Real-life ‘Casablanca’ story is even more dramatic than the Hollywood classic
It didn’t have a Bogie or Bergman, but as a new book explains, the Moroccan port city had actual heroes who worked to save its predominantly Jewish refugees from the Holocaust
While the film “Casablanca” is immortalized for its story of World War II refugees seeking freedom from Hitler, the real-life history that inspired it is arguably less well-known — but no less dramatic.
A new book, “Destination Casablanca: Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II,” by Meredith Hindley, seeks to bridge the gap and explore the story of the many Jewish refugees in the Vichy Moroccan port fleeing the Holocaust.
“I saw the movie ‘Casablanca’ in high school and, even then, I was interested in why there were refugees in Casablanca and why the French resistance was there,” Hindley wrote in an email. “After that, every time I saw the movie, my historian brain would kick in and I would wonder what the real Casablanca was like during the war.”
Researching a separate project, Hindley — a historian and writer for the National Endowment for the Humanities — encountered telegrams and reports on refugees in French Morocco and the area’s infamous internment camps.
“When I was looking for a new project, I decided to dig in and see what was happening in and to Casablanca during the war,” she said. “I discovered that not much had been written about French Morocco during WWII. ‘Destination Casablanca’ is the result.”
The book was released last October, in time for two 75th anniversaries: the Allied invasion of Casablanca in Operation TORCH from November 8-11, 1942; and the premiere of the Warner Bros. film on November 26, 1942.
Hindley chronicles individual refugees, including Jews such as Esti Freud, daughter-in-law of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and her daughter Sophie Freud; as well as Arthur Koestler, author of the anti-totalitarian novel “Darkness at Noon.”
“Most refugees who ended up in Casablanca were Jewish,” Hindley said.
The book also addresses the city’s Moroccan Jewish community, including one particularly heroic activist — Hélène Cazès-Bénatar, who helped refugees even while undermined by anti-Semitic Vichy legislation.
After the fall of France in 1940, “Casablanca became a way station for refugees because of its location,” Hindley said. It was the largest Atlantic port in Africa and, with Lisbon, it transformed into a jumping-off point for North America, South America, and the Caribbean early in the war, she said.
But departure was difficult. Refugees were required to obtain hard-won immigration visas, as well as exit and transit visas, which were all issued by different governments, she said.
“Getting those to line up — they all expired after a set period of days — could be nerve-wrecking. That’s how many refugees ended up stranded for months or sometimes years in Casablanca,” she said, giving the example of Esti and Sophie Freud, who were stuck in Casablanca for nine months until they could obtain new visas.
As Hindley describes in the book, before the war, Esti Freud, her husband Martin (Sigmund Freud’s son) and their teenage children Walter and Sophie lived a bourgeois life in Vienna. But after the Anschluss, they and the extended Freud family sought to escape.
The famed psychoanalyst left with his wife Martha and daughter Anna to London, but his four sisters died in the Holocaust. Martin and Walter also emigrated to London while Esti and Sophie left for France, and then Casablanca, where Sophie noted the city’s palm trees and white houses, but lamented the poverty she saw in the Muslim and Jewish quarters.
A failed attempt to leave Morocco occurred in January 1942 when a ship that was to have taken Esti and Sophie Freud to the US arrived the day after their visas expired.
“When Sophie learned of their fate, she cried for a day,” Hindley writes in the book. But the local Jewish community was there to help — including Bénatar.
“Throughout the war, she would help refugees find housing, navigate the French bureaucracy, and work with aid agencies,” Hindley said. “The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped finance her work.”
Her fellow Moroccan Jews helped, too. “Hélène Bénatar’s work depended on the generosity of the Jewish community in Casablanca,” Hindley said. “They contributed money, volunteered their time, and opened their doors to Jewish refugees” — including the Freuds.
Esti Freud gave back to Casablanca. A trained speech therapist, she established the city’s first-ever school for deaf children.
“Esti believed that she and Sophie were spared the ‘unpleasant surprises’ that befell other refugees because of her work with deaf children,” Hindley writes in the book, referring to anti-Semitic Vichy policies that “regulated what professions Jews could practice, where they could live, and how they could use their severely restricted ration coupons.”
“Casablanca’s [indigenous] Jews were also banned from living in the city’s European neighborhoods. Instead, they were all supposed to live in the mellah, the ancient Jewish quarter rife with poverty,” she added.
Hindley said that European Jews arriving in Casablanca were “subject to rules governing foreign nationals. One false step and they could land in an internment camp as an enemy of the state.”
She called these camps “miserable — meager rations, harsh living conditions, and the indignities that come with living behind barbed wire and under guard.”
In this atmosphere, Bénatar’s refugee work was threatened. “When the Vichy collaborator appointed to run Casablanca demanded she shut down the refugee organization she ran, she carried on the work under her own name,” Hindley said. “I have so much respect for her.”
Another who wins Hindley’s respect is Morocco’s sultan, Sidi Mohammed, who later became King Mohammed V.
“Sidi Mohammed found Vichy’s laws appalling and did what he could to ameliorate them, but his power was limited,” she said. “Vichy was determined to bring its vision to French Morocco even if it meant ignoring the sultan’s pleas not to subject his Jewish subjects to such treatment.”
Vichy Morocco ended with Operation TORCH, an Allied invasion led by American General George S. Patton. In its wake, a deadly melee broke out between Jews and Arabs in Casablanca’s Jewish quarter.
US forces defused these tensions. Hindley writes that “[the] last thing the Americans needed was for the Arabs and Jews to start fighting among themselves.”
If Patton had not captured Casablanca, the situation might have gotten far worse.
Alma Rachel Heckman, the Neufeld-Levin Chair of Holocaust Studies and assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The Times of Israel that “it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Vichy authorities were working with Nazi authorities.”
There were plots to exploit Africa’s natural resources, including “a plan for a trans-Saharan railroad, Algeria on through French West Africa, to transport natural resources to Mediterranean seaports, enrich France, and in turn enrich Germany,” she said.
Heckman said that what might have befallen Casablanca’s Jews had Vichy rule continued “is speculation, and really impossible to say.”
But, she noted, “what happened to the Jews of Tunisia is the best way of looking into the question.”
Tunisia was “the only place in French North Africa under direct Nazi occupation, for about six months,” she said. Although there were forced labor camps across North Africa, in which foreign-born Jews and political prisoners of all religious backgrounds were imprisoned, Tunisia was the only location in French North Africa that included large numbers of indigenous Jews.
Based on a true story
American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met in Morocco for the Casablanca Conference from January 14-24, 1943, demanding “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers.
Meanwhile, the film “Casablanca” held its general release that same January 23.
“Casablanca” told the story of American cafe owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and his former lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who reappears in Vichy Casablanca with her Czech resistance leader husband Laszlo (Paul Henreid) seeking letters of transit to escape the Nazis.
The film resonated with audiences, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Adapted Screenplay by Jewish-American identical twins Philip and Julius Epstein, and Howard Koch (Casey Robinson was uncredited).
Novelist Leslie Epstein, Philip Epstein’s son and Julius Epstein’s nephew, and the former head of the creative writing department at Boston University, said the film is about “a series of refugees in a terrible situation, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s tied to romance, to American idealism, as it used to exist, in the figure of Bogart, and with a general threat of fascism in the background.”
Many cast and crew members, including Curtiz, were foreign-born; some had fled occupied Europe for America. Actor-and-actress husband and wife duo Marcel Dalio and Madeleine Lebeau escaped via Lisbon, the same destination as Ilsa and Laszlo’s midnight flight.
Lebeau — the last surviving cast member before her death in 2016 — is remembered for one of the film’s most memorable scenes. When the Nazis sing “Die Wacht am Rhein” in Rick’s cafe, an impromptu refugee chorus drowns them out with “La Marseillaise,” with Lebeau’s character Yvonne crying actual tears.
“So many actors were refugees from Europe,” Epstein said. “Their lives were in danger. Some, like the Dalios and others, escaped by the skin of their teeth. Hence the real tears when the ‘Marseillaise’ is sung.”
In real-life parallels to the dramatic moments in the movie, refugees had complicated escapes.
As Hindley recounts, the Freuds’ escape from Casablanca combined a night train to Tangier, a flight to Lisbon and a cruise passage to the US.
The actual narrative shows the poignant expression of finally finding refuge.
“Who would have thought it, we are sailing to America!!” Sophie Freud wrote, as quoted in the book. “Just now I am sitting somewhere high up on the ship. It seems impossible, fantastic and I could never have imagined this moment.”