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"Song of the Oppressed"

Song of the Oppressed
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

During World War II, thousands of North African Jews living under the rule of Vichy France and German occupation forces were imprisoned in forced labor camps.1 Tunisian Jews worked in extreme desert heat to construct railroads, build factories, and clear airfields. In 1942, a twelve-year-old Tunisian boy named Allouche Trabelsi penned this poem—"Song of the Oppressed"—describing these experiences. 

Trabelsi wrote this poem in the Tunisian dialect of Judeo-Arabic he spoke, and it could be sung to an unidentified popular Arabic melody of the period.2 As many as several hundred copies of the poem may have been distributed at the time.3 The lyrics describe the brutal conditions of ten separate forced labor camps in the region: extreme hunger and starvation, grueling physical work, and abuse by the guards. The song also describes the frequent Allied bombings in the area of these camps, where Jews were made to clear airfields that remained active bombing zones.

German forces only occupied Tunisia from November 1942 to May 1943, but they implemented several policies targeting Jews in that short time. In the city of Sfax, German authorities forced Jews to identify themselves by wearing a yellow Star of David, and they planned to extend the ordinance to the rest of the country.4 Tunisian Jewish men were abducted and pressed into forced labor.5 In all, German occupation forces sent about 5,000 Tunisian Jewish men to forced labor camps in the North African desert.6

Allied advances in North Africa in 1943 brought the German occupation to an end after only eight months. Tunisian Jews did not experience the same prolonged genocidal campaign that Nazi Germany waged against European Jews, but this poem reflects how Nazi persecution threatened the existence of the Tunisian Jewish community during the relatively short period of the German occupation. 

At least 67 German, French, and Italian forced labor camps existed in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Geoffrey Megargee, et al., eds., The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, Vol. III: Camps and Ghettos under European Regimes Aligned with Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana Press University Press in association with USHMM, 2018); Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 57–71.

Judeo-Arabic is a language written in Hebrew with some Arabic letters and vocabulary, with many different dialects and spoken by the Jews of North Africa. This printed copy of "Song of the Oppressed" uses latin characters in place of Judeo-Arabic script.

Only one complete copy is known to exist, which resides in the rare book collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Michael Saraf, The Hitler Scroll of North Africa: Moroccan and Tunisian Jewish Literature on the Fall of the Nazis [Rockville, MD: Haberman Institute, 1988], 87–95).

German forces never fully occupied North Africa, and several key colonial holdings remained in the hands of France and Italy throughout the war. By November 1942, Allied forces had invaded the region, eventually driving the Wehrmacht out of Africa by mid-1943.

On December 6, 1942, SS colonel Walter Rauff demanded a list of 2,000 Jews for forced labor. When only 128 men reported for work on December 9, the SS stormed the local synagogue in Tunis as well as the Jewish neighborhoods and discovered 1500 additional Jews, whom they marched to the work site some 40 miles away.

For more information, see Daniel Lee, "The Commisariat Général aux Questions Juive in Tunisia and the Implementation of Vichy’s Anti-Jewish Legislation" in The Holocaust and North Africa (Aomar Boum and Sarah Stein, eds), Stanford: Stanford University Press in Association with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2018, 132–148. For more information about the camps under French and Italian control, see The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Volume III: Camps and Ghettos under European Regimes Aligned with Nazi Germany (Joseph R. White, ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press in Association with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2018, 240–243 and 527–529. Camps under German control in Tunisia will be outlined in a forthcoming volume in this series.

Most likely a reference to German occupying forces.

All of the camps listed in this song were located in the Saharan desert. An overview essay outlining those under French Vichy control can be found in The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume III: Camps and Ghettos under European Regimes Aligned with Nazi Germany (Joseph R. White, ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press in Association with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2018, 240–243. Camps under German control in Tunisia will be outlined in a forthcoming volume in this series.

The poet refers to the assembly for forced labor of Tunisian men.

Reference to the Allied bombing campaigns in the region between September of 1940 and May of 1943.

Those involved in forced labor (often the building of the trans-Saharan railroad) were forced to bring their own shovels.

Referring to the tools of forced labor in the desert.

Nickname for the Italians, who ran many of the forced labor camps in the area. The Romans are referred to as the "destroyers of the scroll" because of their role in the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

This stanza refers to the Allied bombing raids in North Africa. Jews were often forced to clear the mine fields for the German troops.

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Refrain: The oppressed, be gracious I pray thee, my God, the oppressed, be gracious I pray thee, my God, barefoot and with torn clothes, be gracious I pray thee, my God. 

They ambushed us
And we were on our feet [in] lines, lines
The soldiers1 and the commander encircled us
Alas, my God, what will happen now?

Alas, my God, how [is] this
The soldiers arrived with strength
They multiplied and spoke to me: Hey, Jew
Come after us now!

It was delayed destruction
Every night passed in a moment
How early work is tomorrow
We resembled prisoners

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

I resembled a prisoner
I think how this is possible
They were transporting us to Ksar-Tyr2
We remained fasting for four days

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

They forced us to stand and assemble3
Between Zaghouan and Djebebina
The wounded remained separately in el-Aouina
They continued and took us to Megrine

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

They continued and took us to Mateur
And the tears flow from my eyes
From Bizerte many people escaped
Because the bombs came raining down4

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

Because of the bombs I was confused
And I did not know what to do
The lice are a burden upon me
And my hands are injured from shoveling5

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

My hands are dry from shoveling
Mother, go and see the list
Your son thrown away between the mountains
At least you will know where he is

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

At least you will know how he is
Why this shame and embarrassment?
Wait [patiently] like me and like the others
And I wish that we will return and be happy

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

And I wish that we will return and be healthy
And my brother will return from Ferryville
And my friends will return from Enfidaville
And we will be joyous around the table [together]

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

And we will be joyous around the table together
How often they abused us in Sidi Ahmed
God will repay each person as he deserves
And God will judge the evil ones

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

The “judgment” upon them
And the “hidden” will become strong 
And the weapons will be thrown from their hands
And they will themselves become the prisoners

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

They will themselves be imprisoned
And the Jews will triumph on Shabbat, at the appointed time
And the “sins of the past will be forgiven”
They said “Amen,” alas they are convinced!

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

They said “Amen” [Hallelujah] and we will come “the hidden”
And will remove the shovel and the axe6
And the “destroyers of the scroll”7
Their names we fear

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

Because they guarded the displaced [to receive limited food]
And the meal is small and running out
Many times a truck was loaded [and plundered]
And that saved us from starving.

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

We remained struggling on the black market
How will you do [this], alas, father of children
Also if you will work night and day
Always your son will be lacking.

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

Always you will struggle together with the mother(s)
Without finding any fish or any meat
Without potatoes, without vegetables and without eggs
Also [the shops of] the vendors are locked shut.

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

The wealthy were imprisoned also
And when they were present they were commanded: [by the Germans]

“Guard our soldiers
If one will die—fifty of you will be killed.”
Be gracious, I pray thee, my God
If one will die we will start with you

And onto you we shall send an army
They will enter the houses and torture you
They will frighten you [surprise] in your sleep.
Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

They will frighten you with shells and shots
And they continue to sound the alarms
And spot the planes
And you still trust in God?

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

We will continue to please before Your mercy
Which is ready [and found] in all places
Many [soldiers] fell in the bomb shelter
And many fell shattered.

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

There are those dead from direct hits
And there are dead in the trenches
And there are dead in the shelters
And there are shattered dead8

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

To the others they robbed their apartments
And they remained cast off in the streets
They sleep on the land, great and small
And their belongings case out in the street.

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God

The belongings were plundered
From all around the city came the mourners
They escaped alone on the run
Alas my God, they are to be pitied, poor people.

Be gracious, I pray thee, my God 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Source Number ML54.6.M415 T7 1940
Date Created
1942
Author / Creator
Allouche Trabelsi
Publisher
Uzan Press
Language(s)
Judeo-Arabic
Location
Tunis, Tunisia
Document Type Poem
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