Monday, April 12, 2010

"Among the Righteous" updated

I just finished watching "Among the Righteous" - it's a very interesting film, not only telling the stories of some Arabs who saved Jews in North Africa, but also asking the question of why this has not been researched and remembered. These are my notes on the film:

Among the Righteous

More than one hundred concentration camps were set up in North Africa, by the Vichy French, the Nazis, and the Italians. A camp in Libya named Giado was where the most Jews died of all of the camps. An interesting point made by Satloff is that even though knowledge of these camps had been forgotten for a long time, the movie Casablanca (made during the war) mentions concentration camps at a couple of points, so their existence was certainly known at the time.

One example of a righteous person whom Satloff found was an Arab nobleman named Ali Sikkat, in Tunisia. During fighting in 1943, sixty Jews were being kept in a labor camp fled the camp in the middle of a battle between the Allies and the Axis. Their lives were saved by Ali Sikkat, whose story was published already fifty years ago.

Satloff said that his search for a righteous Arab was politically loaded: why don’t we know these stories? Arabs don’t want to be found – it became toxic in many Arab countries to let it be known that you’d helped Jews. The problem is that Arab sympathy for the Palestinian people has prevented these stories from being unearthed and told, in order not to give support to Israel.

Historically speaking, Jews in Muslim lands lived as second class citizens (admittedly, usually better than the situation of Jews living in Christian countries). Jews were under legal prescriptions (as dhimmis who had to pay the jizya to gain legal protection), and from time to time there was violence against them. In the 1930s, the Jews of North Africa faced a new threat – fascism and antisemitism.

The only Holocaust memorial monument in all of North Africa commemorates a group of Tunisian Jews who were deported and killed in Europe – Joseph, Gilbert, Jean Scemla. Gilbert went to the Ecole Polytechnique (highest French university), and fought with the French against the Nazis in 1940.

France’s Vichy government was almost as antisemitic as the German government. After the fall of France, Gilbert rejoined his family in Tunis, since he was no longer at home in France. But North Africa was becoming less hospitable to Jews – the film shows images of Petain, and the fascist salute.
The strict quotas of France’s antisemitic laws were imposed in French North Africa. Jewish businesses were confiscated, Jews were barred from the professions, Jewish children were kicked out of schools, and Jews were stripped of their citizenship.

The Vichy government established harsh internment camps in Algeria and Morocco, in the Sahara. The
Jewish prisoners were mostly from central Europe, people who had fled to North Africa from the Nazis in Europe. Satloff relays testimonies from Polish Jewish survivors who were liberated by the British. One of the tasks laid upon the prisoners was to build the trans-Sahara railway. A couple of the camps in Morocco were in Bergen and Tendrara, where people died of starvation, insects, exposure, and illness.

In beginning of 1942, Rommel (general of the Afrika Korps) entered Egypt. Hitler ordered him to hold North Africa. Operation Torch, the beginning of the Allied counteroffensive against the Nazis, landed American and British troops in North Africa. The video shows the war cemetery in Tunis, with the graves of 6,000 American troops (I never knew this).

German troops invaded Tunisia - it was the only Arab country to be occupied by the Nazis. Once the Germans entered Tunisia, they began the usual routine of persecuting the Jews. The SS commander in Tunis was Walter Rauf, the Nazi commander who had been involved in organizing the mobile gas killing vans in eastern Europe. In December, 1942, Rauf rounded up Jews in Tunis. Jewish laborers were forced to wear the yellow star.

How did Arabs react to the persecution of their Jewish neighbors? Most were bystanders, a few made their hatred heard – “you Jews, you Yids, will all have your throats cut.” Some Arabs enlisted in the German army, others volunteered to guard the camps, and a few rescued Jews from Nazi persecution.

Joseph Naccache said that his neighbors had shielded him. Satloff found his house and the hammam (bathhouse) where he had been protected. Why did they protect the Jews? Because Jews and Muslims were like brothers (speaking to the son of the man who protected Naccacche).

Satloff showed the marble mausoleum of King Mohammed V of Morocco, who was king during WWII. He defied the Vichy authorities and said that in his kingdom there were no Jews or Muslims – only Moroccan citizens. The Vichy authorities wanted Moroccan Jews to wear the yellow star, but the king refused, saying that he too would wear the yellow star. In Algeria there were Muslim religious objections to Vichy laws against the Jews. An announcement was made in the mosques forbidding any Muslim believer from serving as a custodian of confiscated Jewish property. The newly crowned king of Tunisia under Nazi rule told the Jews he thought of them as part of his family.

To return to the Scemla family. They moved to the seaside town of Hammamat. Gilbert and Jean decided to fight with the French resistance. They then tried to escape, with the help of Hassan Vergany, who was a friend of the family. Vergany turned them into the Germans, and they were arrested outside of the German headquarters of Rommel himself. Joseph Scemla and his two sons were sent to the old Turkish prison in Tunis. In April 1943 they were sent to Dachau in Germany with 50 other prisoners.
It was a year before the Germans decided on their fate.

Satloff then recounted the story of Khaled Abdul Wahad, who owned a farm in Tunisia. Annie Bouqris told of this Arab landowner who saved her life and the life of her family. His daughter is still alive, and she said that at that time she knew that there were some Jewish families on the farm.

Edmee Masliah was told that her family’s home was being taken by the Nazis. Her family took refuge in an abandoned olive oil factory along with other Jewish families. Khaled wined and dined the German soldiers and learned that one of them had his eye on a Jewish girl. Khaled went to the oil press factory and told the Jews they had to leave immediately, and he led them to his farm, where they stayed in the stables. This should have been a perfect hiding place for the Jews, but soon after they arrived, a German regiment pitched its tents right on the edge of his property. Khaled told them not to wear their Jewish stars, so no one would know they were Jewish. One night when the men were away doing forced labor, the women and children almost came to grief. Khaled was still entertaining Germans to keep informed; a drunken German wandered off into the Bouqris family’s bedroom and threatened to rape one of the girls. He told them he was going to kill them that night. At that moment Khaled showed up and led away the German from the Jews.

That spring the German army was caught in a pincer between the British and American armies. Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were captured. The ordeal of North African Jews was almost over. Satloff showed a film clip of Jews in Tunisia taking off the yellow stars.

To return to Joseph Scemla and his sons: they were transferred to the prison at Halle, Germany, and all were condemned to death. (Vergany was also condemned to 14 years in jail when the Free French took over Tunisia after the defeat of the Germans in 1943).

When Satloff lectures in Arab countries about the Holocaust, some Arabs yell at him, and say why are we talking about the Holocaust of 60 years ago instead of the Holocaust of the Palestinian Arabs today (he shows a clip of man who left his lecture yelling at him). A Palestinian Arab woman says we can now make a choice for peace, but many Arabs don’t want to recognize the Holocaust out of the fear that it means the acceptance of Israel.

In Israel – Satloff asks why haven’t we looked for Arab rescuers? He presents more stories from Tunisian survivors – about how they were saved from Germans by Arab neighbors. Satloff is trying to get Khaled Abdul Wahad recognized as one of the Righteous – but Yad Vashem has refused, out of doubt that he risked his life for Jews (which is required to declare someone a Righteous Gentile).


  1. Hello Rebecca
    I have put in a link to my blog Point of No Return
    Best regards

  2. There was an article on the Jewish underground in Algiers which aided the American landing there in Nov. 1942. The article was published in Midstream, January 1989.

  3. Bataween, thank you for posting a link to my post. And thank you, Eliyahu for the reference to the Midstream article.

  4. Rebecca,
    What a great summary/ commentary! I put a link to it on my blog after I had the pleasure of viewing this documentary at the state department: