An event designed to draw attention to the persecution of Jews in North Africa by the Axis powers and French Vichy government will be held Wednesday night, as the country begins observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“The story that has not been told,” is an initiative of Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria and the Shaharit Institute in Tel Aviv where it is being held.
Although the persecution of Jews in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya occurred during World War II on a smaller scale, and mass murder and genocide was not perpetrated in these countries, Jews were nevertheless subjected to discriminatory racial laws and several thousand were sent to forced labor and concentration camps.
Azaria, whose father is from Tunisia, said the accounts of the persecution of North Africa Jewry must be included in the national narrative about the Holocaust.
“Over many years, the story of North African Jews, as well as the story of Jews in the former Soviet Union, has not gained a central place in the dialogue of remembrance, even though it pertains to a large communities in Israel,” she said.
“The public wants and is searching for stories close to it, and this is the idea behind this event, to hear the story that has not been told.”
Several hundred Jews died from malnutrition, disease, arbitrary executions and other causes common in the concentration camps of Europe, including 300 to 400 Libyan Jews who were deported to Italy, and subsequently to Bergen–Belsen.
According to Yad Vashem, approximately 450,000 Jews lived in North Africa before the outbreak of the war. Algeria and Morocco were never occupied by Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy, but they were subject to the racial discrimination laws promulgated by the Vichy regime in France.
Tunisia was occupied by German and Italian troops from November 1942 to May 1943, while control of Libya swung back and forth between the Axis and Allied powers, and was occupied by German and Italian troops from February to December 1942.
During these periods of occupation, in Tunisia, the Nazis demanded that a Jewish Council, or “Judenrat”, select 2,000 Jews for forced labor, a number that eventually rose to 5,000.
In Libya, several forced labor camps were established by the Italians, principally at Jado, which held some 3,000 Jewish slave laborers, 500 of whom died from disease, malnutrition and the effects of forced labor.
Rabbi Dov Hayun, the rabbi of a Masorti community in Haifa and a campaigner for recognition of atrocities committed against Jews in North Africa during the war, said there was no mass murder of Jews in the region simply because the Axis powers were defeated there by the Allies before genocide could be committed.
“It was the luck of North African Jews that, due to the... Allies, this region was liberated first, before Europe was liberated,” Hayun, who will speak at the event, told The Jerusalem Post.
Hayun pointed to the fact that SS Col.
Walter Rauff, who was in charge of the technical department of the Reich Security Main Office responsible for murdering “enemies of the Reich” such as Jews, gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses and gays, was sent to North Africa by the Nazi regime and was active in the anti-Jewish actions of the Axis powers in North Africa.
“It is important to show what happened to all Jews during the war,” said Hayun, whose parents were born in the Tunisian capital Tunis. “This was a Holocaust of all Jews, it reached everyone, in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, as well as Poland and Europe. Some communities suffered a great deal, some less, but this aspect of the story shouldn’t be eradicated from the historical narrative. It must be told.”
According to Sagit Deri-Peretz, an attorney and social activist who seeks to advance the Sephardi community in Israel, the persecution of Jews in North Africa has not received sufficient public awareness in Israel, even among the North African community.
Deri-Peretz, another speaker at the event, has focused particularly on the actions of King Muhammad V of Morocco, who refused to implement the discriminatory laws enacted by Vichy France, of which Morocco was a protectorate.
He refused to make Jews in Morocco wear the Star of David, as they had to in France, Algeria and Tunisia, and is reported to have told the Vichy regime: “There are no Jews in Morocco, there are only citizens.”