the Holocaust in North Africa

First, what is the Holocaust?

The Holocaust — or the Shoah, as we call it — was the systematic genocide of over six million Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany, its allies, and collaborators. While the Nazis targeted many populations, their main victims were the Jewish People and the Roma. 

Though the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Holocaust is technically considered to have taken place between 1941-1945, when the Germans implemented a policy known as the “Final Solution.”

60% of the Jewish population of Europe was murdered in the Holocaust. In countries like Poland and Lithuania, the Jewish population was nearly exterminated in its entirety (90% and 95% of Jews, respectively, were murdered). 

 

Where did the Holocaust take place?

The Holocaust took place in Germany and all throughout Nazi and Axis-occupied Europe.

Many of us are aware of the genocidal events that occurred in Europe, but not many know that the Holocaust actually extended to Nazi and Axis-occupied North Africa, as well as Southwest Asia (the Middle East), which I’ll reserve for a future post. 

 

Algeria 

Due to the Nazi occupation of France and the establishment of the antisemitic Vichy regime, the Jews of Algeria, who had French citizenship, were stripped of their rights. 

In October 7, 1940, Algerian Jews lost their status as equal citizens and were instead classified as “indigenous peoples.”

Jews were forbidden from working in most professions, such as pharmacies, banks, newspapers, and more. Additionally, the regime enacted educational quotas, allowing just 7% of spots for Jews. 

The Algerian Jewish resistance played a big role in the successful Operation Torch, when the Allies gained control of Algeria. Despite this, General Eisenhower allowed an agreement that didn’t revoke any of the racial laws targeting Algerian Jews. Many were arrested on suspicion of collaboration and murdered.

In 1943, due to pressure from Jews in the United States and Europe, the antisemitic laws were finally rescinded. 

 

Tunisia

While Tunisian Jews were also living under the Vichy regime, initially they fared much better than their Algerian counterparts, as the French and Muslim Tunisian authorities were sympathetic to the Jews.

However, this all changed when the Germans briefly occupied Tunisia from November 1942-May 1943. Two weeks after the invasion, the Nazis arrested the leaders of the Jewish community. They also sent 5000 Jews to labor camps and forced them to wear a yellow star on their backs so that they could easily be identified from a distance and shot. Jewish survivors recall their Muslim neighbors cheering for the Germans and jeering at them when they were arrested. 

The two worst labor camps in Tunisia were Bizerte and Mateur, where Jewish prisoners died of disease, starvation, and Ally bombings. 

Jews were beaten on the streets, their properties seized, and arrested en masse. They were ultimately saved from mass extermination because the Allies captured Tunisia in 1943. However, the returning French authorities still subjected Jews to discriminatory laws. 

 

Libya

Libya was a colony of Italy during WWII. In 1938, the Italians passed Nazi race laws, which banned Jews from government positions, prevented Jews with foreign citizenship from leaving the country, banned Jews from schools, and more.

In the 1940s, the race laws worsened, and many Jews were rounded up and taken to concentration camps throughout Libya, mostly to the Giado concentration camp, where they were isolated and starved. 

In 1941, all Jews with foreign citizenship were expelled from Libya and were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany or the Innsbruck-Reichenau camp in Austria. 

 

Morocco

While Morocco also came under Vichy rule, Moroccan Jews generally fared better than their counterparts in Algeria and Tunisia due to the intervention of the Moroccan king. For example, their properties weren’t confiscated and he ensured that Jews weren’t rounded up and taken to concentration camps. 

Even so, the Vichy government enacted education quotas and forced Jews into mellahs (similar to ghettos). 

Historians widely agree that Hitler would’ve followed through with his plans to completely exterminate Moroccan Jewry had the Allies not intervened in North Africa in 1942. 

 

Concentration camps

Just as they did in Europe, the Nazis and Axis powers created a network of concentration camps in North Africa. There were a total of 17 camps (3 in Morocco, 3 in Algeria, 7 in Tunisia, and 4 in Libya). Additionally, some prisoners were taken to Vichy camps in West Africa. 

Jews and other prisoners (e.g. communists) were starved and forced to work. Many died of diseases. Others were tortured and murdered. 

In Algeria and Morocco, the camps were overlooked by the Senegalese infantry, hired Moroccan and Algerian Muslims, Moroccan military representatives, and others. The Tunisian camps were controlled by French, German, and/or Italian guards. Libyan camps were overlooked by the Italians. 

 

Trans-Saharan Railroad 

Many prisoners in the North African labor camps were tasked with the completion of the Trans-Saharan Railroad, a project that would never be completed. The railroad was supposed to connect Niger to the Mediterranean coast. 

While this was a French project, the Nazis were highly supportive of it. 

Like in all other concentration camps, the conditions for the prisoners working on the Trans-Saharan Railroad were abysmal, with many dying of starvation and disease.