One of the lesser-known stories of rescue and hope during the Holocaust centered on the Moroccan city of Casblanca, where tens of thousands of Jews – perhaps as many as 60,000 - found refuge, and eventual passage to the U.S. or Israel, all thanks to the actions of one woman. Helen Cazès ben Attar.
A Jewish attorney in Casablanca, Attar, who was active with the Red Cross, established and single-handedly ran an organization that clothed, fed, and housed refugees who managed to make their way to Casablanca, finding them jobs, and eventually helping them to leave for safer regions.
And the fact that she was able to operate openly in Morocco – under the control of the Nazi-aligned French Vichy government, which controlled the country during the war – was nothing less than amazing.
Ben Attar's efforts on behalf of refugees began in July 1940, when she heard about a ship of refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that was docked in Casablanca's harbor. Authorities would not let them disembark, as they had no documentation or family in the country.
Ben Attar had good relations with many local officials, and given her activities with the Red Cross, she was asked by the officials to deal with the refugees. She agreed, quickly arranging housing and food for them at a local auditorium.
News of the success of the endeavor made its way to France, and points beyond, and ships with refugees who were seeking any port that would accept them began making their way to Casablanca – where Ben Attar made sure they were cared for, without exception. This she did using her own money, and whatever funds she could raise. At least at the beginning, Ben Attar received no assistance from organizations working on behalf of refugees, like the Joint Distribution Committee.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of refugees daily joined the ranks of those being cared for by Ben Attar's organization. To make room for new arrivals, Ben Attar arranged for those already in Morocco to live in cities, towns and villages around the country. Many of the refugees took jobs as domestics in the homes of wealthier Jews, and lived with the families they served.
As the needs grew, Ben Attar spent more time and effort on raising funds, and eventually aid organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, began to contribute. The Vichy government, meanwhile, recognized Ben Attar's group as the best way to handle the refugee issue, and would often refer refugees to her.
By the fall of 1940, thousands of refugees had reached Morocco, and Ben Attar showed no signs of letting up. But the government, under pressure from the Nazis, began to get nervous, and it decided to send thousands of refugees, including children, to the equivalent of concentration camps.
Ben Attar petitioned against the move, but to no avail – so instead, she did the next best thing: Arranging for work for as many refugees as possible, so that the government would have less reason to detain them in concentration camps. Eventually the government relaxed its attitude, and Ben Attar's group continued to work on behalf of the refugees.
But it was not to last. The Germans got wind of what was happening, and demanded that the Vichy government put an end to it. In May 1941, the government demanded from Ben Attar a list of refugees, and closed the building where she had been housing them, after police arrested two Jews who had escaped from a concentration camp.
Ben Attar, thanks to her connections, was able to make a deal, and managed within days to get many undocumented refugees on ships bound for the U.S., enabling them to avoid detention in concentration camps in Morocco.
Although her life-saving activities were curtailed, Ben Attar did what she could throughout the war, helping as many refugees as possible to stay alive.