November 8-11, 1942: It’s been 75 years, to the day, since Operation Torch saved Jews in French North Africa from the Holocaust.
During the Holocaust, three North African countries that are independent today were then ruled by France: Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. They existed as the French protectorate of Tunisia, the French protectorate of Morocco, and the three departments of French Algeria, or as “France over the sea.” That is, in French, “France d’Outre-mer, distinguishing it from metropolitan/mainland France. The terms of the Franco-German armistice in June 1940 stipulated that
- France would be divided among German-occupied zones and one zone that was unoccupied, the “free zone,” that was known as the new French state Vichy, ruled by collaborationist Marshal Philippe Pétain.
- French North Africa became “an integral part of Vichy France.” The 415,000 Jews of Vichy-French North Africa were therefore also subjected to the two antisemitic Statut des Juifs (Jewish Statutes), enacted by the pro-Nazi Vichy. They “suffered political and legal discrimination, economic injustice, incarceration, forced labor and direct physical harm.” Ahdut am, ahdut goral — Hebrew for one people, one destiny.
On November 8, 1942, Operation Torch began. US and British forces, commanded by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, landed on the beaches of the French territories of Algeria and Morocco, and fought against Vichy France forces. “Underground resistance forces staged a coup d’état in Algiers and were able to neutralize the French XIX Army Corps.… Of the 377 participants in the coup, 315 were French Jews.”
Then, on November 9, the Allies landings triggered the German occupation of Vichy France and the invasion of Vichy French Tunisia, by Hitler’s forces. An Einsatzkommando led by S.S. Walter Rauff, who was responsible for the murder of Jews in Poland and in the Soviet Union, using mobile gas vans, also entered Tunis, the capital, “prepared to implement the Final Solution.” During its six months of occupation, the ruthless Nazi regime “forced the creation of local Judenrat, and imposed antisemitic policies, including fines, confiscation of property, and the forced wearing of the the yellow badge (Star of David) by Jews. More than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps.”
“On November 10-11, US officials, acting on Roosevelt’s orders, negotiated a deal with Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, Vichy High Commissioner for French North Africa, for the cessation of Vichy resistance” to the Allies. As a consequence, Alger became the new capital of France, and about 310,000 Jews were about to be liberated.
The Jews of French Morocco celebrated their freedom by reading “Megillat Hitler.” That megillah describes the rise of Hitler, his deadly plan to deport all the Jews in Vichy-French North Africa to the death camps, and how that plan was foiled because of President Roosevelt (Persian King Achashveroch/Ahasuerus). Today, one can see “Megillat Hitler displayed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.”
In May 1943, the Allies involved in Operation Torch liberated the 100,000 Jews of Nazi-occupied Vichy French Tunisia, where 260 are known to have died in the forced labor camps. Yad Vashem lists this number in the table, “Nearly 6,000,000 Jews murdered in the Holocaust,” that is displayed in its exhibit, “SHOAH,” commemorating “the murder of European Jewry,” located at the Auschwitz Museum in Poland (I visited the exhibit one year after it opened in June 2013).
So, because of Operation Torch, a total of about 400,000 Jews were spared deadly mass deportations, like the Jews of Denmark who were evacuated to neutral Sweden.
Today, the Jews of the French protectorate of Tunisia, the French protectorate of Morocco, and the three departments of French Algeria, who suffered under Vichy antisemitic legislation, receive Holocaust compensation, just as the Jews of the Metropole (mainland France) do.
Sources/compiled from the websites of the USHMM and Yad Vashem, and Leni Yahil’s acclaimed book listed there, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Edith Shaked Perlman is an Advisory Board Member H-Holocaust, an international academic consortium/H-Net’s Network for scholars of the Holocaust.