By Alanna Berman
In our collective memory of the Holocaust, a number of common images and thoughts come to mind. Auschwitz. Poland. Death camps. The number 6 million. But there was more to one of the darkest hours for world Jewry than the occurrences in Europe, which largely affected Ashkenazi Jews. Film director Steven Spielberg, through the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education, set out in 1994 to tell the stories of those affected by the Shoah, recording nearly 52,000 audio-visual testimonies from survivors and other witnesses about their lives before, during and after World War II. Today, these testimonies can be accessed online worldwide through the Institute’s visual history archive, but one story has remained largely untold until now — that of Jews living in Arab countries during the Shoah.
This lesser-known subset of Holocaust stories went largely undocumented during the initial phase of testimony gathering. Today, an effort has launched to change that. While some testimonies documenting the Sephardi experience exist, they are mostly those of people who left the Arab countries during or shortly after the atrocities of World War II, and not of the people who lived there during that time.
“The experience in these Arab countries is something that is somewhat underrepresented in the archive,” says Karen Jungblut, director of research and documentation at the Institute. “It’s important that a collection of testimonies has the diversity of experiences that did exist represented as broadly as possible, and for one reason or another, we weren’t able to go in and collect these testimonies [earlier], or weren’t able to work with partners to collect [them], so we must do it now [before it’s too late].”
On the front lines in this effort is Jacqueline Gmach, a San Diegan and long-time speaker on the Arab Jewish experience (her family fled Tunis, Tunisia, in the early part of the war, living for a time in Paris, and later settling in Canada and the U.S.). As the director for this special project, Gmach is working to line up donors so that they can begin conducting interviews with this specific population of survivors.
The importance of it, she explains, is to ensure later generations understand the many forms anti-Semitism took during the period, and that what it looked like in Arab countries was different from in Europe (but no less dangerous).
“Those people who were living in Arab countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Algeria and Yemen [experienced the Holocaust in] quite a different way from the Jews of Europe,” Gmach says.
Project manager Michael Snyder says the creation of such a collection of testimonies is also crucial in understanding the global reach of Nazi ideology and its policies.
“I think if you were sitting in a room as the Nazi regime planned everything, it would have been easy to see the systematic growth of the Nazis and their plan,” Snyder says. “These Arab countries were part of the same plan as those European countries; there just wasn’t enough time to implement the plan. The victims of these countries who weren’t victims of death camps…still experienced a systematic mental abuse, being in the eclipse of the entire Shoah.”
Snyder says Jews in Arab countries lived for years prior to the events of World War II as second-class citizens, and what the Nazi regime promised to the leaders of these countries was the eventual systematic removal of all Jews in that part of the world.
“It was reflective in the policies of these countries, where Jews, by law … were defined as second-class citizens,” he says. “These Arab Jews were living like this for centuries, and therefore, [their treatment during World War II] was not something brand new. This is why it’s important to document this part of our collective history. It’s not just that this was happening again, but that it was happening with the Nazis promising an end.”
As part of the Final Solution, Gmach says, the Wannsee Conference promised the elimination of 1 million Jews in France, although only 300,000 Jews were living there at the time.
“Scholars interpret [this fact to mean] that to reach this ‘1 million,’ that the Nazis were adding the numbers of Jews residing in Arab countries to this list,” she explains. “So they were a part of the Final Solution and were viewed in the same way by the Nazi regime.”
Both Gmach and Snyder hope to gather enough funding to begin the project as soon as possible, considering the advanced age of survivors. The initial goal is to raise enough money to record, catalog and house in the archives 10 testimonies from Arab survivors of the Shoah. Eventually, organizers hope to add another 40 testimonies to complete the project.
“We’re talking to people who are getting older,” Jungblut says. “Many of these people are in their 80s or 90s and we’re talking to them about their experiences in their 30s or 40s, so we created this project of documenting the experience with interviews and are following similar models and processes [that we have used in the past]. Right now, the focus is on the fundraising so that we can reach out as soon as possible to these individuals, and that happens somewhat simultaneously [alongside with making the connections to these survivors].”
In fact, Gmach says she has already made a few informal connections with survivors through her initial outreach efforts.
“We will eventually have to select those [survivors] with a strong enough memory,” Gmach says, “because the goal, of course, is to record the memories and the feelings behind the events, but with accuracy in terms of the historical facts. In that respect, the first thing we’ve done is to identify scholars and historians who are experts on the lives of the Jews living in these countries. [We have to] be sure we are telling the story accurately.”
Once funds are acquired, Jungblut says the Institute has the programs and people in place to record testimony to be archived and placed in special collections, and it could be as little as two years from interview to integration into the archives and use at universities worldwide.
Though the project adds a new dimension to the Institute’s archives, Gmach says it is in line with the organization’s efforts to document and share the experiences of those affected by genocide.
“I don’t want to make any qualitative measure, but it is obvious to me that the suffering of the Jews in European countries had no comparison to what was happening in the Arab countries,” Gmach says. “It was [more indirect]. But the suffering of one person, at any level, is suffering. If we have the means to record and remember one person’s story, we must.”
For more information, if you would like to donate or if you know a potential candidate for an interview, call Jacqueline Gmach at (858) 382-3254. Information about USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education can be found at http://sfi.usc.edu.