The Role of Muslims and the Holocaust
Abstract and Keywords
This article explores the role that Muslims played during the Holocaust. It explores historical and religious anti-Semitism in the Arab world and the consequences that led to the denial and relativism of the Holocaust. The article contends that Muslims were also rescuers and victims with Jews in Arab countries under the Vichy government and shows how entrenched the colonial forces were in Arab/Muslim lands during World War II. The conclusion of the article points to literature and scholarly works that might bridge an understanding between Jews and Muslims through Holocaust and postcolonial understanding.
As Holocaust denial and relativism spreads into Muslim-majority countries, some Jews and Muslims struggle to keep their history and connections to one another alive, by telling stories of past cooperation and faith. However, anti-Semitism still looms largely in Arab and Muslim discourse that discounts the many positive roles that the two traditions have shared together. For the past seventy years, many Arab and Muslim academics, professionals, and the media have perpetuated anti-Semitism and the roots of the Holocaust as a hoax. “‘The Jewish Holocaust—a historical lie,’ and the ‘greatest Zionist lie history had ever known’ are but two of the numerous expression that appeared in the Arab discourse to deny the historical veracity of the Holocaust” (Litvak-Webman, 2009: 155).
The role of Muslims and the Holocaust is a growing field within Holocaust and religious studies. Muslims’ historical involvement expands and particularizes the genocide of Jews, which infiltrated countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya under the Fascist, Nazi, and Vichy governments. During the Holocaust, the number of Jews killed is estimated at 6 million (Lichtblau, 2013), with an increasing number in recent years in places like the Ukraine. Muslims during this period were in a midst of crisis from the many pressures of colonization and World War II and their alliance with Nazi Germany. This was a complicated time for Jews and Muslims, especially in light of both the Nazi and the Vichy governments; however, less is known about how and where Jews and Muslims suffered and collaborated in this growing anti-Semitic period. This article briefly recalls the history and narratives of a Tunisian Jew whose family was killed and an Algerian Muslim man who was interned in camps in Morocco and how Muslims rescued, participated, or became bystanders as the persecution of Jews eschewed in countries like Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia. This article introduces literature by an Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, in The German Mujahid (2009), which deals with the theme of the Holocaust and Islamic fundamentalism to demonstrate the complicated matrix of identity and history. Finally, the article discusses the stories of Muslim rescue during the holocaust.
Many non-Arab Muslim nations were not directly affected by the actions of the Vichy, Nazi, or Fascist governments, but those in the Arab nations who were impacted included local Arabs and others in military positions who lived close to the camps, were interned in these camps, or were given charge of the camps. Roles of Arab–Muslims varied from taking prisoners, digging graves, and monitoring the camps. Moroccan soldiers in the French army were referred to as Gourmier, who worked under the French in and around these camps (Berkani, 1965: 57).
Arabs, Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust
The words Islam and Holocaust are rarely associated with one another because of the political and social images of Muslims and the Holocaust. The contrast is due to the tension of the event of the Holocaust and the Muslim responses that have relativized or denied the Holocaust in various forms. Historically, Jews fared better under Islamic rule (Cohen, 1994); however, anti-Semitism became prevalent in Arab lands during World War II under Nazi propaganda and even earlier under the political actions of the British and the Balfour Declaration of 1917. “During the 1930s, Britain’s commitment to the establishment of a homeland for the Jews made in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 came under increasing pressure in the face of Arab opposition to Jewish immigration to Palestine” (Herf, 2009: 6).
Arab propaganda distributed by the Nazi and Fascists was a thorough and organized program to make sure they could maintain alliances with and support from the Arabs. The mechanism by which they were able to broadcast and influence so many Arabs was through the use of religion and the growing numbers of Jews migrating into Palestine. Arabs were already resentful toward Jews as they were seen as European allies and imagined to be more powerful than they were through many broadcasts and the manipulation by Nazis, Italian Fascists, and the Vichy.
The Arab propaganda campaign, especially with shortwave radio, was far more extensive than a focus on the Mufti alone would suggest. Fascist Italy broadcast Arabic programs from 1934 to 1943. In August 1941, a US Office of War Information report estimated that there were about 90,000 shortwave radios in the region: 150 in Aden, 55,000 in Egypt, 4,000 in Iraq, 24,000 in Palestine, 6,000 in Syria, 500 in Saudi Arabia, and 40,000 (mostly Jewish) listeners in Palestine. The numbers in Algeria (70,000) and in Morocco (45,770) included many Europeans (Herf, 2009).
Furthermore, from the 1950s through the 1980s, the tense wars with Israel and the migration of Arab Jews from Arab countries to Europe, the United States, and Israel created a deeply tense and violent historical memory for Arabs. The 1990s marked a new phase in Arab Holocaust denial with publications of several books such as Syrian author Muhammad Nimr Al-Madani’s Were the Jews Burned in the Gas Chambers?(1996), Yasir Husayn’s book on Hitler in 1995 (Litvak-Webman, 2009), and an Arabic translation of Mein Kampf that was reported to be a popular book.
Hitler’s book Mein Kampf was translated into Arabic in full in 1963 and a second edition was issued in 1995. Earlier, Luis Heiden, a former Nazi propaganda official, had prepared a pocket-sized Arabic translation of Mein Kampf that was distributed as a gift to Egyptian army officers. Two abridged translations came out in Beirut in 1974 and 1975 (Litvak-Webman, 2009: 56).
Anti-Semitism in the Arab–Muslim world figures into the political and social realities that has led to Holocaust denial and relativism and produced a selective reading of the history of the Jews in the context of Islam highlighted by Jews seen as Zionists (those who align with Israel only as a political movement) and allies of the colonial forces (British and the United States primarily, as well as Western European countries). This perception has led to reading one another’s history as Jew and Muslim through the process of political victimization.
The situation of the Jews in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia had deteriorated under the impact of a combination of factors: right-wing French anti-Semitism, including its colonial form; Arab nationalism and the tensions from the Palestinian conflict; Fascist Italy’s attitude towards Tunisian Jews; and German Propaganda. Algeria had been annexed to France, and Morocco and Tunisia were French protectorates. (Herf, 2009: 89)
Colonization in all Muslim countries historically and the oppression by the Germans, French, British, Italians, and Dutch resulted in a complicated understanding of modern Jewish and Muslim history. The history of coexistence and mutual faith-based traditions were buried under the many geopolitical and propaganda assertions of the past, present, and future. The evidence that Muslims played a role in the Holocaust points to the complicated fabric of postcolonial and post-Holocaust perspectives. Muslim-Arabs who were given charge of camps played many roles during this time—from the victimization of Jews to those who participated in the suffering of Jews as bystanders, to rescuers, and, at times, victims.
Historically the Holocaust in Arab lands is a small but a well-known fact, and it plays a pivotal role in the politics of Israel/Palestine (Herf, 2009). The Holocaust is read by Muslims as an event that was relative to the war, and it is seen as an exaggeration to gain sympathy for the existence and expansion of Israel.
The scene of the disaster was Europe, and the perpetrators of the extermination acts were Europeans, but the reparations were paid first and foremost in the Middle East by the Palestinians. This is probably the reason that the discussion of the Holocaust in the Arab context always revolves around its political implications and circumvents the event itself. The basic Arab anti-Zionist stance determined their attitude toward the Holocaust, as toward anti-Semitism in general. This stance is not the cause of the Arab–Israeli conflict but rather its outcome. Anti-Jewish texts were engaged in the justification of the Holocaust and with its denial as a Zionist hoax—a rhetoric that, among other things, was an attempt to deal with the Zionist instrumentalization of the Holocaust (Litvak-Webman, 2009: 32).
The Holocaust has been implicit as a European event that occurred in many parts of eastern and western Europe; however, the stark reality is that Jews were imprisoned, murdered, and killed. Research and scholarly works on Muslims and the Holocaust vary from stories of rescue and perpetrators in books such as Norman Gershan’s Besa: Muslims Who Rescued Jews during World War II (2006), Fariborz Mokhtari’s In the Lion’s Shadow: The Iranian Schindler and His Homeland in the Second World War (2012), Robert Satloff’s Among the Righteous (2006), Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland Desai’s The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust (2012), and Joëlle Allouche-Benayoun’s Perceptions of the Holocaust in Europe and Muslim Communities: Sources, Comparisons and Educational Challenges (2013). Among these titles there is scholarly research on the condition of Jews in Africa by Michael Laskier and one in particular among his books, titled North African Jewry in the Twentieth Century: The Jews of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria (1997). These particular scholarly works discuss the fundamental scene of colonialism, the Holocaust, Zionism, and Muslim rescue of Jews. The stories and history of Muslims and the Holocaust is an important one for many reasons; it is significant research for Jews from Arab countries regarding Muslims’ direct roles to the Holocaust and it provides a narrative of history, witnessing, and memory that may offer a mutual understanding of some of the underlying concerns between Jews and Muslims.
History demonstrates that Muslims and Jews were separating slowly by the seventeenth century due to the colonization of Arab and African countries by the Europeans. The Jews remained a minority of diminishing importance in the world of Islam after that time. Travelers to the region were struck by the abject poverty and disease rampant in the teeming Jewish quarters. Their golden ages under the Umayyads, Abbasids, and early Ottomans were but a distant memory—if they were remembered at all. As the European powers began to colonize some of North Africa and the Arabian ports, the Jews began to look to Europe, hoping that an ascendant European Jewry could offer them the protection they now found wanting. At this juncture, historians speak of the end of medieval times and the dawn of the modern era for the Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews (Gerber, 2003: 18).
The “dawn of the modern era for the Sephardics and Middle Eastern Jews” (Gerber, 2003: 18) had a very different trajectory under the Europeans than the Muslims. The Muslims were weakened and were under colonial rule that could not provide much economic or technological strength, so Jews looked to Europe for a livelihood. For example, France was the only country that gave Jews the option of French citizenship, and the motto “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” was applied to Jews. Unfortunately, “Given the fierce loyalty many Jews expressed toward France, it is a great irony that—among the three European powers that brought the Holocaust to Arab lands—France was the most eager to persecute Jews in North Africa” (Satloff, 2006: 29). France, an important colonial force in North Africa and Nazi Germany in Libya and later in Tunisia, enforced many anti-Semitic laws against the Jews in 1940, including the Statut des Juifs, which was approved by Algeria and Tunisia, and in Morocco the Sultan Muhammad V approved the Moroccan version of Statut des Juifs. These laws forced Jews into labor, punishment, and isolation camps. In 1942 at the Wannsee conference (Satloff, 2006: 26–27) plans for the final solution of the Jewish question exacerbated the situation for Jews all over the world, including northern Africa. The Vichy, Fascist, and Nazi colonial takeover of Arab countries for strategic reasons also included the goal of exterminating Jews from these countries. Muslims, although generally unaware of the death camps in Europe, had the direct knowledge of Jews being interned in their own countries, but the Jews were perceived as the allies of the colonial forces and not necessarily Arabs. The image of Jews at this time had already changed from the Arab Jew to the Western Jew and at times the Israelis (Berkani, 1965), who were seen as propelling only the Zionist agenda and allied with the British.
An Axis victory in North Arica and the Middle East would also mean an extension of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe to the 700,000 Jews living in the Arab world. German occupation of Iran carried with it the same potential. Accordingly, the Nazi regime presented itself both as a supporter of Arab anti-imperialism aimed at British and as a friend to the Arabs and Muslims based on common values and a common hatred of the Jews and Zionism. (Herf, 2009: 57)
A history of co-tolerance of Jews and Muslims was suppressed by the language of the politicians who used the religious and geopolitical techniques of pitting them against one another. Jews and Muslims who had lived together for centuries were now under the threat of colonialism and extinction. The narrative of history undermines the positions of these groups where books like Jeffrey Herf’s Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2009) and Robert Satloff’s Among the Righteous (2006) particularize the discussion of Arabs/Muslims in terms of the Holocaust and the pressures of colonialism and threat from the forces at hand.
However, the story of colonization reemerges when the discussion of Arab camps surface in Muslim and Jewish narratives, and the two minor narratives emerge within their own minority status in witnessing both the colonial forces and the Nazi campaign. In other words, Jewish and Muslim identity struggled immensely through the time of the Holocaust from the fall of the Ottomans 1922, colonialism, and the oppression and Holocaust of native Arab/Muslim/Jewish narratives.
The historical accounts of Jews from Europe or Arab lands who tried to escape ended up in many death camps, and the Arabs who fought against the colonists and attempted to overthrow the colonial forces landed in camps in the Sahara and in some cases with Jews. For example, many Jews who had fled Germany in 1938–1939 were later captured in France and interned in Arab camps.
The camp at Hadjerat-M’Guil was opened on November 1, 1941, as a punishment and isolation camp. It contained 170 prisoners, nine of whom were tortured and murdered in conditions of the worst brutality. Two of those murdered were Jews, one of whom had earlier been in a concentration camp in Germany but had been released in 1939 and had fled to France. This young man’s parents had become refugees in London. On learning of their son’s murder in the Sahara, they committed suicide (Glibert, 1988: 56).
These and other stories emerge about Jews in camps in Tunisia and Morocco, and personal narratives have been related by a Tunisian Jew, Frḕdḕric Gasquet, in La Lettre de Mon Pḕre: Une Famille de Tunis dans L’enfer Nazi (2006). He discusses the difficult plight of his family and discovers that his grandfather, father, and uncle were taken from Tunisia and imprisoned at Dachau and then beheaded for espionage at Torgau, Germany. The irony in this story relies on a friendship that Jo Scemla, his grandfather, had with a Tunisian Muslim man, Hassan Ferjani, who betrayed them and was collaborating with the Nazis. Ferjani was later tried by the allies and imprisoned for fourteen years. This story about a Jewish family from Tunisia attempting to escape the French and then the Nazis both in Europe and in Tunisia exemplifies the extent of the Holocaust and its reach into Arab lands. The memoir by Frederic Gasquet has powerful nuances of the family, its history, and the anguish of his father Gilbert Scemla as he writes a letter to his wife, Lila, before his execution that conveys the deepest feelings of a Jew in capture facing his own beheading with his father and brother. “I do not want anything of the ones who have condemned us; they have taken their own path. Revenge never serves anyone. I do not want anything from those who denounced us and brought us here as we tried to escape. However, they deserve death” (Gasquet, 2006: 58). He goes onto say, “I leave everything to God and history to take care of the rest. Another civilization will be born. However, I will not have even a glimmer of such a world” (Gasquet, 2006: 58). Robert Satloff mentions this memoir in his book (Satloff, 2006) as he tries to hunt down a member of Hassen Ferjani’s family to find out what exactly happened and reveal the real story. Satloff traveled to Tunisia and met the nephew of Hassan Ferjani, Mustapha Ferjani; he set out to help Gasquet find out about the Ferjani family who betrayed the Scemla family (Satloff, 2006).
We then launched into the story of Hassen and the Scemlas. Was Hassen Ferjani a German informant? At first, Mustapha temporized. There were “two versions” of the story, he explained. According to one version, it was just the Scemlas’ bad luck to have been stopped by the Germans. If it had been another day, with another guard manning the checkpoint or more traffic on the street, the Scemlas would have escaped and no one would ever have heard of his uncle. According to the second version, Hassen was, in fact, an agent provacateur acting on behalf of the Germans, a cunning man who arranged the entire scheme to trap hapless Scemlas (Satloff, 2006: 94).
The story of Gasquet’s family (the Scemlas), points to an ironic time for Muslims and Jews in Tunisia, where the native Tunisian (Ferjani) was attempting to garner money and support from the Germans. However, what is unknown is what Ferjani knew about the consequences of such actions. Several questions come to mind: Did he know that the three Jewish men were going to be imprisoned? Was he aware of the camp, Dachau? Did he know that these men whom he called friends were going to be beheaded in Germany? The knowledge of Nazi actions were not transparent to local Muslims, in this case, Tunisians; however, the locals who were in charge, in proximity, or interned were aware of concentration, slave labor, and military camps in their own countries.
Hassan Ferjani, a Tunisian Muslim man who returned to Tunisia and owned a small fabric store (Satloff, 2006), was an example of the many Arabs/Muslims who were influenced by the strong European anti-Semitism that has slowly emerged in Arab and Muslim countries especially after the establishment of Israel in 1948 to the present.
“By 1948, compassion toward the Jews had faded in both the official and the public discourse, giving rise to additional motifs: (a) The Arabs were not responsible for the Holocaust, and (b) if they would pay the price of the Holocaust, it would be a tragedy no less serious than the Holocaust. The diversity of voices was substituted by a more monolithic discourse that increasingly used the Holocaust as a tool in rhetoric of conflict.” (Litvak-Webman. 2009: 57).
The anti-Semitism in Muslim communities fueled by geopolitical factors during World War I and II—whether it is blamed on Jewish immigration to Palestine, European oppression, or Jewish alliances with the West—has also persisted alongside the many myths about Jews, Judaism, and the Holocaust. Muslims/Arabs were moreover convinced of the many myths and made decisions to either become bystanders or at times rescuers of Jews. Therefore, the genocide that was being carried out in Europe against the Jews has a history in Arab lands.
Muslim and Jewish Survivors
Religious genocide has a long history, and the word genocide has also transformed from meaning a massacre of a people to meaning the killing of a specific group of people either through the extinction of a race, religion, or ethnicity. In The Historiography of Genocide, the definition is brought up as still debatable for many, beginning with Raphael Lemkin (Stone, 2008):
In the present convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
1. Killing members of the group;
2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Curthoys and Docker, 2008: 14 14)
Muslims have witnessed genocide in Turkey of the Armenians (1915–1918), the Balkans (1992–1995), and in Southern Sudan (2003–2013) that have reminded Jews of similar images of the Nazi Holocaust. These genocides and more have been engraved in the minds of both Jews and Muslims. Muslims and Jews have experienced genocide, but at the time of the Holocaust there is evidence that Muslims and Jews were both victims. Robert Satloff (2006) was one of the first Jewish-Americans to go on a journey to find out what indeed were the roles of Muslims in the Holocaust, and he says
I decided that the most useful response I could offer to 9/11 was to combat Arab ignorance of the Holocaust. The question was how to do it. An adversarial approach, I soon realized, was the wrong way to engage Arabs if I truly wanted to change attitudes on a taboo topic. To do that, I needed to make the Holocaust accessible to Arabs; I needed to make the Holocaust an Arab story. (5)
Muslims and the Holocaust may seem like a contradiction, yet it is a crucial fact in a long history of anti-Semitism in European and Arab lands. Muslims did not perpetrate the Nazi mass killings, pogroms, concentration camps, gas chambers, and the final solution to exterminate all Jews. Many Muslims had no knowledge of such horrific acts of murder during the war and were under the anti-Semitic laws of the Vichy and Nazi governments, which led to camps in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco. Muslims witnessed and were bystanders as Jews were persecuted, were executed, and worked in the slave labor camps. Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Holocaust (1988) is a valuable resource that displays via maps where the Nazis set up their camps all over the world. In one map, one can see the “Slave Labor Camps of the Sahara, 1941–42” (Gilbert, 1988: 56).
In April 1940 more than 15, 000 Jews were serving in the French Foreign Legion, hoping to fight against Nazi Germany. But with the German conquest of France in June 1940, they were first “demobilized,” then interned, and finally sent to labor camps in French North Africa. Many of these Jews were refugees from Germany and Austria who had been in France at the outbreak of the war (Gilbert, 1988: 56). Jews were taken from what they perceived as safe havens to camps where they were killed, tortured, and worked.
In 1940, Morocco was ruled by the Vichy government and held Jewish prisoners under the Vichy takeover of Morocco. However, the Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco issued an order that he would not implement certain anti-Semitic laws on his citizens. He argued that, according to Islam, one cannot base one’s laws on race, and the Vichy government declared people Jewish if their parents were Jewish, regardless of whether they professed to be Jewish. The sultan asked for two amendments: first that the Jews in Morocco become defined by religious choice and second that the Jewish institutions should not be constricted like schools and communal Jewish life. This fact is still debatable in some academic circles (Wagenhofer, 2012) and since the publication of Robert Satloff’s book, Among the Righteous (2006), in which Satloff sets out to name an Arab as a righteous one at Yad Vashem; he is unable to do so due to the debate of whether the rescuer risked his or her life in doing so.
Toward the end of 2006, Robert Satloff’s book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, ignited a debate over the sultan’s role in the events of the 1940s and his behavior toward the Jewish minority. Satloff’s aim was to find Arab rescuers of persecuted Jews in North Africa. He proposed naming the Tunisian Khaled Abd Al-Wahab a “Righteous among the Nations” in Yad Vashem. To date, about fifty Muslims, most of them from Turkey and the Balkans, have been honored as Righteous, yet there is not a single Arab among them. The potential nomination of the first Arab and the question of whether there were more Arabs who had helped their Jewish fellow citizens gave rise to the idea that the former Moroccan king Mohammed V be also honored as Righteous (Wagenhofer, 2012: 4). However, Satloff argues that Mohammed V and others were risking their lives to save Jews, a story that could be told in the Arab world with pride.
In private, Muhammad V offered vital moral support to the Jews of Morocco. When French authorities ordered a census of all Jewish-owned property in the country, the Jewish leadership feared this was the precursor to a general confiscation. Secretly, the sultan arranged for a group of prominent Jews to sneak into the palace, hidden in a covered wagon so he could move them away from the prying eyes of the French (Satloff, 2006: 110).
What actually occurred in the these camps is not evidenced by many scholars or research; however, in Robert Satloff’s book we can find some interesting accounts and emerging eyewitness accounts that demonstrate how and where these camps were in (mainly) Tunisia, and Satloff is clear in stating that the role of Muslims in the camps required: “Clarity on this issue is important: By virtually all accounts, the mass of Arabs neither participated in nor actively supported the anti-Jewish campaign that European Fascists brought to North Africa” (Satloff, 2006: 74). In the northern African camps, witnesses related how Arabs helped Jews or colluded with the Vichy and Nazi government, while most others stood by with apathy. Satloff’s argument is that the Arabs were trying to protect what they had and were holding onto what they believed they had. Tunisians, Moroccans, and Algerians are hesitant to discuss this tragedy in light of post-1948 (Satloff, 2006). The lingering silence of both culpability and many righteous ones that rescued Jews and protected them during the Holocaust is an untold story.
Most Jews understand that Muslims are anti-Semitic and that Muslims see the Holocaust with skepticism. For example, decisions over Holocaust education and films about the Elders of the Protocols of Zion have aired repeatedly in countries like Egypt, Iran, and the Palestinian territories.
Nazi Germany’s Arabic-language propaganda was not primarily the result of the translation of Nazi ideology and canonical texts into Arabic. Although Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion had been translated into Arabic before 1939, neither, in contrast to the propaganda campaign in Germany and Europe, figured prominently in Arabic propaganda. Rather, it was a selective reading of the Koran and a focus on the anti-Jewish currents within Islam, combined with Nazi denunciations of Western imperialism and Soviet Communism, that offered Nazi propaganda its points of entry to Arabs in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq and to Muslims in the Middle East in general (Herf, 2009: 7).
The Nazi propaganda fed into the images of Jews in the Muslim world as collaborators of the imperialists and European colonists. These perceptions, as pointed out by Robert Satloff (2006) and Jeffrey Herf (2009), are important in light of contemporary religious perceptions that are deeply woven into this imagination. However, there is an account that calls for some historical attention that was written in 1965 by Mohammed Azerki Berkani, an Algerian Muslim man who wrote a memoir in French titled Three Years of Camps: A Year of Concentration Camp, Two Years of the Disciplinary Center: Djenien-Bou-Rezg Sud-Oranais (1940–43, Vichy Government, 1965). This memoir discusses Berkani’s own torture and treatment by the Vichy as he was a dissenter against the French colonists and a part of the Algerian Nationalist movement and ENA Star of North Africa. Berkani recounts the stories of activists within France, the nationalist movement, and many who fought in Algeria for nationalism. He describes the concentration camps where he encountered the Vichy and Nazi-ridden torture and persecution. He begins his memoir with the following: “I would like to let the readers know about the three years that my Muslim friends and Europeans spent, like me, in this cruel camp, now impossible to forget” (Berkani, 1965: 9).
As he describes the various camps and the infrastructure of the camp, it is clear from his descriptions that there are different sections:
First they put all the people together—Muslims and Europeans—in the same section and in the same room, but just a few days before our arrival, they were separated, the Muslims in the first section, and the Europeans including the Israelis in the second section. We arrived on the 27th of June 1940 and the camp had been opened since the 1st of May within the same year. The first contingents arrived there the 15th of May 1940. (Berkani, 1965: 11)
Berkani’s experience exemplifies the severe punishment that Arabs experienced under the Vichy and Nazi governments, especially if they were nationalists similar to the Europeans who were communists and dissenters. The result of rebellion in Algeria and Morocco was punishment in prison and concentration camps where Jews were interned. The Jews were brought from all over Europe, and some who were in the camps in both Morocco and Tunisia were sent to Europe to be exterminated. Berkani’s memoir (1965) is a testimony and witnessing of the various parties and races that were persecuted by the Vichy and the Nazi party. Berkani witnesses several lieutenants who command the camp but he writes that “The Arrival of Lieutenant Deriko was a terrible time for the prisoners. He transformed the camp into a center of discipline. He came the month of April 1941 and left in 1943, he was there for two years” (Berkani, 1965: 35). Berkani, the Europeans, and the Jews were in the camp together, left to Deriko, who he describes as the worst lieutenant thus far and who would punish anyone that disobeyed him, as opposed to the other lieutenants who would question the prisoners or steal food and packages. Berkani relates his relationship with Jews as the sections break down under the command of Deriko:
This is not all. He was always looking for new ways to create tension between the monitored prisoners. He demolished a wall that separated the first section from the second and added four or five bedrooms to the first section. In the past, these rooms (had) belonged to the second section. (Berkani, 1965: 43)
Berkani’s testimony says that he and the Jews in the camp understood that Deriko was trying to get the Arabs to fight with Jews:
He gathered the Jews of the camp, who were previously mixed with the Europeans, and separated them from the French, or rather from the Europeans. This cursed Dériko prepared further provocations once again. Europeans were separate, the Arabs were separate, and the Jews too were separate. Now the Jews were also gathered in the first section. (Berkani, 1965: 44)
Berkani, a Muslim, sees Deriko’s tactic and writes the following; he observes astutely that the French (Vichy) were attempting to create tension but that the Jews and Muslims (he changes from Arabs) had caught onto his divisive tactic.
There is no doubt that Dériko did this with the intention of seeing the Jews cut down and killed by the Muslims, since the Jews were not numerous. But the Jews realized his goal; the Arabs too realized the same thing. Commander Dériko expected that there would be fights between Arabs and Jews, but the opposite occurred: a friendly understanding spread between the two communities. Never could one have believed that the Arabs and the Jews in the first section of the camp would become real friends, even brothers. Whether you wish to believe it or not, they were moreover brothers in hunger, in suffering, in misery, in punishment/pain etc. . . . in Dériko’s camp. (Berkani, 1965: 45)
Berkani’s memoir relegates the Vichy attitude to a different sphere where the Jews and Arabs who are read as enemies are in similar positions and significantly the victims in both Algeria and France. The story of the camp continues by Berkani to give an eyewitness account of how others were treated like Jews and the sufferings of the groups together. The Vichy occupation of Algeria created a problem for many who were fighting against the French before the Vichy, and the history of Arabs under the French, Germans, Italians, and the British is overlooked in the case of World War II. The threat of colonialism and the condition of living under foreign rule for many Arabs and Muslims created a deep-rooted nationalism.
Arab Memory and the Holocaust
Evidenced by growing literature that the Shoah and its connection to Jewish-Muslim relations are unavoidable, The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal (2009) reveals the generational and global connections of the Shoah and colonialism. Sansal’s fictional novel is banned in his native Algeria; however, he exposes several relevant themes like the moral implication of the Shoah and contemporary Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria of the early 1990s. The novel discusses Islamic fundamentalism today and the power of Nazism, which leaves an indelible mark on his family. He discusses the issue of the emergence of grim Muslim ghettos in France and low-income housing projects. The protagonist and his son, Malrich, and his brother, Rachel, discover that their father was an SS guard. Malrich decides to meet a friend of his father’s from the past.
I would have been only too happy to wander through his brain, I’m sure I would have found something charming grottos and ravine the bastard did not know he had, there’s clearly no end to cretinism, what I had seen was only the tip of the iceberg. I felt . . . like . . . nothing. You don’t kill madmen, you don’t exterminate the handicapped, you pray for them. But for all his madness, his sickness, he managed to hurt me with a line: “You’re your father’s son alright!” (Sansal, 2009: 64)
Sansal shows through Malrich how he attempts to somehow come to terms with what has happened to him and learn about the Holocaust—which, he admits, “he didn’t know anything about . . . I’d heard bits and pieces, things the imam said about the Jews and other stuff I’d picked up here and there”—he resolves that “where my father and Rachel had failed, I had to survive” (Sansal, 2009: 87). Sansal shows through a story of colonialism and the Holocaust how both brothers’ lives are inescapably determined by their father’s actions. Rachel, his brother, literally turns himself into a concentration camp victim, growing more emaciated and haunted until, head shaved and wearing striped pajamas, he gasses himself on the anniversary of his father’s death, “the day Hans Schiller finally eluded the justice of men” (Sansal, 2009: 56). Malrich, on the other hand, directs his shame outward to save his housing project, which has slowly but surely been taken over by Islamists who are creating a kind of concentration camp, with an atmosphere of Islamic fundamentalism. Telling his friends that “we’re going to live, we’re going to fight,” Malrich considers it his legacy and his duty to first declare war on the “Nazi jihadist fuckers” (Sansal, 2009: 87).
Through a thorough comparison and analysis of understanding the suffering and truth of the Holocaust, Malrich sees many issues with his own community and suffering different from the Holocaust but a suffering that is real and interminable in his mind. His acceptance of his father’s role in the Nazi party as an SS guard haunts him as he wonders:
One question drives me mad: Did papa know what he was doing in Dachau, in Buchenwald, in Majdanek, in Auschwitz? I can’t think of him as a victim anymore, as some fresh-faced innocent unwittingly infected by evil. And even if he was, there comes a moment, a split second, some event, however trivial, some unexpected, fleeting series of terrible images which lead to realization, doubt, revolt . . . My father tortured and killed thousands of people who never did him any harm and he got away scot-free. By the time I knew what he had done, he was dead, so I have come here in his place. Judge me, save me, please. (Sansal, 2009: 88)
Sansal’s novel relates a Muslim boy’s anxiety about his father’s past and his future in terms of Islam. A novel that confronts the Holocaust in the context of Algeria and Islamic fundamentalism echoes Berkani’s own struggle within Algeria during the World War II.
Sansal relates through the novel themes that historically have been enmeshed with political actions and history; he shows how colonial rule, victimization, and involvement with the Holocaust can haunt and also be a cyclical reality between two seemingly divergent histories of Arabs, Jews, and Europeans.
During the Holocaust, there are also a lot of emerging stories and historical documentation of Muslims as rescuers of Jews. These stories range from Albania, Morocco, and Turkey to Iran, Kosovo, Sarajevo, and Tangiers. Muslims who risked their lives to save and hide Jews are also part of the history of Muslims and the Holocaust. The stories of faith, cooperation, and witnessing are mirrored in the historical reality of how Muslims reached out to Jews and understood that the Nazis or Vichy were persecuting on the basis of religion. Many Muslims who rescued Jews used Islam and their knowledge of Islamic social justice to fight for justice at a time when religion was being persecuted, whether it be Islam or Judaism. The one predominant Muslim country, Albania, rescued all its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust. Albania is 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian. In Norman H. Gershan’s Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II (2008), there are many narratives of Albanian Muslims who saved Jews because of their own understanding of Islam. As one of the rescuers writes:
We lived in the town of Elbasan. I was twelve years old, and my two other brothers are younger. It was just a few steps from here that our father sheltered six Jews in a stone house much like the one we lived in. It is in the Koran that in the name of God we help all humans. They were Raphael Cambi, Chaim Isaac and Leon Isaac with his wife and two children. The Isaac family spoke Serbo-Croatian, as did our father. In 1945, they all left for Yugoslavia. Leon Isaac came back for a visit in 1948. He and his family were living in Macedonia. To show his gratitude for saving the lives of his family, he wanted to give my parents a restaurant in Macedonia and offered to pay all their expenses for ten years. Our mother did not want to live in Macedonia so we stayed in Elbasan. After 1949, we lost contact with the Isaacs. The communists then imprisoned our father. We have never sought recognition, but we are glad for this opportunity to have our father remembered. It is in the Qur’an that in the name of God we help all humans. (Gershan, 2008: 35)
In most European countries, Jews were transported, taken to concentration camps and death camps, but Albania, Morocco, Turkey, Iran, and Tangiers are a few of the countries that come with stories of rescue even under the threat of colonialism and Fascism of its population of Jews. Under the Vichy government, Morocco and Tangiers opened labor camps where they housed Jews, and here too there were stories of Jews being rescued. In Albania, for example, Muslims changed the names of Jewish families and hid them in their homes as Nazis hunted for them; in Tangiers a Muslim man Khaled Abdul Wahab hid a family in his house while he entertained SS guards, risking his life (Satloff, 2006: 126). Since the establishment of Yad Vashem, 21,700 people were awarded the title, 60 of whom were Muslims. Even though Muslims have expressed relativism and Holocaust denial, there were many Muslim initiatives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In addition, Ulkumen Selahattin, a Turkish diplomat, saved about fifty Jews and has been recognized as one of the Righteous among nations. This story of a Muslim rescuer demonstrates the historical significance of Muslim countries that were enveloped in the complicated nature of the Holocaust and World War II. Many Jews who were born in Turkey took refuge in places like Rhodes Island, but when Italy captured the island from Turkey in 1912, many Jews opted for Italian citizenship and gave up their Turkish identities. When the Germans took control of the island in 1943, the Jewish community was in despair, and many migrated but there were about 1,800 Jews left. Selahattin Ulkumen was a Turkish diplomat consul-general on the island, and he helped about fifty Jews by asserting that they were still Turkish nationals; since Turkey was a neutral country, the Germans relented.
Responding to the appeal of Mathilde Turiel (a Jewish survivor) and other beneficiaries who survived thanks to Ulkumen’s magnanimity and courageous action, Yad Vashem awarded the Righteous title to the retired Turkish diplomat, in 1989. “Fifty Jews state, ‘I am alive thanks to him; had he not intervened—I would not be alive.’” This is further proof of how public servants in various capacities could, if they wished, reinterpret existing laws and regulations in such a way as to make it possible for Jews to elude capture and death at the hands of the Nazis (Paldiel, 2000: 44).
Another example of reinterpretation of the racial laws appears in the book In the Lion’s Shadow: The Iranian Schindler and his Homeland in the Second World War (2012), which discusses the life of a junior Iranian diplomat Sardari in France who saved hundreds of Jewish families by challenging the Third Reich’s racial laws and by turning Nazi logic into a Mosaique law. He argued that the Iranian Jews were not Semite but from Aryan stock; he asserted that these Iranian Jews were those whose religion was based on the teachings of Moses but whose blood and race was not Jewish.
In Les Iraniens de Confession Mosaique—Iranian Followers of Moses, he introduced his argument with some historical background, presenting an overview of Iran’s population as predominantly Muslim, yet inclusive of the Shiites, Sunnis, and Mosaique. The latter were indistinguishable from the rest in culture, language, and even their observance of national and cultural celebrations. The Mosaique, he emphasized, did not speak Yiddish, nor did they celebrate separate holidays. Furthermore, they did not have any similarities with European Jewry. Their nationality was Iranian, and their race, as was the case with all Iranians, was Aryan. The group’s distinction, he argued, had historic roots unrelated to racial inferences. The Mosaique mixed and married with fellow Iranian Muslims and were engaged in each and every profession. Their common names were typical Muslim names. They resembled the Djougoutes of Afghanistan or Boukhara or Turkistan—all of Iranian origin (Mokhtari, 2012: 95).
Many rescues took place and are still being uncovered. Also, according to narratives like Berkani’s (1965), in the camps many thousands of Muslims were killed during the Holocaust, including the Roma Sinti Gypsies Muslims in the Ukraine and the Arab labor prisoners in Tunisia and Morocco. The Holocaust is a brutal lesson for all humanity, not for just the Jews, although certainly Muslims must accept the target as Jewry and create openness about the suffering of Jews under Nazi hands.
The anti-Semitism and politicization of Jewish-Muslim relations denies the complicated nature of postcolonial and post-Holocaust identity. The stories of betrayal, rescue, apathy, and courage bring another nuanced volume to the history of the Holocaust and colonial realities for both Jews and Muslims. The role of Muslims and the Holocaust documented by Jews and Muslims rely on a couple of questions for both communities: How to tell the story? What story to tell? The significance of the memories of stories of Jews and Muslims in Arab/Muslim lands pre- and post-Holocaust uncovers not only historical truths but questions of religious, national, and ethical identity.
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