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March 7, 2017 by Nina Lichtenstein
One of the more ambitious tasks of Holocaust research in recent years has been to enhance our understanding of the diversity and complexity of what went on during this dark period of human history. Without seeking to minimize any one specific experience, the assumption that the “typical” Holocaust account is represented by the Ashkenazi (male) experience is being adjusted, slowly but surely, by research that focuses on the war-time experiences of women and children, as well as that of other ethnic, religious or types of “minorities” subjected to the horrors of the Nazi machinery.
During a 2010 summer workshop on Sephardic Jews and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I had the opportunity to search in the archives for information on how Jewish women from North Africa (a longstanding research interest of mine) experienced this devastating historic event. I realized that through the oral testimonies collected in the U.S.C. Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, as well as the collection at the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies housed at Yale, I would be able to locate information on this minority experience. Being a Norwegian Jew myself, I am acutely aware of the danger and tragedy of dismissing a minority narrative in favor of the majority. I have been on the receiving end of comments about how “few” Norwegian Jews there were. The implication is that in the larger scope of Holocaust history, this story is hardly central or representative to the Eastern or Central European Jewish war experience, even though nearly 50% of Norway’s approximately 1400 Jews were deported and killed, mostly in Auschwitz. Hence, with the acute awareness of and sensitivity to the dangers of occluding minority narratives in favor of majority ones, my research strives to bring other stories to light.
When reading about and listening to Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews on what went on in Europe and the camps during WWII, the word “silence” or “silenced” often occurs. In the years following WWII, as North African Jews emigrated en masse to France and Israel, they would learn about the horrors experienced by the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe as well as by the Sephardic Jews of the Balkans. These first-hand accounts of mass-extermination contributed to the near total eclipse of the stories from the same period of Jews from the French territories of North Africa.
But common to all Jews, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, with or without their awareness, was the murderous intent of the Nazis. Like their brethren in Europe, the Jews of French North Africa were subjected to the same stages that were the prelude to murder: the Jews were stripped of their liberty, their livelihoods, their property and their dignity. Across North Africa, they were sent to labor camps where hunger, disease and poor treatment were rampant. Make no mistake about it: Hitler’s plans for a Final Solution also reached into North Africa, as evidenced by the tally numbers of Jews to be annihilated that were documented at the Nazis’ Wannsee Conference in January 1942. This is where the plans for the Final Solution were laid out. France’s Jewish population was listed at 165,000 in the occupied area, and at 700,000 in the French territories (i.e. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), not yet occupied. Tunisia was later occupied for six months starting in November of 1942, and this could have been just the beginning of a German-ruled North Africa. The force majeure that saved the Jews of the Maghreb from the last stage of the Final Solution – systematic mass murder – was the turning tide of the war.
The self-imposed silence around the Holocaust was experienced differently by some Sephardic women who lived in France during the war, and who survived the trauma of the death camps or escaped by hiding or fleeing. Their memories are hauntingly familiar to the tens of thousand of testimonies whose devastating scenarios we know too well: every individual victim lived through the nightmare utterly alone. Yet their testimonies converge in an uncanny manner: the violent round-ups, the endless and unbearable train rides in cattle cars, the selections at arrivals, to the right or to the left. Gas chambers, starvation, filth, degradation, torture, sickness, fear, death all around. But because these women didn’t speak German, Yiddish or Polish, and their heritage had roots in North African Judeo-Arabic culture, the Sephardic women would often feel like outsiders in the camps; linguistically and culturally isolated. “They did not believe we were Jewish” is a much repeated phrase in their testimonies.
This sense of isolation continued after the war. One of the interviewees shared that after Auschwitz she returned to Algeria and married a Tunisian Jew, but neither her husband nor the Jews in her native homeland understood what she talked about when she wanted to discuss what she had lived through. Unable to find an echo to her words, she became silent.
Because North African Jews have rarely been afforded the space to imprint their own narrative on the contemporary annals of the Jewish people, taking account of local and individual specificities in documenting of the Second World War can help prevent generalization of Holocaust experiences. The narratives of these Jewish women provide a lens through which one can view, freshly, how gender, class, ethnicity and nationality affect what is often assumed to be a somewhat homogenous Jewish experience.
For example, Gisèle Braka, née Chemama, born in Tunisia in 1920, immigrated to France on the eve of WWII at 16 with five siblings and her mother. Through a combination of sheer luck, smarts, bravery and tenacity, this young polyglot woman slipped through the cracks of the ruthless Paris round-ups, joined the resistance, and heroically survived to become an activist for Sephardic and humanitarian causes worldwide. You can learn more about Braka’s fascinating story here next week on the Lilith Blog.
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.