80 years ago, Nazi Germany occupied Tunisia – but North Africans' experiences of World War II often go unheard

Eighty years ago, in November 1942, the Nazis occupied Tunisia. For the next six months, Tunisian Jews and Muslims were subjected to the Third Reich’s reign of terror, as well as its antisemitic and racist legislation. Residents lived in fear – “under the Nazi boot,” as Tunisian Jewish lawyer Paul Ghez wrote in his diary during the occupation.

One of us is a historian; one of us is an anthropologist. Together, we have spent a decade gathering the voices of the diverse peoples who endured World War II in North Africa, across lines of race, class, language and region. Their letters, diaries, memoirs, poetry and oral histories are both defiant and broken. They express both faith and despair. All in all, they understood themselves to be trapped in a monstrous machine of fascism, occupation, violence and racism.

When most Americans think of the nightmares of the war or the Holocaust, they think strictly of Europe. Hate has a shifting color wheel, however – and we learn something new when we watch its spin in wartime North Africa.

Crossing the sea

The history of Jews settling in North Africa begins as early as the sixth century B.C., after the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Another significant wave of immigrants followed the Spanish Inquisition. At the start of World War II, a diverse North African Jewish population of roughly 500,000 coexisted with Muslim neighbors.

North Africa’s Jews spoke many languages, reflecting their many different cultures and ethnicities: Arabic, French, Tamazight – a Berber language – and Haketia, a form of Judeo-Spanish spoken in northern Morocco. While a large number of North African Jews, particularly in Algeria, enjoyed the privileges of French and other Western citizenship, the majority remained subjects of local leaders.