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At the beginning of the 21st century, the Holocaust is a powerful symbol. For better or worse, the Holocaust looms very large in the contemporary Jewish narrative; the story of how this came to be has been the subject of several recent books, most notably The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick.
The Holocaust is also an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi symbol. Several reasons seem to lead inexorably to an Ashkenazi emphasis in any retelling of the Holocaust story. Most prominent is the sheer size of the Eastern European Jewish community in 1939; Holocaust victims from Poland and the Soviet Union alone, largely Ashkenazi, dwarf the numbers of victims from Yugoslavia, Greece and other southeastern European countries with traditionally-Sephardic populations. The overwhelming demographic preponderance of Ashkenazi victims is not in question.
Also relevant is the location of the major concentration camps and death-sites in Germany and Poland, (although there were forced-labor camps in North Africa as well as in Europe), and the overwhelming Ashkenazi ancestry of English-speaking Jewry. Even in Israel, despite its large Sephardic population, the telling of the Sho'ah emphasizes Ashkenazi memories, for many of the same reasons, and reflects the leading role played in Israel by Ashkenazim. There was nothing like Maidanek in Morocco. Nevertheless, in some Sephardic areas, such as Salonica in Greece, the final solution was as final—or more final—than it was in Warsaw or Vilna. In North Africa and the Middle East, however, it was not the Nazi Holocaust which brought these communities to their end, but the rise of the State of Israel, and Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism, which led to mass emigration.
Nevertheless, many Jews whose ancestry or professional interests lie in South-East Europe, or the lands of Africa and Asia, including Mandatory Palestine, can note with some justification that the Holocaust, as it is memorialized and studied, under-references these areas. Their history is indeed largely ignored, with maps, memorials, and listings of victims largely limited to Europe. Lists detailing Jewish losses typically aim to present "a well-founded and comprehensive picture of the losses incurred by the Jews of Europe as a direct result of Nazi persecution." Despite an occasional reference, for example, to Libyan deportees, non-Europeans are absent from most presentations of this materials. This makes it harder to compare deaths on French soil "as a result of Nazi-fostered persecution" with deaths in other countries under Vichy's control in North Africa and the Levant. At Wannsee in 1942, Heydrich described the "final solution of the European Jewish Problem," noting that "approximately eleven million Jews are involved." Clearly, the total elimination of all Jews from Europe was envisioned, but the estimates of Jews in France exceeded the total Jewish population of European France by over half a million. Clearly, French North African Jews were included in the tallies of Jews to be eliminated. Nevertheless, one rarely encounters any assessment of the overall numbers of Moroccan and Algerian Jews included among French deportees (these readily available records also record deportees born elsewhere in Africa, the Middle East and Asia). The situation is less true in Israel, where Yad Vashem has included definitive volumes on Libya and Tunisia by Irit Abramski-Bleigh in its Pinkas Ha-kehilot series on the Holocaust in various countries. Thanks to this scholar and to Michel Abitbol, North Africa and the Middle East are documented in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
This is just the point of a well-known anthology of Sephardic poetry about the Holocaust, in the original languages, edited and translated by Isaac Jack Lévy: And the World Stood Silent: Sephardic Poetry of the Holocaust. The difference in tone between the introduction and the poetry reflects the phenomenon of an increasing "centering of the Holocaust." One of the featured poets is Henriette Asseo, a woman of Salonican heritage living in Paris. She wrote:
Mon peuple n'existe pas
exil de la mémoire
aux portes des camps.
My people do not exist
Banished from memory
at the gates of the camps.
Asseo was aware of and moved by the Salonican experience; an early publication of hers (in 1979) was entitled "From honey to ashes...: where have the 70,000 Jews of Salonica gone?" Three of her poems were chosen for this anthology. Originally published in 1983, each could easily be seen as relating to the entire Jewish community of Holocaust victims, and dealt with the enormity of the experience. Indeed, in this poem "my people" are defined as none other than "followers of the Covenant /identified with God" and not specifically as Sephardim or even Salonicans. Much the same can be said of poems by other authors collected in this anthology, which recall the loss of victims from Sephardic centers—and from elsewhere. The poems speak movingly of the loss of life, the destruction of whole communities, and the brutality of the camps, but not of the invisibility of victims from the poets' hometowns as compared to others.
Yet, the translator and editor, Isaac Jack Lévy, notes—in a sentiment copied onto the dust jacket—"The Sephardic victims of the Holocaust were, indeed, forgotten at the gates of the camps. Their tragedy at the hands of the Nazis remained unknown...." This is no doubt the meaning of the title given to the anthology: And the World Stood Silent. Lévy's purpose in publishing the poems is to give voice to the message that Sephardim—not only Ashkenazim—perished in the Holocaust. Lévy's reading of the poetry as a message of Sephardic involvement reflects precisely the increasing centrality of the Holocaust in American life that Novick and the others have commented upon.
Regardless of what one may think about this centrality—and Novick is not convinced it is a good idea—it is very much a reality, and given its centrality, Sephardim and Jews of Islamic Lands clamor to bring their part of the story to the fore. Although proportionately a very small portion of the Jews destroyed by Hitler, the destruction of Sephardic culture in former Ottoman lands may have been even more total than that of Ashkenazi Europe. Moreover, the stories of Vichy, German and Italian activities in North Africa and the Middle East are virtually unknown except to specialists.
It is hardly surprising that the Holocaust in the Sephardic and Arabic world seems to be an increasingly controversial subject. The Sephardic caucus within the Association for Jewish Studies has noted the need to discuss the Holocaust's effect among Sephardim and the "Eastern Jews" (edot ha-mizrah). The U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum had a seminar bringing together eight scholars for two weeks culminated with a public presentation in mid-August, 1999. Interspersed with coverage of the ongoing bombings, genocide and atrocities in former Yugoslavia, the news media carried reports about Croatians and Serbs as Nazi collaborators or resistance fighters, and about Serbian and Albanian "Righteous Gentiles"—those who protected Jews.
Even before Lévy's publication, Solomon Gaon and M. Mitchell Serels published a volume of essays entitled Sephardim and the Holocaust, with a substantial bibliography; they published a revised and enlarged volume in 1995, with a new title: Del Fuego: Sephardim and the Holocaust. Lévy's introduction to the anthology presents a good summary of research about the Jews of Salonica, Rhodes, Greece, Bulgaria, the Dodecanese Islands, Libya and Tunisia. Lawrence Baron, in an article soon to appear in Judaism, references more recent bibliography for some of these areas. Perhaps less familiar to Western readers is the complex role of Turkey, which protected its Jews and served as a refuge in the Holocaust, but also bowed to British pressure and refused passage to refugees seeking passage by boat to Palestine.
In the central Arab lands, the support of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem for the Nazi cause is well documented, and there are links between the Holocaust and the Farhud in Iraq. In a more contemporary vein, there has been much media attention to the way the Holocaust is taught and presented in Arab societies, and to Arab tendencies to equate the effects of the formation of the State of Israel on the Arab Palestinian population with the Holocaust. This has, however, garnered less scholarly attention, and little attention has been given to attempts to provide sensitive but more accurate presentations in the Arab educational sphere, at least among Israeli Arabs.
Typical of the marginalization and exclusion of non-Ashkenazim from the Holocaust is a letter from David Harris, which appeared in the Intermountain Jewish News (published in Denver, Colorado), of April 30, 1999. Harris took exception to reports about internment of Jews in Morocco during World War II. He noted his own warm reception in Morocco with the Peace Corps and implied that references to deportations cite a single scholar, Michel Abitbol, presumed by Harris to be the only source to say Jews were interned in Morocco. It should be noted, however, that some Sephardim see themselves as marginalized as well: Serels wrote: "We as Sephardim, must realize that the Holocaust is part of our history. We cannot pretend that the Holocaust was a European problem experienced only by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe."
Abitbol is of course a recognized authority on the Jews of Morocco. He is the author of a standard monograph on the subject, The Jews of North Africa during the Second World War. Michael Laskier has written a more recent monograph on the subject of North Africa under Vichy domination, The Jews of the Maghreb in the shadow of Vichy and the Swastika (in Hebrew) and discusses this material in his English-language North African Jewry in Twentieth Century. Laskier's findings on this subject are similar to those of Abitbol, and already available in English, as much the same is reported (in briefer form) in the Encyclopedia Judaica article on Morocco, published in 1974.
The Vichy law of 4 October 1940 provided that "foreign nationals of the Jewish race" in Morocco would be detained in "special concentration camps." This law, however, had been preceded by an order of the King of Morocco on 2 January of the same year providing for detentions of various persons who could be used as forced labor. Apparently, however, these camps were intended for European Jews, not Moroccan Jews. Laskier says there were 12 camps, and that the Jews there were reportedly suffering from harsh conditions, although their fate was better than that of the Tunisian Jews in concentration camps. Nevertheless, he characterized the Moroccan Jews' situation at this time as "precarious." Although the King is said to have protected Moroccan Jews, Vichy restrictions imposed in Morocco included severe limitations on Jews' professions and schooling. There were forced relocation to the mellahs (the Moroccan "ghettos") in some but by no means all communities, as well as financial extortions, land expropriation, prohibitions from public office, and other regulations. The situation improved only after 3 June 1943, when Charles de Gaulle was able to end the period of Vichy influence.
Vichy France controlled Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and, from December 1940 to July 1941, Syria as well, which at that time included Lebanon. The 1940 regulations were extended to all these places. Algeria experienced Vichy patterns of persecution of Jews and removal of rights. Committees for Aryanization were set up and Jews lost the French citizenship they had enjoyed for seventy years. In Tunisia, additional legislation in 1941 increased the harshness of the situation. It may be noted that the Vichy-appointed High Commissioner in Syria, Henri Dentz, also planned to establish concentration camps, but was unable to do so before British and Free French forces occupied the country in July 1941.
In the broad context of the Jews of Arab lands, the situation in the Maghreb under Vichy paled compared to Tunisia and Libya, occupied by Germany and Italy. Raul Hilberg recognized a certain irony in the North African situation, writing that "Tunisia was Africa, and the 'final solution' by its very definition was applicable only to the European continent." Therefore, according to Hilberg, "so far as the Germans were concerned, the African Jews could have been left alone. But they were not." The Tunisian situation worsened substantially when the Germans occupied the country in 1942. Some 4,000 Tunisian Jews were deported from their homes, most forced into hard labor camps in Tunisia where some died; moreover, some Tunisians were deported to the European concentration camps. There are reports that the Germans may have begun building extermination camps in Tunisia. But they were distracted by continued Allied attacks in North Africa, their occupation of Tunisia lasted only for a short time, and their Italian partners in the Tunisian occupation exerted a moderating influence. If they had begun such camps, the Germans did not succeed in moving very far along this plan before their occupation ended in 1943. Nevertheless, Mitchell Serels notes that Tunisian Jewish leaders were deported to European death camps, and estimates that a total 2,575 Jews died in Tunisia.
Libya was also occupied. Mussolini's anti-Jewish regulations of 1938 in theory applied equally to Libyan Jews. At first they were more effective in Italian governmental agencies and businesses in North Africa west of Libya than in Libya itself. Nevertheless, eventually close to 5,000 Jews in Libya itself were subject to internment and even deportation to European camps.
In Abitbol's three-volume Israeli reader History of the Jews of Arab Lands, he refers to the Tunisian forced labor camps and the worse conditions in Libya—and little about the camps in Morocco. But in Jews of North Africa, he refers to the Moroccan internment centers with some further details, although notes that the surviving documentation does not allow for a full picture. Nevertheless, he is able to give detail of the working conditions at some thirty camps, naming fourteen in Morocco and the rest in Algeria, and cited a New York Jewish weekly which published a census adding up to 2,100 internees in Morocco and 2,000 in Algeria. (Abitbol noted differences in the purposes of some of the camps; perhaps this is the reason for the disparity between the figure he gave and Laskier's reference to twelve camps).
Moroccan Jews venerate the memory of King Mohammad V, but under the Protectorate of Vichy France, Moroccan Jews nevertheless suffered various limitations. Laskier delineates the differing approaches of Abitbol, H.Z. Hirschberg, David Cohen and M. Dutheil regarding the role of the King and the Moroccan government under the Vichy French protectorate. Hirschberg thinks the King was in effect totally powerless, others say he actively cooperated with the Vichy anti-Semitic program, refrained from doing things within his power to thwart it, or did his best to oppose—or at least delay—implementing the Vichy directives. Laskier believes that future access to more government archival materials may clarify the record. In any case, the Vichy government could act without the King's consent, but the reverse was not true.
In recent years, as noted, memorializing the Holocaust seems to have played an ever increasing and central role both among Jews and in our society in general. Uncommon energies are dedicated to recording the personal testimonies of survivors, celebrating acts of defiance of the Nazis, and building museums and electronic archives. It would seem to be of crucial importance that this endeavor not exclude documentation, analysis, exhibition and videotape records of the effects of the Holocaust in countries occupied or administered by the Nazis or those under their domination outside of Western, Central or Eastern Europe. Especially in the Balkans, in Salonica and Rhodes, and in former Habsburg lands, there were Sephardic victims whose story is no different from those of the other European victims. The North African story may be somewhat distinct, but those whose lives were destroyed in internment or work camps—and there were some too who were sent to the European crematoria—are no less victims.
The lower visibility of the Holocaust in North Africa and in Southeast Europe goes beyond issues of documentation, disparities in the size of the communities effected, or in the end result. Ultimately, it reflects the centrality of Central and Eastern Europe in the Holocaust narrative, especially as it is retold in North America.
In his letter, Harris disputed the claim that there were camps in Morocco, which he supposed to have been supported by the research of only a single scholar. In fact, the comments of Abitbol and others make it clear beyond doubt that Jews in Morocco were forced into ghettos and into internment camps. In the latter case, however, they were mostly "foreign" rather than "Moroccan" Jews, the camps were for labor, not execution, and the numbers affected were relatively small; these camps were not on the scope of Auschwitz. It is true that Abitbol tends to attach more importance to them than some others do, and to emphasize Moroccan complicity in anti-Jewish actions. Nevertheless, even those who credit the King of Morocco with protecting "his Jews" presume that Vichy French collaboration with the Nazis extended to Morocco. Questioning the very existence of Nazi-inspired legislation, expropriations, quotas, forced evictions to ghettos, and even internment and extermination, reflects a lack of awareness in the Jewish community of the Holocaust narrative outside the main region of the focus of the American Holocaust narrative: Eastern and Central Europe.
There are several important points here:
A final thought: The Holocaust endeavor cannot merely be to memorialize, nor even to teach "tolerance" of the other or "intolerance" for racism. The traditional Jewish memorial prayer invokes the memory of the departed with a blessing that they be "bound up in the bonds of life," justified because those who remember them use the occasion for tsedaka, a term translated in some contexts by "righteousness" but here referring to charity. Righteousness and charity—social, communal or educational activities—provide a far more eloquent testimony to the humanity of the loved one than a mere memorial. It falls to our generation to find the correct balance of acts of memory and acts of righteousness in the shadow of the Holocaust.
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