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Post-Holocaust Testimony


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Gaston Guez, "Our Martyrs"

Guez, Gaston Memorial Book 1946
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
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tags: family forced labor religious life

type: Album

Yizkor books, or memorial books, are primarily considered to be a phenomenon unique to Ashkenazi Jews.1 The following selection from the Tunisian Jewish community, however, contains several stylistic similarities to the Ashkenazi genre as well as some important differences. The Jewish population in Tunisia was multicultural and multilingual. Tunisia was the only French colony in North Africa to be fully occupied by the Germans during an approximately nine-month period from November of 1942 until May of 1943. The Germans introduced the yellow star in the city of Sfax, with intentions to extend the ordinance to the rest of the country. Tunisian Jewish men were also conscripted into forced labor in the desert. There were approximately 28 German-run and 93 Vichy- and Italian-run forced labor camps in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.2 Although only one camp—Berguent, in Morocco—was specifically designated as a "punishment camp" for Jews and other military and political prisoners, the other camps were no less harsh than their European counterparts. Forced labor involved building the Trans-Saharan railway, clearing away bomb fields, and both building and working in German- or Italian-run factories. These camps were located in remote desert locations with temperatures that could reach highs of 140 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. In all, about 5,000 Tunisian Jewish men were sent to forced labor camps in the North African desert. It is estimated that some 2,575 Tunisian Jews died as a result of brutal forced labor.3 This memorial book can therefore be usefully considered as a source like camp diaries and other accounts that were created during the war. Like Tunisia, Libya also faced the effects of direct occupation—by Italian rather than German forces—as the diary of Herzl Mazia describes in detail.

The subject of North Africa during World War II is one that has recently begun receiving sustained scholarly attention. As part of a larger discussion of Holocaust experiences that have been marginalized, or that exist "on the periphery" of scholarly attention, this region is being examined both for its role as part of the European colonial enterprise, and as a space in which Jews and Muslims interacted before, during, and after the war.4  

Gaston Guez, the author of this text and a member of the Tunisian Jewish community, took it upon himself to create a memorial book that specifically memorializes those Tunisian men who died or were killed as a result of forced labor. The book is divided into several parts and uses French, Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, the local dialect of the community. The French section includes a brief description of the phenomenon of Jewish forced-laborers in Tunisia during the war and an explanation about the editor’s motives to create the book. Guez also includes extensive lists of the dead and how they died as well as lists of the forced labor camps that existed in Tunisia during the Nazi occupation. Transcriptions of diaries and letters that speak to the Tunisian experience are also included, along with an Ashkavah service, the Sephardic memorial service. The Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew portions of the book include short obituaries with photos of the victims, names of Jewish martyrs divided by the different cities in Tunisia, a yizkor memorial service for holidays in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, a second ashkavah service in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, and several poems and prayers that speak to the author's personal loss of his brother and a general cry for revenge.

The two sections featured here consist of the opening and conclusion of the book, written in French, which establish its primary purpose. As one of the few sources on the Holocaust in Tunisia, this document raises several key questions: What balance between history and memory does the document present? What are the different roles and interactions of the dual–and at times conflicting—narratives of the French and Judeo-Arabic sections? And ultimately, how does Guez frame the narrative of the Jewish wartime experience in Tunisia in the context of the experiences of Jews in Europe?

Ashkenazi Jewish cultures developed primarily in Central and Eastern Europe. Tunisian Jews, on the other hand, would more likely identify as Maghrebi Jews (from the Maghreb or North and Northwest Africa) or Sephardi Jews (originating in the Iberian Peninsula and spreading to parts of North Africa and the Middle East after the expulsions from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century). 

See Michel Abitbol, The Jews of North Africa During the Second World War, trans. Catherine Tihanyi Zentelis (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989).

Recent monographs on the Holocaust in the region include Aomar Boum, Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); and Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).

A photo and short description of the late Simon-Chalom Guez appeared in the book. He died on February 24, 1943, from injuries sustained in a bombing of El-Aouina.

A mohel performs the required ritual circumcision ceremony for Jewish boys.

Refers to the Exodus from Egypt.

Refers to the Babylonian exile, in which the Babylonians subjugated the Jews of ancient Judea.

Refers to Leviticus 19:18.

Refers to the Mishnah, or the “oral law” of Judaism, which captures rabbinic interpretation and codification of Jewish law dating to the third century CE.

Refers to Jeremiah 29:7, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, in which God implores the people of Israel living in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jewish Publication Society translation).

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[Opening]

This work has been undertaken following the loss of my poor brother at the Jewish Forced Labor Camp of El Aouina, and particularly traces the life of the Jewish forced laborers under the German Occupation of Tunisia.1

As a result of the appeals of many of my coreligionists and, most particularly the parents of certain Jewish forced laborers who died at the camp, I have gathered the photos of these poor martyrs and have mainly summarized in Judeo-Arabic, rather than in French, the daily life of these laborers.

I believe that I have thus contributed to relieving the wounded parents [of the laborers] belonging to the Tunisian Ghetto and who read predominantly in Judeo-Arabic.

 

Preface

This work entitled, "Our martyrs under the German boot," is not a defense presented by an abettor, nor a revelation of certain glorious facts, but a living story of the life during the German occupation of Tunisia, of my brothers, the "Jewish ex-forced laborers" in different German camps.

The loss of my brother Simon-Chalom, in the prime of his life after abominable suffering as a forced laborer in El-Aouina, prompted me to write the present work.

Many were like him, underwent the same thing, and had to suffer not only injustice, cynicism, and German tyranny but also a horrific death as a result of their forced labor.

While feeling the pain of the loss so dear of my brother, and understanding that families are tried by the same grief, I have faithfully retraced in this work the journeys experienced by many among us.

Then compare our readers here, the serious misconduct by some, the unqualified egoism of many others, and the combined prejudicial nature of many rogues, to the heroism and devotion of many of our coreligionists.

In the memory of the poor fallen martyrs of the front, in their youth, health, and vigor,

Pray for the peace of their souls,

Amen.

F.H.G. Guez, mohel2

[...]

 

Conclusive moral of "the work"

We can observe that the worst that had befallen us lasted only a short while, and cannot be compared to the countries of Europe.

Each of us has a duty to God, and every believer must love God and emulate His example of justice.

One must adore Him for he gives grace and protection to us.

Please pray now for his assistance in these hours of distress, for our numerous needs.

We must have a sense of recognition of a boundless God who, under His protection the people of Israel escaped slavery in Egypt,3 Babylon,4 and the extermination of the race under the "German boot," and who have survived all the overwhelming pain and oppression through the centuries.

But we will not forget that this point is essential:

"Love your neighbor as yourself."5

What does this mean?

Next, listen to us, everyone, of every origin, race, or religion.

As it is prescribed in the "oral law,"6 take part in the future life of justice for all the nations.

We must impose upon ourselves the necessity of justice and charity.

Our religion recommends particular love and respect for all who are superior in "wisdom, experience, and virtue."

A particular pity to the wounded, the infirm, the orphans, the widows.

This remains the great duty, the duty to our mother, the homeland.

The homeland is the country where one is born, where one lives under its protection, and where one rests upon death.

All Israelites must love their homeland, France, contribute to its material and moral prosperity, subordinate themselves to the interests of their country.

Also, one must defend his homeland, at risk to his life, against all aggressors.

As it is said in

Jeremiah XXIX7

Contribute to the salvation of the State to which I have carried you...

Pray God for its happiness, because your prosperity depends on it.

Amen.

 

The Last Hour

To those who were kind enough to respond to my call:

In response to my call released on the 11 and the 15 of June, given a delay to the 20th of June 1946, many relatives of the dead wanted to write to me.

I thank them and take note.

To my great regret I cannot include their communications in my work.

The work is finished, their letters were received after the delay indicated.

Concerning only the Jewish ex-forced laborers, I cannot, in fact, speak about deportees who were assassinated nor those who disappeared. All of them are also our martyrs, but given the multitude of these cases, the work would have been delayed and could not, moreover, represent the purpose set out in the preface.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Source Number DS135.T7N671946 (USHMM Rare Book)
Date Created
1946
Page(s) 20
Author / Creator
Guez, Gaston
Language(s)
French
Hebrew
Judeo-Arabic
Location
Sousse, Tunisia
Document Type Album
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