The Holocaust in Tunisia


Figure 1.--Here we see children at the Carnot Jewish School after the War in 1946. We do not yet fully understand what happened to these children and their parents during the War. Click on the image for nformation about the school.

Tunisia in 1940 was a French colony. After the fall of France, a French Goverment was established in an unoccupied zone with a capital at Vichy. This Government while not totally controlled by the Germans, collaborated with them in many ways. One of these was the Holocaust. A Vichy law of October 4. 1940 provided that "foreign nationals of the Jewish race" would be detained in "special concentration camps". [Laskier, North Africa, p. 65-66.] Additional legislation in 1941 were imposed in Tunisia, although we do not yet have full details. The situation worsened after Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa (November 1942). Unlike Morrocco and Algeria, there were no Allied landings in Tunisia. Tunisian Jews, about 4,000, were forced into labor camps where because of the harsh conditions some died. [Arbitol] There were schools for Jewish children. We are unsure how they vared during the Vichy period and German occupation. Some Jews were deported to the European death camps, presumably during the German occupation. Reports suggest that the Germans began constructing extermination camps in Tunisia. We can not yet confirm this. If true, these plans never materialized because of the Allied military campaign. Hitler with the assistance of Vichy commanders rushed in reinforcenents despite the deteriorating situation at Stalingrad. This prevented the Allies from seizing Tunisia immideately. The presence of the Italians, retreating from Libya, may have been a moderating influenmce. Allied forces by December 1942 reached Tunisia. This only prolonged the inevitable, ut the major urban centers where the Jews lkived were in German hands for several months. Tunis and Bizerte fell May 7 and the last remaining German units surrendered may 13, 1943. [Ward]

Tunisian Jews

Presumably some Jews arrived in Tunisia dring the Roman era. The Arabs conquered Tunisia (648–669). The Jews as a people of the Book were tolerated by subsequent Islamic rulers, various Arab and Berber dynasties. This varied, however, greatly from ruler to ruler. We note that when Spain expelled its Jes (1492), while many went to Morocco and Algeria, few went to Tunisdia. The Ottomon Turks conquered Tunisia (1570–1574) and ruled it until the 19th century and made it part of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. Tunisia became a stronghold for the Barbary pirates. French troops occupied Tunisia (1881). The Bey was forced to sign a treaty accepting a French protectorate. France by this time was governed by the Third Republic with a secular outlook and accepting Jews as full citizens. We do not know at this time to what extent Tunisia Jews were Jews descended from families in Tunisia before France seized control or French Jews who emmigrated to Tunusia. The children here at the Ecole Carnot look very Europeanized (figure 1). The Jewish population of Tunisia at the time of World War II was about 90,000. Another estimate places the Jewish population at 105,000 in 1948.000.

French Colony

Tunisia in 1940 was a French colony. Tunisia was coveted by Italy and one of Mussolini's war goals. After the Armistace (June 1940), however, Hitler refused to hand it over to the Italians.

Vichy

After the fall of France, a French Goverment was established in an unoccupied zone with a capital at Vichy. This Government while not totally controlled by the Germans, collaborated with them in many ways. One of these was the Holocaust. A Vichy law of October 4. 1940 provided that "foreign nationals of the Jewish race" would be detained in "special concentration camps". [Laskier, North Africa, p. 65-66.] I do not know how dilgently Vichy regulations were applied in Tunisia and the other French colonies.

Vichy Policies in Tunisia

Additional legislation in 1941 were imposed in Tunisia, although we do not yet have full details. One source reports that about 4,000 Tunisian Jews were forced into labor camps. [Arbitol] We do not know who these Jews were. We think that they were mostly young men. We do not think that actions were taken against Jewish women and children. Of course they were affected by the legal measures limiting the ability of Jews to work. There were schools for Jewish children in Tunisia, but we do not know what happened to these schools during the War. Conditions in Tunisia were reportedly harsher than in Morocco and Algeria. We are not sure why. The German occupation in late 1942 may have been a factor. Because of the harsh conditions some died. [Arbitol] There were also deportments to the European death camps. We do not know, however, how masny Jews were deported and when. These may have been foreign Jews, but we are unsure.

Operation Torch (November 1942)

American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that the Allies needed to open a Second Front to take pressure off the hard-pressed Red Army reeling under the German summer offensive driving toward Stalingrad and the oil-rich Caucauses (July 1942). Joseph Stalin demanded an invasion of Europe. Wisely Roosevelt and Churchill targetted French North Africa. American General George Marshall, in many ways the architect of the American victory, was opposed to Totch, considering it a diversion. Roosevelt insisted. While Montgomery's victory at El Alemain often receives more attentiin, it was the Torch landings that were the decisive action. The Amercan and British landings in North Africa sealed the fate of the Axis desert campaign. Even if Rommel had broken through to Suez, he would have been forced to turn west to deal with the Allied landings in French North Africa. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Allied commander to oversee the Torch Landings. The Allies driving east from their Moroccan and Algerian beachheads linked up with the Brish advancing west (November 1942). Although Hitler rushed reinforcements to Tunisia, the end result was the first major defeat of a German Army by the Western Allies. Unlike Morrocco and Algeria, there were no Allied landings in Tunisia. Hitler with the assistance of Vichy commanders rushed in reinforcenents despite the deteriorating situation at Stalingrad. This prevented the Allies from seizing Tunisia immideately.

German Occupation

Hitler created the 5th Panzer under Gen. Jurgen von Arnim to hold Tunisia. The German force was eventually expanded to 11 divisions. The situation for Tunisian Jews worsened after Operation Torch to the west and the arrival of the Germans (November 1942). Tunisia was the only French colony actually occupied by the Germans. SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Walther Rauff was given command of the Security Police in Tunisia. He was an associate of Heydrich and deeply involved in the killing of Jews in previous postings. We know that forced labor camps were set up during the Vichy period. The Germans expanded the Vichy anti-Semetic measures. Forced-labor camps already existed, German authorities may have expanded them, although the one estimate of 5,000 is not much larger than estimates of forced labor during the Vichy era. One report indicates that camps were set up near the front lines. The NAZIs immediately abolished all Jewish communal organisations. The Germans immediately abolished all the communal organisations and NAZI measures included property confiscations (bank accounts and valuables), hostage-taking, community extortion, deportations, and random executions. Some of these policies such as forced labor camps were initiated by Vichy authorities before the German occupation. Jews were required to wear the Star of David, although I do not have details on this regulation. Authorities set up Judenrat-like committees to implement NAZI policies. They were committees of Jewish leaders who were held responsible if Jewish communities did not comply with NAZI policies. [Satloff] The Jewish community was fined 20 million frances. Tunisian Jews were subject to a range of violence and terror. NAZI authorities took hhostages. There were indiscriminate seizures on the street and private homes. German or their surogates broke into synagogues, destroying religious artifacts and beating worshipers. About 100 Jews are believed to have died at the time of their arrest or in the internment camp. This is of course a small number in Holocaust terms, but in Tunisia the Germans had only a few months. Some Jews were deported to the European death camps, presumably during the German occupation. I am unsure how many were deported or how they were selected. Transport would have been available as the Axis was shipping in men and material after Operation Torch and very little would have been shipped back. An SS unit was reportedly preparing gas chambers to kill Jews near Kairouan. The only reason the project was not completed because of the Allied advance. It is not clear precisely why NAZI security forces did not go ahead with mass roundups and executions. We do not have access to any discussions which must have occurred on this subject. Nor do we know if Von Arnim was involved. Rommel and the Afrika Korps in Libya and Egypt had the reputation of correct behavior. The presence of the Italians, retreating from Libya, may have been a moderating influenmce. Northern Tunisia with the major urban centers was, however, occupied by a different command headed by Von Arnim. One constraint on the SS was certainly that the military situation deteriorated so rapidly that it was obvious that any mass graves would soon be over run and discovered. The murder of 90,000 Jews could not have been carried out in Tunisia without von Arnim's knowledge and support. He must have realized within a few weeks of reaching Tunisia that the German position was untenable. I'm not sure about his personal attitudes, but as German commander it is obvious he would not have wanted to explain thousands of murdered civilians s to the Allies. The major factor limiting the Germans was the military situation. German forces in Tunisia were hard pressed by superior Allied forces from both the west (Torch landings) and the east (British 8th Army). Allied forces by December 1942 reached Tunisia. but it took several months to seize the principal cities and ports. The major urban centers where the Jews lived were in German hands for several months.

Liberation

German intervention only prolonged the inevitable. Tunis and Bizerte fell to the Allies (May 7) and the last remaining German units surrendered (may 13, 1943). [Ward] I do not have details on the liberation of the camps where Tunisian Jews were interened. With the arrival of the Allies, the rights of Tunisian Jews were restored.

Sources

Abitbol, Michel. History of the Jews of Arab Lands (In Hebrew, Merkaz Shazar).

Laskier, Michael. The Jews of the Maghreb in the shadow of Vichy and the Swastika (Hebrew, Univ. of Tel Aviv, 1992).

Satloff, Robert.

Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (NY: Jewish Publication Society, 1991).

Ward, Seth. "The Holocaust in North Africa," May 10, 1999.







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Created: August 18, 2003
Last updated: 11:23 PM 10/19/2011