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March 20, 2017 by Nina Lichtenstein
In seeking to shed light on Sephardic women from French North Africa within the greater Holocaust narrative, I searched the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive for oral testimonies. With a collection of more than 54,000 video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of genocide, I located 20 testimonies by women born in Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria. I decided to let the women speak for themselves because it is vital that their stories exist within a greater narrative of the modern Jewish experience.
Although their stories are unique and individually important, one stood out as extraordinary—that of Gisèle Braka, née Chemama. As a young woman, this polyglot slipped through the cracks of ruthless Paris roundups, joined the Resistance, and survived the War to become an activist for Sephardic and humanitarian causes worldwide. In interviews, Gisèle gives a sweeping account of a long life that brought her from Tunisia to France and back, then to Israel, the French Congo and back to Israel, only to be disillusioned enough with the Ashkenaz-centric bureaucracy of Israeli society in the early 1960s to again return to France, eventually ending up in Montreal.
She was born in 1920 to Miriam Levy of Spanish and Tunisian descent, and Yizchak Chemama whose family hailed from Livorno, Italy. Her father was a wholesaler in grains, and her mother a teacher in the French secular school system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (A.I.U.). About 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia at the time, and they spoke a mix of French, Judeo-Arabic, Spanish and Italian, depending on levels of education and family background. Gisèle, the youngest of six siblings, went to A.I.U., and her family lived comfortably in the European part of the capital, Tunis. In this way they differed from the large Jewish population who lived in the Hara, or Jewish ghetto, a population not as educated and of modest means at best.
When Gisèle’s educated and strong-willed mother realized her husband was a womanizer, she insisted on a divorce, but was told by her dominant mother-in-law that in order to protect the family honor, she should leave the country. Thus, in 1935, Gisèle moved at 15 with her mother and siblings to France, where she would study to become a nurse.
When the Germans invaded in 1940, Prime Minister Petain signed an armistice agreement with Germany. Gisèle, then 20, recalled de Gaulle making his famous appeal to the French people, on Radio London, to resist the occupying Nazis. “I was blond with blue eyes, I looked Aryan…people told me to enter into the Resistance!” She reported to the Red Cross, and in uniform with a pass to move freely, cared for prisoners of war and soldiers in the military hospital and P.O.W. camps of Drancy and La Croix de Berny. She also transported them to and from the hospital. Although her pass was only good for two people, she would take five or six at a time. She vividly remembers taking risks pulling over on the Champs-Elysées and instructing prisoners to escape. “I was young, I was foolish, but I did the right thing.” By November of 1940, Gisèle had to flee Paris because her operations were discovered, and she undertook a dramatic journey back to Tunisia, accompanied by her fiercely brave mother and aided by the underground.
Thinking they would be safe in North Africa, the subsequent German invasion and six-month occupation of Tunisia extended Gisèle’s wartime experiences. She recalls how in 1942 there were round-ups of Jewish men sent to work camps, and that Jewish bank accounts and art were confiscated. During the occupation of Tunisia her fearless gestures continued: “I was very naughty in Tunisia also…” Throughout her testimony, she uses words and phrases like “clever, cunning, shrewd, sly, crafty, outsmarting the Germans, inventive, a devil” to describe herself as she continued to help Jews find shelter and food.
Tunisia was liberated from the Nazis in May of 1943, and Gisèle and her family moved back to Paris in 1945. Their apartment had been emptied: “Not even a chair, not the piano…nothing was left; it had all been stolen.” But, she says, they broke open the door, and slept on straw mattresses while they slowly rebuilt their home and life. At this time she worked at the military hospital before being hired by l’Osé, the French Jewish humanitarian organization that worked to recover Jewish orphans who were then brought to Israel.
Not without idealistic dreams of Jewish nationhood, Gisèle and her husband, a Tunisian Jew and radiologist, decided to make the budding state their home in 1948. However, they were put in an absorption camp with very poor conditions, and life in Israel proved too difficult for the young couple, so they returned to Paris in 1950. Shortly after, the French government appointed her husband to the French Congo where they lived until its decolonization 1960. They opened an Israeli Consulate and she organized groups of Congolese youth to go to Israel to experience life in a kibbutz, learning skills to bring back to Congo. She recounts helping the local Muslim population by speaking up for them in the public sphere: “I made a ruckus at the French Embassy in Congo to get the Black Muslim soldiers their paychecks!” She also helped raise funds to build a mosque and adds—not without some pride—that the foundation stone is engraved with her name.
But it was not easy for the Brakas to raise Jewish children in the Congo: at their French Catholic school, they were taught by nuns that the Jews had killed Jesus. As the country gained independence, the Brakas were urged by their Israeli friends to give Israel another chance. However, once there, her husband was unable to find a job and they discovered that teachers discriminated against Sephardic girls. So, by 1965, they moved back to Paris. In France, she raised their daughters while volunteering for the social services. In 1983, Gisèle helped establish the famous monument for the 178,000 Sephardim who went through the detention camp at Drancy during World War II.
Gisèle’s competence and ingenuity, combined with her bravery, stubbornness and sheer luck were all instrumental components in her ability to rescue others during the War and to survive. Her story is just one among many rarely told Sephardic Holocaust narratives. Through her oral testimonies, Braka has situated the heroic trajectory of her “I” as a Sephardic woman from North Africa within the larger context of the 20th-century Jewish experience.
When she died at 93, in 2013, Madame Braka lived at the Maimonides Geriatric Center in Montreal, visited daily by one of her daughters, who tenderly fed her avocados, her favorite food from her 10 years in the Congo. Surrounded by photographs of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as a few snapshots from the most memorable moments in her rich and colorful history, Gisèle would greet her visitors with those clear blue eyes that once allowed her to pass as an Aryan in front of the Nazis.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a writer, teacher, public speaker and storyteller. She has a PhD in French Literature and has taught literatures and languages as well as Jewish Studies. Her book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was just published (Gaon Books 2017). She currently lives in Jerusalem working on her next project.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.