Jews was still harsh and discriminator. Apartment rental agencies would reject Jacques as soon as they learned his name. His first winter in the country, he was evicted – an action he only later learned was illegal in France.
Jacques explains the importance of both aliyah to Israel, as well as maintaining a strong Jewish community within France. “I would advise young people to go to Israel. Older people need to stay as we need a strong, united Diaspora in France, to counterbalance France’s permanent anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist attitude.” Jacques reminds us the importance of preserving and passing on our history and heritage: “Everything I have done since I retired has been for my grandchildren, to remember who you come from and what we have gone through. Remember this history, to give you courage to go on! We must go on!”