The forgotten Jews of Tunisia

"We will probably never know exactly how many Tunisian Jews died during that period."

tunisia jews 88 (photo credit: )
tunisia jews 88
(photo credit: )
The first thing one noticed upon arrival at the remembrance tent at Yad Vashem on Sunday afternoon was that a large part of the people in attendance were speaking Arabic, as well as Hebrew and French. The recital of Kaddish and El Maleh Rahamim was in accordance with North African tradition, with Arabic-influenced melodies and well emphasized Ayins and Hets in the oriental Hebrew accent. Holocaust-related events are usually attended by Jews of Eastern European descent, but this was a special ceremony dedicated to the experiences of the Tunisian Jewish community during the Second World War. "It was an important and urgent thing to do," explains Dr. Claude Sitbon, who was born in Tunisia and was the driving force behind the special ceremony. "For the first time we had to prepare a version of the El Maleh Rahamim according to Tunisian tradition and with the appropriate words," he says, adding that he sat for hours preparing with Rabbi Eric Bellaiche, head of a Tunisian community in Baka, who led the religious part of the ceremony. "There is mention of 32 different Nazi camps created in Tunisia," says Sitbon. "But we are never mentioned at Yad Vashem, so this year I swore to myself I would organize it." Sitbon is a researcher on Tunisian Jewry and has assembled, by scouring journals, survivor testimonies and official records, a comprehensive picture of this little-known episode in Jewish history. At the outbreak of World War II, Tunisia was a French protectorate, neither an independent state nor a colony, as was Algeria. "It didn't bother the fascist government of Vichy to apply the racist laws of its regime in Tunisia," continues Sitbon, referring to the de facto French government created after the surrender of France to the Germans in 1940. "True, the representative of France in Tunisia in those days, Jean-Pierre Esteva, was not keen to apply those laws, and they were indeed very tenuously observed. But the Germans arrived in Tunisia in 1942, in reaction to the victories of the Allies in North Africa, and one of the first things they did was to enforce the Nazi laws against the Jewish community. "The first effect was a limit on the number of Jewish students at Tunis University, and on the amount of Jews allowed to practice professions like law, medicine etc," explains Sitbon. "Then they started to confiscate their property. Jews were expelled from their homes, which then were used by German soldiers. They started to build forced labor camps, 32 in all. The most notorious were in the towns of Bizerta and Mateur. About 5,000 Jews were forced into those labor camps, and many perished there from diseases, hunger and sometimes just because one of the bored German guards started to shoot randomly. "Then they sent some of the prisoners to Europe, to work in labor camps in Germany. Many of them never returned. In addition, an unknown number of Tunisian Jews who were in France when the war broke out were denounced by the French gendarmes and sent to their death in Auschwitz through the French transit camp of Drancy." At the ceremony, Dr. Haim Paldiel, director of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem, asked the audience to search their homes, and to ask their relatives and friends about cases of Arabs who saved Jewish lives during that period. "We have almost nothing from Tunisia in this context," he explained. "We are almost sure that in Tunisia, like in some other Muslim countries like Bosnia for example, Jews were saved thanks to their Muslim neighbors. But we don't have the names. This is an opportunity to ask you to make efforts to find such information." "We will probably never know exactly how many Tunisian Jews died during that period," says Sitbon. "But we have a duty to remember, to collect all the testimonies, facts and history of that community. Our goal is to give our children, grandchildren and the generations to come a very important message: that the Holocaust is an issue of Jewish destiny. For the Germans, they didn't care if we were Ashkenazi or Mizrahi Jews - they didn't mind - we were all Jews and our fate according to their plan was death." Sitbon, a high-ranking official at the Jewish Agency, says that he is currently finishing a comprehensive book on Tunisian Jewry and World War II that will serve as an academic reference for future researchers.