Forgotten Torch: The Untold Story of the Jewish Resistance in Algeria

26,000 Jews were living in Algeria in 1830, when France invaded Algeria and made it a French colony for 130 years. The Jews of Algeria enjoyed freedom and equality thanks to Adolphe Crémieux, who was minister of justice in the second French republic and gave the Jews full equal rights in 1870. The Crémieux decree stated that Jews should have all rights as individuals but none as a nation, in an attempt to blur their national identity and make them loyal equal citizens of France.

After the French occupation, the Jewish community in Algeria experienced a radical and rapid cultural revolution – more than other communities in Northern Africa. Many community members left their tradition and their Jewish identity, and became adherent Francophiles. The proportion of Jews among white collars professions in the French era was much higher than their number in the general population; they embraced French culture, consuming and producing art, literature and poetry.

"Temple Israelite”, Oran, Algeria 1920. Postcard. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Geraed Kav-El, Israel

“Temple Israelite”, Oran, Algeria 1920. Postcard. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Geraed Kav-El, Israel

Let us skip to 1940. Following the German occupation during World War II, Algeria became a protectorate of the Vichy government who collaborated with the Nazis. The Vichy regime abolished the Crémieux decree and denationalized the Jews of Algeria, which was the beginning of a harsh anti-Jewish campaign. Soon all the Jewish students were expelled from the universities and from public schools. In 1941, the Jews were about 2% of the population, however over 37% of the medicine students were Jewish, 24% of the Law students, 16% of science, and 10% of arts students were Jewish. At that time masses of Jews were dismissed from their positions as doctors, jurists, teachers and officials. They were condemned and left for the rage of Muslims and French settlers who did not waste any time seeking for revenge, after decades of envy and hostility.

Young Jews led by José Aboulker had enough, and decided to unite and react. Aboulker was from a wealthy educated family. His father, Dr. Henri Aboulker was a successful physician and surgeon and taught in Algeria University; and his mother, Berthe Bénichou-Aboulker, was a celebrated poet and playwright, one of the first women in Algeria to publish her own literal works. The young Aboulker would not accept the racism and discrimination of Vichy France towards the Jews; he gathers family members, some students and friends and established a Jewish resistance acting under cover, hidden as a sport club named Géo Gras, the name of the non-Jewish sport trainer they hired, who knew nothing about the club’s real purposes.

At first the resistance focused on rather local tasks, such as defending Jews from violence, purchasing weapons, distributing anti government flyers, while waiting and preparing for some larger scale activity. They had to wait until 8.11.1942 for their bold, heroic operation.

 José Aboulker, leaser of the Jewish resistance in Algeria (photo: Ghetto Fighters' House Museum)

José Aboulker, leader of the Jewish resistance in Algeria (photo: Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum)

The summer of 1942 was one of the lowest points of the allies’ attempts to defeat the Nazis. In early July Rommel arrived at the El Alamein line, threatening to take Egypt, including the Suez Canal. Later that month, the battle of Stalingrad in the east front began. Hitler’s forces were rushing forward, while Stalin demanded that the allies open a new front in the west, in order to reinforce the Red Army. The strategists’ eyes were all towards the south – to Africa.

“Operation Torch” was the code name for the allies’ landing on the shores of Morocco and Algeria, within the overall battle over North Africa. The brilliant strategist, General Eisenhower, was the American commander of the operation; he knew there were few officers in the Vichy army whose dislike for the Germans overcame their loyalty to the regime. The Americans needed quality assistance from within, and found Aboulker and his men. The resistance fighters were to take over central city facilities, which was allowed according to a standing decree regarding emergency regulations.

 American soldiers land on the shores of Algeria, 1942 (photo: Imperial War Museum in London)

American soldiers land on the shores of Algeria, 1942 (photo: Imperial War Museum in London)

They set off in the night of November 8th 1942. It only took José Aboulker and his friends 15 minutes to take control over the police headquarters and the main radio station in Algiers. They had uniform of the fascist movement and fake warrants. For 18 hours they spread misinformation and faked orders over the radio, misleading the Vichy regime and allowing the allies to land on the shores – the “Operation Torch” was on. During the next crucial 24 hours an American force of some 2,000 soldiers took over Algiers with hardly any significant resistance.

The Americans, who feared that the “Géo Gras” underground would be the weakest link of the operation, were glad to be proved wrong. The successful operation had long term implications, led to the formation of a double front against Rommel, thus paving the allies’ way to complete the occupation of southern Europe and Italy.

aboard the USS Ranger just prior to Operation Torch

Aboard the USS Ranger just prior to Operation Torch

Compared to other cases of Jewish heroism during the Holocaust, the story of Géo Gras is hardly ever mentioned in Israeli history lessons, memorial ceremonies or in studies or researches.  If we take, for example, the heroic Warsaw ghetto uprising fighters, whose actions, though tremendously brave, had no significant impact on WW2 outcome, we cannot but wonder why they are commemorated in so many books, monuments, lectures, songs and statues in the Zionist ethos, whereas the Algerian resistance heroes’ story was forgotten.

Ushi Derman