The Yad Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities of the East has launched a new online database containing documents which shed light on a chapter in Jewish history of which little has been known to date: the fate of North African Jewry during World War II.
Dr. Haim Saadoun, administrator of the new database and dean of students at the Open University, spoke to Arutz Sheva about the new database on Sunday, saying that in the last five years there has been an awakening in terms of public interest about the events that befell the Jews of North Africa during the war.
He explained that this awakening is due to two reasons. One is that elderly Jews from these communities are expressing their desire to testify as to what happened to them, out of a sense that this will not be possible to do in the future. The second reason is a decision by the Finance Ministry to compensate those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. The compensation is received in return for meeting several criteria, among them providing a testimony as to what happened, said Dr. Saadoun.
He pointed out that the French archives, including documents relating to the war period, were closed but have recently been released to the public and many are being uploaded to the new website.
The new website tells the story of World War II from the point of view of African Jewry and also contains information on conferences being held on the subject, ways to get research scholarships and other related topics.
Regarding the fate of the Jews of North Africa, Dr. Saadoun explained that the Statute on Jews, the discriminatory legislation against French Jews passed on October 3, 1940 by the Vichy Regime, also applied in countries under French rule. The Statute canceled French citizenship to any Jew, excluded Jews from professions that came into contact with the French population and eliminated the Jewish school systems in France.
In Morocco which was also under French rule, said Dr. Saadoun, this was applied as Jews were forced to live in the Jewish Quarter and their property was confiscated. He noted that work and detention camps for Jews were established in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Some of this information was made known from research that was conducted for the new online database.
Even in Libya, which was under Italian rule, noted Saadoun, there were similar decrees against Jews and a detention camp was also built there.
As for the question of why the Jews of North Africa remained silent and did not tell their stories for many years, Dr. Saadoun, who has also explored this issue, said that he found that in the early years of the State of Israel, the Jews of North Africa were busy trying to absorb into Israeli culture. He added that during the Eichmann trial, when they found out what had happened to Jews in Europe, North African Jews chose not to tell their stories, due to their feeling that their experiences had not been as harsh and difficult as the experiences of European Jews.