MONTREAL — Montreal engineer Sam Edery has a special copper menorah at home, passed down to him from his grandfather, who was the jeweler in the court of King Mohammed V of Morocco during World War II.
Edery says his grandfather made the menorah while the king was meeting with representatives from Vichy France and Nazi Germany to discuss the Jewish question.
“My grandfather knew [about the meeting] because he was a jeweler and he often went to the royal palace. He made the menorah because it represents the miracle of Hanukkah and [the discussions] happened in November or December, around that time,” Edery said.
Not long afterwards, Mohammed V allegedly told the Nazis, “There are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslims citizens, they are all Moroccans.”
“For my grandfather, it was like a miracle. I think a miracle happened because the king refused to collaborate,” said Edery.
Indeed, the Jews of Morocco were saved. Although Morocco was a French protectorate and France’s Vichy regime was complicit in the murder of French Jews, not a single Jew living in Morocco was sent to a concentration camp.
Nor did Morocco’s Jews wear the yellow star, their property was not seized, and they were not stripped of their citizenship.
French-speaking Moroccan Jews immigrated to Canada’s French-speaking province in the 1960s and 70s, sometimes by first moving to France, and later to Canada.
Recently, however, Jews who lived in Morocco during World War II have become eligible to receive reparations from the German government.
In Quebec, where Moroccans make up a quarter of the Jewish community, about a third of applications for German reparations come from Moroccan immigrants, estimated Stacy Jbeli, a case manager at the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors, which distributes reparations payments to local Holocaust survivors. Jbeli said that of the 2,000 Canadian-Moroccan Jews who applied for compensation, about 1,800 have received it.
Montreal-resident Edery’s 96-year-old mother is one such recipient. She received a check for CA$3,000 and might also be eligible for $1,500 per year for medical appointments, eyeglasses, medications, and home care services.
Why are Moroccan Jews now considered Holocaust survivors?
Until now, stories about what Moroccan Jews experienced during the war were not collected by Holocaust museums. For example, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, which has tens of thousands of testimonies from Holocaust survivors, does not include a single interview with a Jew living in Morocco during WWII.
Despite the city’s large Moroccan Jewish population, the Holocaust Museum in Montreal also does not have any testimonies from Moroccans.
At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, there are just a handful of testimonies from Moroccans — so few, in fact, that the chief of the museum’s oral history archive wasn’t even aware they existed. In these interviews, Jewish Moroccans describe the hardships of war that both Jews and non-Jews endured: bombings, food shortages, and curfews.
“There is nothing like a ‘Wow!’ [survival] story,” said case manager Jbeli, who has Moroccan clients.
But the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, convinced the German government to compensate Moroccan Jews for one primary reason — because they were forced to live in the mellahs, or historic Jewish quarters.
Under German law, forced residence is recognized as a type of persecution, explained Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference. Moroccan Jews who were already living in the mellahs were not allowed to move out, and some who were living outside of the Jewish districts had to move into them, Schneider said.
Edery, whose uncle and cousins were forced to leave their home and relocate into the mellah in Marrakesh during the war, suspects that the policy may have been put in place as the first step to extermination.
“They wanted to contain them in one place. Was it done for the same reasons [as in Europe]? It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Edery. “The Germans just didn’t get the time to do it because of the King of Morocco.”
However, a mellah wasn’t exactly like a Polish ghetto because the gates were not locked, people were not prevented from going in and out, and because most Moroccan Jews lived in mellahs even before the war. In addition, Jews weren’t forced into the mellahs in all Moroccan cities.
It is indisputable, however, that the conditions in the mellahs were terrible.
Montreal radio commentator Charles Barchechath, who was born in 1943 in the mellah of Rabat, said that food was scarce and typhus and cholera were common.
“The epidemics took the lives of a lot of Jews of Morocco. My father caught typhus, but luckily he recovered,” he said.
Between 1940 and November of 1942 when the Americans landed in Morocco, Moroccan Jews also had to abide by discriminatory laws: Jewish children were expelled from schools, Jews were fired from government jobs, and there were quotas on how many Jews could attend universities or work as doctors, lawyers and pharmacists, said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who wrote a book about the Holocaust in Arab countries.
“In general, Vichy laws that were applied in France, were applied in Morocco,” Satloff said. “The vast majority of Moroccan Jews were not working in the public sector, were not university students or university graduates, but the laws were there and they applied.”
Vichy officials attempted at one point to make an inventory of property held by Jews, but Mohammed V met with the Jewish community and promised to slow down the census, Satloff said. As a result, Jewish property in Morocco was not confiscated, unlike Jewish property in neighboring Algeria.
Historians also say that had American troops not landed in North Africa in 1942, Moroccan Jewry — which numbered approximately 250,000 during WWII — may have also been sent to the death camps.
According to documents that outline the Final Solution, Hitler had planned to exterminate 700,000 French Jews – a number that makes sense only if the Jews in French North Africa are included, Satloff said.
Effort to collect testimonies
Worldwide, more than 43,000 Moroccan Jews have received reparations since 2011, when Germany finally recognized them as Holocaust survivors, according to data from the Claims Conference.
But in addition to the payments, the acknowledgement that the Jews of Morocco also suffered from fascist persecution is helping to preserve history.
The applications filed by thousands of Moroccans for compensation have become the largest source of information on the experiences of Moroccan Jews during the war.
In addition, Holocaust museums are now promising to begin collecting audio and video testimonies from Moroccan Jews.
“There are several ‘categories’ — for lack of a better word — of survivors that we recognize as gaps in our collections, and the Jews of North Africa are among those identified as a gap,” Leslie Swift, the chief of Film, Oral History and Recorded Sound at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote in an email. “We would definitely like to interview more of them in the future.”
The museum is now planning to send a team to Montreal to interview Moroccan Jews, Swift said.