“Megillat Hitler,” FDR, and the Jews

by Rafael Medoff

Among the more remarkable documents of the Holocaust is a scroll, created in North Africa in 1943, called “Megillat Hitler.” Written in the style of Megillat Esther and the Purim story, it celebrates the Allied liberation of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which saved the local Jewish communities from the Nazis. What the author did not realize, however, was that at the very moment he was setting quill to parchment, those same American authorities were actually trying to keep in place the anti-Jewish legislation imposed in North Africa by the Nazis.

* * *

On November 8, 1942, American and British forces, under the command of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, launched Operation Torch, the invasion of Nazi-occupied Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It took the Allies just eight days to defeat the Germans and their Vichy French partners in the region.

For the Jews of North Africa, the Allied conquest was heaven-sent. The Vichy regime that ruled since the summer of 1940 had stripped the region’s 330,000 Jews of their civil rights, severely restricted their entrance to schools and some professions, confiscated Jewish property, and tolerated sporadic pogroms against Jews by local Muslims. In addition, thousands of Jewish men were hauled away to forced-labor camps.

Among those taken prisoner on the first day of the operation was Admiral Francois Darlan, a senior leader of the Vichy French regime. In exchange for Darlan ordering his forces in Algiers to cease fire, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to leave Darlan in charge of the newly-liberated North African territories. The French anti-Nazi resistance, led by Charles de Gaulle, was understandably outraged by FDR’s partnership with their enemy. French underground activist Leon Morandat estimated the Darlan deal cost Roosevelt three-quarters of his prestige among the French masses.

Many of Roosevelt’s supporters back at home were likewise appalled at the president’s alliance with a prominent Nazi collaborator. “[It] sticks in the craw of majorities of the British and French, and of democrats everywhere, [that] we are employing a French Quisling as our deputy in the government of the first territory to be reoccupied,” an editorial in The New Republic complained.

In his November 17 victory announcement, Roosevelt defended the Darlan deal as a “temporary expedient,” and said he had “asked for the abrogation of all laws and decrees inspired by Nazi governments or Nazi ideologists.” A delegation of Algerian Jews that met with General Eisenhower were given the same promise, and State Department official Adolph Berle assured American Jewish leaders that abolishing Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws in North Africa was “on the agenda.”

As a result, regardless of Darlan’s title, Jewish groups felt confident that the principles articulated by FDR would guide the governance of Arab North Africa and its Jewish population. The American Jewish Congress optimistically predicted that the repeal of the Vichy era anti-Jewish legislation would follow the Allied occupation of North Africa “as the day follows the night.” In this case, however, it was going to be a very long night.

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The key issue was the now-defeated Vichy regime’s repeal, back in 1940, of the 1870 Cremieux Decree. Crafted by French Minister of Justice (and Jewish leader) Adolphe Cremieux, that measure offered French citizenship to Jewish residents of French-occupied Algeria. This reversed the centuries of second-class status that local Arab leaders had imposed on Algeria’s Jews. It made it possible for Jews to enter professions and schools in Algeria from which they had been excluded by the local Muslim rulers.

That Darlan and other former Vichy officials did not want to restore the Cremieux policy was no surprise. But what neither American nor Algerian Jewish leaders realized was that despite his promises, President Roosevelt himself was not convinced of the need to restore full equal rights for North African Jewry.

On January 17, 1943, two months after the Allied liberation of North Africa, Roosevelt, together with U.S. envoy Robert Murphy and Major General George S. Patton, met in Casablanca, Morocco, with Major-General Charles Nogues, a leader of the new “non-Vichy” regime.

According to the official transcript of the Casablanca conversation, Gen. Nogues informed FDR that the Jews in North Africa were clamoring for the right to vote. Roosevelt replied “that the answer to that was very simple, namely, that there just weren’t going to be any elections, so the Jews need not worry about the privilege of voting.”

Ambassador Murphy then pointed out that aside from the specific right to vote, North African Jews “were very much disappointed that the ‘war for liberation’ had not immediately resulted in their being given their complete freedom.”

FDR’s reply minced no words: “The number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population…The President stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc., in Germany, were Jews.” (It is not clear where FDR got that wildly exaggerated statistic.)

Later that afternoon, according to the transcript, Roosevelt met with General Henri Giraud, commander of the French armies in the region, and “asked General Giraud as to the Jewish situation in Algeria. This was discussed at some length and the President set forth his views as he had done in this connection to General Nogues [earlier in the day].”

American Jewish leaders did not know of FDR’s private comments about Jews. Undoubtedly they would have been shocked and horrified if word had leaked out. (The transcript was not made public until 1968.) But they did know that the promised restoration of the rights of North African Jewry had not taken place, and as the weeks turned into months, they started wondering why.

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Various Jewish communities around the world have established local Purim-style celebrations to mark their deliverance from catastrophe.

The Jews of Frankfurt, for example, would hold a “Purim Vintz” one week after Purim, in remembrance of the downfall of an antisemitic agitator in 1620. Libyan Jews traditionally organized a “Purim Ashraf” and a “Purim Bergel” to recall the rescue of Jews in those towns, in 1705 and 1795, respectively.

The Jewish community of Casablanca, for its part, declared the day of the 1942 Allied liberation “Hitler Purim,” and a local scribe, P. Hassine, created the “Megillat Hitler.” (The original is on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) The seven chapters of the scroll poignantly blend the flavor of the tale of ancient Persia with the amazing stroke of fortune that the Jews of Casablanca had themselves just experienced. It uses phrases straight from Megillat Esther, such as “the month which was turned from sorrow to rejoicing” and “the Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor,” side by side with modern references such as “Cursed be Hitler, cursed be Mussolini.”

The Jews of North Africa had much to celebrate. But after the festivities died down, questions began to arise. Much to the Jewish communities’ consternation, and with the Allies’ apparent approval, Gen. Darlan kept nearly all the original senior officials of the Vichy regime in North Africa in place. The only exception of note was Yves Chatel, the governor of Algeria–but his replacement was Maurice Peyrouton, who had signed the original Vichy anti-Jewish laws in the first place, back in 1940. Moreover, the Vichy regime’s “Office of Jewish Affairs” (Service des Questions Juives) continued to operate, as did the forced labor camps in which thousands of Jewish men were being held. The only changes of note as a result of the Allied liberation involved some instances of individual Jews having their confiscated property returned to them.

Behind the scenes, senior U.S. officials were taking Darlan’s side against the Jews. FDR’s envoy to North Africa, Robert Murphy, recommended that the Cremieux Decree not be reinstated, because of Arab opposition. General Patton warned Eisenhower that if steps were taken to “favor the Jews,” then “we will precipitate trouble and possibly civil war.” Patton sent Eisenhower a report by Darlan making the case against equal rights for North African Jewry. Eisenhower forwarded the materials to the War Department and State Department, which were soon urging FDR to leave the decisions on Jewish affairs in the hands of the local governments in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

* * *

In December 1942, Darlan was assassinated under mysterious circumstances, and was replaced by General Giraud. But Giraud showed no signs of treating North African Jewry any differently from his predecessor.

American Jewish leaders were loathe to publicly take issue with the Roosevelt administration, but by the spring of 1943, they decided the principle at stake in North Africa was too important to justify further delay. The American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress issued a public statement charging that “the anti-Jewish legacy of the Nazis remains intact in North Africa” and urging FDR to eliminate the Vichy laws. “The spirit of the Swastika hovers over the Stars and Stripes,” Benzion Netanyahu, director of the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionists (and father of Israel’s current prime minister) charged. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee met with Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to press for abrogation.

Similar pleas were heard from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, French Jewish leader Baron Edouard de Rothschild, and even a group of Jewish GIs in Algiers who protested directly to U.S. ambassador Murphy. Editorials in a number of American newspapers echoed this criticism.

With pressure mounting, Giraud decided to make a gesture. On March 14, 1943, he announced that all racial laws imposed by the Vichy regime would be repealed. At the same time, however, he also abolished the Cremieux Decree, on the ground that it unfairly “established a difference between Muslim and Jewish natives.”

At first, Roosevelt administration officials dug in their heels. Ambassador Murphy claimed that some Algerian Jewish leaders agreed it was impossible to reinstate the Cremiuex Decree. Undersecretary Welles insisted that technically, the region was no longer under Allied military occupation and the U.S. could not dictate how the local government ran things.

“The under secretary of state was perhaps right from a strictly formal viewpoint,” notes Prof. Michael Abitbol in his study of North African Jewry during the Holocaust. “But he was strangely underestimating the immense influence wielded by the United States over North African internal politics.”

Finally, under the accumulated weight of public protests, the U.S. made it clear to the local authorities that the anti-Jewish measures had to be repealed. The implementation process, however, was painfully slow, even after Giraud’s administration was taken over by De Gaulle’s Free French forces in the late spring.

Finally, in April 1943, the forced labor camps in North Africa were officially shut down, although some of them continued operating well into the summer. The Jewish quotas in schools and professions were gradually phased out. In May, the racial laws in Tunisia were abolished. Two hundred Italian Jews who had been taken by the Allies to a Tunisian forced labor camp, because they were citizens of an Axis country, were released after several months. And on October 20, 1943, nearly a year after the Allied liberation, the Cremieux Decree was at last reinstated. The victory that “Megillat Hitler” celebrated was finally complete.

(Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2011)

March 2011