Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia playwright Josh Azouz spoke to historian Dr Daniel Lee, an expert on the period, about what life was like in Tunisia in the run-up to and during the Second World War, specifically for its Jewish and Muslim populations.
Josh Azouz: What prompted the Nazi invasion of Tunisia in November 1942?
Daniel Lee: On 8 November 1942, the Anglo-American allies launched a surprise invasion of Morocco and Algeria, Tunisia’s easternly neighbours in French North Africa, in what was known as Operation Torch. Nazi Germany retaliated swiftly and within only a few days took over Tunisia. The Nazis occupied the country for the six months that followed.
Until Operation Torch, the Vichy regime in France was responsible for governing Tunisia, which had been a French protectorate since 1881. French dominance took hold gradually in Tunisia. Owing to its position on the Mediterranean, Tunisia was always home to a cosmopolitan European population throughout the period of French rule. In addition to the growing number of French settlers after 1881, there were tens of thousands of Italian, Maltese and other immigrants, who flocked to the colony in search of work and improved living standards. In contrast, the native Muslim population faced institutional discrimination throughout the seventy-five years of French dominance. Just as it increased taxes and confiscated land, France spent little on the health and education of the Tunisian population. In the 1920s, nationalist sentiment began to escalate in Tunisia, first with the Destour (Constitutional) Party and in the 1930s the more radical Néo-Destour Party, under the leadership of the young lawyer Habib Bourguiba. In 1934, the hard-line French Resident General, Marcel Peyrouton, banned Néo-Destour, imprisoned its leaders and closed its newspapers.
After the ‘Fall of France’ in the summer of 1940, mainland France was divided into an Occupied Zone in the north and the west and a non-Occupied Zone in the south and the east. The Occupied Zone, which included Paris, resembled other parts of Hitler’s Europe, with a strong German presence, whereas the non-Occupied Zone, whose capital was in the spa town of Vichy, was supposed to be free of German influence. Under the terms of the armistice with Germany, non-Occupied France clung on to its overseas empire. From 1940 until the Nazis arrived in November 1942, laws passed in Vichy for the non-Occupied Zone were applied in Tunisia. Not only did this cover laws on policing, the economy and taxation, but it also concerned discrimination against Tunisia’s Jewish population.
Josh Azouz: How did the Jews of Tunisia experience the Second World War?
Daniel Lee: Tunisia’s 90,000 Jews faced discriminatory measures long before the Nazis’ arrival. Even though it was not required by Germany, the new French government quickly passed legislation against Jews in France and its Empire. These sinister laws intended to strip Jews of their property, to marginalize them from national life, and to remove them from professions in which, according to Vichy, Jews exerted too much influence. Across Tunisia, Jewish children were removed from schools and Jews in the civil service, commerce and the liberal professions lost their jobs. Many European settlers in French North Africa supported Marshal Pétain and the policies of his government and looked on favourably at the antisemitic measures.
The German Occupation lasted six months, between November 1942 and May 1943. During this time, German soldiers and SS units caused extensive chaos and misery for the country’s Jewish residents. Many Jews felt the same fear and humiliation as experienced by their co-religionists in Nazi-Occupied Europe, as they became the subject of physical attacks, rape and constant intimidation. The yellow star was introduced in Sfax and in Sousse, and the Germans subjected the Jewish community to looting and large-scale fines. In December 1942, Jews, as supposed ‘friends of the Allies’, were held responsible for the Anglo-American bombings of Tunis and were forced to pay 20 million francs.
Allied bombing also led the Germans to call on Tunisian Jewish men aged between 17 and 50 to undertake forced labour in camps close to the battle fronts. When Jews failed to register, the SS, led by Colonel Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas chamber, took matters into its own hands by rounding up Jewish men at synagogues and other important Jewish sites. The 9 December 1942 marked one of the most tragic days of the Occupation, when Rauff’s men seized more than 2,000 Jewish men in Tunis. Around 5,000 Jews, coming usually from the community’s poorest families, attempted forced labour in thirty-two camps across the country including in the desert. Jewish forced labourers worked fourteen-hour days building roads, repairing runways, and transporting armaments to the front. They operated in terrible conditions with the constant threat of violence from the Germans, known only by their nicknames including ‘Memento’, ‘Grandma’, ‘The Killer’, and the danger of nightly allied bombing raids. The Jewish community was responsible for the welfare of Jews incarcerated in camps. By March 1943, many hundreds of Jews had escaped and these numbers increased as the allies advanced.
Tunisia’s geographical location, the worsening strategic situation for the Third Reich in early 1943, the proximity of allied troops, and the relatively short length of the Occupation, prevented the annihilation of Tunisian Jewry. Nevertheless, many Jews did not live to see the liberation of Tunis in May 1943. Around 60 Jews died or were murdered as they performed forced labour, while hundreds were killed by allied bombings. In April 1943, 14 Tunisian Jews, mainly socialists or resisters, were deported as political prisoners - by air - to concentration camps in Europe, where some were murdered.
Josh Azouz: How did Tunisia’s Muslim population respond to the Nazi Occupation?
Daniel Lee: After decades of colonial oppression, many Tunisians reacted with delight in the aftermath of France’s humiliating defeat in spring 1940 and, later, some willingly welcomed the Germans. Among the greatest critics of the French protectorate was the Tunisian monarch Moncef Bey, who, without offering his full support to Germany, vigorously pushed for Tunisian autonomy. Even though the Bey was rumoured to abhor Vichy and Nazi antisemitism, he did not speak out in public defence of his Jewish subjects.
Tensions between Jews and Muslims ran high even before the Nazis’ arrival, with French authorities turning a blind eye and sometimes encouraging local anti-Jewish riots. Violent attacks took place over three days in the city of Gabès in May 1941, in which eight Jews were killed and twenty were injured. The historically complex relationship between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia was further put to the test during the Nazi Occupation. Even though it is possible to find instances in which the local population helped Jews by providing material assistance, or by offering signs of support or comforting gestures, historians generally point to a sense of indifference from the majority of Tunisia’s 2,330,000 Muslim residents. Just as antisemitic attacks by Muslims were extremely rare, so too were efforts like those of Khaled Abdelwahhab, who hid from the Germans more than twenty Jews on his property. Most Tunisians paid little attention to extensive Arabic radio broadcasts, the 6 million pamphlets distributed in Tunisia, and other forms of Nazi propaganda that called for religious violence against Jews, proving reluctant to collaborate in a new form of antisemitism. Many had other more pressing concerns and spoke out actively instead against German food requisitioning.
Tunisian nationalism offered another possible source of hope for Nazi Germany to win over the population. The Germans anticipated that the release from prison of Bourguiba and other nationalist leaders of Néo-Destour would turn Tunisians against the Allies. In reality, only a handful of nationalists saw in Nazi Germany a useful tool in the colonial struggle against the French. Foreseeing an allied victory, Bourguiba supported the allied cause. The Germans’ hopes of creating an army of Arab volunteer units fighting at the front in Tunisia failed to materialise. Few Tunisians volunteered and many defected to the allies.
Bio: Dr. Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee is a Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University of London. He is a specialist in the history of Jews in France and North Africa during the Holocaust. His first book, Pétain’s Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940–42 (OUP, 2014) explored the coexistence between French Jews and the Vichy regime. His second book, The SS Officer's Armchair (Jonathan Cape, 2020), examines the life of an SS officer from Stuttgart whose personal documents were discovered inside an armchair.