*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- the Holocaust in Tunisia

The Holocaust in Tunisia

Tunisian Jewish school
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

The history of Jews in Tunisia appears to extend over two milemmia. It may have first occured during the Punic era. Carthage was a great trading nation, but there is no confirmed information. The Jewish community in Tunisia grew in waves during the Roman Empire. Presumably some Jews arrived in Tunisia during the Roman era as a result of the expulsion from Palestine and the Diaspora. Unlike Christians, Jewish comminities outside Palestine were not persecuted. With the rise of Constantine, Christianity became the established religion of the Empire. And Byzantine rulers began anti-Jewish measures as well as actions against heretical Christian sects. The Arabs conquered Tunisia (648-69). The Jews as a people of the Book were tolerated by Arab armies and subsequent Islamic rulers. This includrd, various Arab and Berber dynasties. Toleration varied from ruler to ruler, but was Muslim rulers were geberally more tolerant than Christians rulers, especially with advent of the Crusades. A strong Jewish presence in Tunisia (13th century). Jews lived primarily in the Hara, a communit in Tunis. Spain had veen a haven for Jews in Europe. Spain with rhe success of the Reconquista expelled its Jews (1492). Portugal folloed suit a few years later. Some were killed rather than expelled. Many went to Morocco and Algeria, fewer went to Tunisia. We are not sure why, but may have been a function of geography. The Ottomon Turks conquered Tunisia (1570-74) and ruled it until the 19th century. The Ottomams were relatively tolerant of Jews, generally more tolerant than local Berbrs and Arabs. Sephardic Jews settled in Italian Tuscany, enjoying a rare degree of toleration. Jews there settled in ports (Livorno and Pisa), establishing trading relations throughout the Meduiterranran. A community of related Jews developed in Tunis. Hara became a kind of ghetto. Tunisia was an Ottoman province, but as Ottoman power declined, essentially became independet. The Husainid dynasty acceded to the throne (1705). This is gen Tunishian rtulers began ti byse the Ittoman tern 'bey'. Tunisia became a stronghold for the Barbary Pirates. As a result there was a run in with the new American Republic. America's first distant projection of power was aimed at the Barbary Pirates. Gradually Europe became inncrasingly liberal and tolerant during the 19th cebtury. The Revilutions of 1848, although few suceeded. Europeans becamne comcerned of the aupression of minority groups in the Ottoman Empire, mostly Christians, but also Jews to some extent. Jews at the time were being liberatedfrom essentail medieval restictions and becoming enfranchissed. The Bey as a result of a revolution moced in the opposite direction. He abrogated the constitution (1864). One source describes 'great suffering on several Jewish communities, especially on that of Sfax". France had annexed Algeria decades earlier. This meant that the Bey was concerned about possible European intervention, moderating policies towad Christians and Jews. With the Scramble for Africa underway and issues with the Ottoman were threatening the srability of Europe. These issues were addressed at the Congress of Berlin where German Chancellor Bismarck played a major role (1878). There was agreement for France to aquire Tunisia and Britain obtain Cyprus from the Ottomans. [Aldrich, p. 29.] Rebel Khroumir bands in Algeria using Tunisia as a sanctuary provided a pretext for French military intervention. [Randier] 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. Jews under the Drench began moving out of the Hara and acquired am increasongly French orientation. 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.

French-Italian Issue

Tunisia was a French protectorate, essentilly a French colony. Tunisia was coveted by Italy. The country was shocked when France declared a prtectorate (1881). It was a long-term issue between France and Italy. When Mussolini seized power in Italy and began to strengthen the Italian military (1920s), France was concerned. A war clouds gathered, France responded by building the Mareth Line--fortificatiions on the Libyan-Tunisia border (1936). France's major focus was on Germany and it did not want to position a large force in Tunisia. The Mareth Line was designed to enable France to defend Tunisia with a small force. Ironically it would be the Afrika Korps and Irwin Rommel who would use it--the very commander who exposed the futility of fixeddefenses in France (May 1949). Tunisia was one of Mussolini's war goals. It was one reason he declared war on France. After the Armistace (June 1940), however, Hitler refused to hand Tunisia over to the Italians, primarily because Mussolini only declared war after the defeat of France hascbeen largely decided. .


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 provided that "foreign nationals of the Jewish race" would be detained in "special concentration camps" (October 4. 1940). [Laskier, North Africa, p. 65-66.] Tragically for the honor of France. This was a primullgated by Vichy and not imposed on them by the NAZI occupation aithotities. The round-ips that began in France were largely conducted by the Vichy Police and not the Germans. As French law held force in its colonies, Vichy race laws Vichy applied to its North African colonies where there were substantial numbers of Jews, not only centuries-old Jewish comminities as well as recent arrivals from methropolitan France. It depended, however, on local authorities just how they were applied. As a result, there were differences among the colonies. As it worked out, the race laws were not applied as brutally in Tunisia as in Morocco and Algeria--at least until the Germans intervened (November 1942).

Vichy Policies in Tunisia (1940-42)

French and Muslim officials in Tunisia were not anxioius to enforce the Vichy race laws and regulatioms. The Vichy governor was Admiral Jean-Pierre Estéva. He found the race laws offensive and inmpral. Nor did he think either Tunisia or France would benefit. Estéva appears to have been a religious man and the race laws violated his Christian ethics. And this was before the genocidal nature of NAZI racism was fully understood. Thus Asm. Estéva was conflicted. His Christian faith conflicted with his loyalty to the Frencg state and Marshall Pétain was the head of state. He could not rescind the laws. but he coild delay enforcement and did not hide his resistance. He criticized them and even publically visited the ancient synagogue of Ghriba at Djerba (May 1941). He donated money to Jewish charities in both 1941 and 1942. [Abitbol, p.56.] Despite the defiance, Vichy did not remove him. Tunisian Muslim authoritiesalso objected to the Vichy race laws. Both Ahmed Pasha Bey and his successor, Moncef Bey, pbjected. Moncef Bey made his views known by awarding the highest Tunisianhonor, the Nishan Iftikhar, to some 20 Jewish subjects, a rare action in countries under NAZI influence. Jews included doctors, other professionals, and businessmen imprtant to the Tunisian economy. Estéva and Tunisian authirities managed to postponed publication of the laws and regulations ordered by Vichy to supress Jews. Evebtually pressed by Vichy (not the Germans) he finally published the regukations, but watered down the impact by phasing in the enforcement, Thus Jews dismissed from the professions had time to adjust. And Estéva interpreted the laws so as to allpw some Jewish activitls such as allowing doctors to care fie su=ock Jews and alkwters to work in rabinical courts. The Jewush press continued to function and elected Jewish representaives continued to participate in assemblies. And Estéva complocated other Vichy efforts to impoverish the Jewish community. He did not publish rules to choose temporary trustees. This prevented the process of confiscateong Jewish property to begin. [Abitbol, pp. 64-65.]

Italian Compliacation

France was a defeated country with Vichy deciding on colaboration and seeking favor with the Germans. Fortunately for Tunisian Jews, they had an Axis advocate. Tunisia was a French colony, but Mussolini wanted it. It was a serious issue. France built the Mareth Line fortifications on the French-Italian border to protect against an Italian invasion. And this colonial dispite bled into Holocaust issues. Spain and Portugal expelled their Jews at the end of the 15th century. Some were murdered in the process but others became established communities throughout the Mediterannean. One griup became established in Tusany, especially the trading portsof Pisa abd Livorno. Thet over time developed communities in Tunisia, long before it was colonized by France. After France established a protectorate over Tumisia (1881), these Jews had strong Portuguese-Italian connections. This was just one of many Italian ties with Tunisia. These Italian-oriented Jewsm many with Italian citizenshio, centered in Tunis played an important role in the Tunisian economy. The ties to Italy were actually strengthened during World War I when Italy. Many maintained their Italian ties even after Mussoni and the Fascists seized power. (Italian Fasxists only began an initially mild anti-Semetic camaoign after it was forced on them by Hitler in 1938.) This long history caused the Italian Fascist Government to interevene to protect Itakian Hews and their property when Vivjy began to targer Tunisian Jews. The Italian Ambassador actually raised the issue in of all places Berlin. He charged that Vichy was attempting to dilute Italian economic and political interests in Tunisia and thus weaken the Axis. As much as they wanted to attack Jews where they existed, the Germans deckined to interveb=ne in favor of Axis harmony. In addition to the Vichy Governor's opposition, the Italian complaint meant that the property of Tunisian Jews was not seized and other aspects of the race lawswere delayed. While the Italian Jews were only part of the Jewish community, all Tunisian Jews bebenit by the delay. This only changed with the Torch landings and the German intervention (November 1942).

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 Morocco 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 immediately.

German Occupation (1943)

Tunisia as a result of the Torch lamdings was the only one of the three French North African colonies that was occuoed by the Germans. Thus the Tunisian Jews had direct contact with the German Army. The Gernas controlled Tunisia for about 6 months, especially the major cities and ports of Bizerte and Tunis in the northeast. Hitler activated the 5th Panzer Army and gace command to Gen. Jurgen von Arnim to hold Tunisia. The German force was eventually expanded to 11 divisions. Notice that this deployment occurred just as the Red Army enveloped the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Weakening the German stratrgic reserve, just at the time they were desperately needed pn the Eastern Front. The situation as aresult, changed for Tunisian Jews thus worsened after Operation Torch to the west with 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 hostages. 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. Khaled Abdelwahhab, a Muslim Arab in Tunisia is now kniwn as "the Arab Schindler". He was the first Arab nominated for the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations award. 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, but as far as we can tell, the numbers arevsmall. 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 short periodf after reaching Tunisia that the German position was untenable. He did not coordinate opertatiins with Rommel. We are not sure about his personal attitudes, but like many German commanders, he was awarded estates by Hitler to buy his loyalty. And as German commander in Russia, it is obvious he would not have wanted to explain thousands of murdered civilians to the Allies. The Wehrmacht officers in the East never thought thy would have to answer for mass murder. Arnim had served as part of Barbarossa (1941), but was wounded. It is unclear how much he knew about the killing of Jews or his attitude toward it. He was not charged with war crimes after the war. The major factor limiting the Germans from actions against the Jews 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, especially Tunis and Bizerte were in German hands for several months.


German intervention only prolonged the inevitable in Tunisia. The initial Allies landings were in Morocco and Algeria. The Allies were unable to go further east and land further eas because of Axis air power. The initial land push to the two major ports (Tunis and Bizert) in northeastern Tunisia was stopped by the German troops Hitler reshed into Tunisia. This began the protracted campaign whicch invplved the Amerivans who landed in Morocco to reach Tunisia and close the vise with the British Eighth Army advancing in the South. The Eighth Army breached the Mareth Line, the Afrika Korps' last major stand was the Mareth Line which the NBritish breeched (March 194). From the beginning the real prize was the two ports and largest cities in Tunisia. Gradually as Allied air and sea power closed off supplies and reemforcemnent. Despite the Kassarine deabacle (February 1943), the Germans did not have the men and material to resist the Allies. Finally when The Allies took the fortified hills defending the Tuniz-Bizerte bastion. Tunis and Bizerte fell to the Allies (May 7). The Americans took Bizerte and and the British took Tunis. Von Arnim surrendered to British forces as a result of the successful Allied Operation Vulcan (May 12). Hitler had ordered him to fight to the death. He apparently interpreted that to mean when the tank shells ran out. A British soldier describes the surrender, "The Axis commander declared that his forces were too widely scattered for him to order them to cease fire even if he wanted to. Nothing more could be done, and Arnim's surrender was accepted. He and Krause gave up their revolvers, and later in the afternoon, when arrangements had been made for their removal, Armin emerged from the caravan. His Staff Officers, lined up outside, sprang to attention and remained at the salute for nearly half a minute. Arnim cknowledged the salute and then walked down the ranks of his officers, shaking hands with each one of them. The officers clicked their heels and some of them gave the Nazi salute. All were dressed in their best uniforms with full decorations and gave a remarkable display of military etiquette. Arnim entered an open car and stood holding the windscreen with his left hand in Hitler fashion while he gave the final salute to his Staff. The car rolled slowly away to the H.Q. of the British 1st Army, followed by other cars carrying Krause and other German officers, along a road packed with Italians and Germans driving themselves into captivity in their own vehicles." Arnim as a POW would spend a lot of time complaining about conditions and ratioins. Not food but trivialities like the number of cigarettes. In reality condirions in Allied camos were luxurios compared to how the Germans treated POWs. (Arnim was at Trent Park for a time where German POW officers were recorded. He was one of the more pro-NAZI/anti-defeatists.) The last remaining German units surrendered after failing to establish a defensive position at Cape Bon in the far north (May 13). [Ward] We 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. Some 275,000 German and Axis soldiers became prisoners of war. North Africa was different than Europe. Tunisia and the rest of North Africa were colonies. Thus for the French and Jews, it was a liberation. For the Arab majority it was not the same. The Germans only occupied Tunisia and Libya and did not conduct the same brutal actions that the Germans were so noted for in Europe. Thus the Arabs for the most part were observers to the Warm both the ebtry of tghe Germans and their defeat. The War, however, would give an impetus to natiinalist groups seeking indeoendence.


Abitbol, Michel. The Jews of North Africa During the Second World War (Detroit: Wayne University State Press, 1989).

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

Aldrich, Robert. "Greater France: A History of French overseas expansion," European Studies (September 15, 1996) (Basingstoke-London: Palgrave Macmillan).

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: 3:57 PM 2/22/2020