Holocaust in the Middle East

By 1942, the tentacles of the Holocaust had spread from Europe across north Africa into the Middle East. Gershom Gorenberg explores the largely forgotten brutalisation of Jewish populations from Morocco to Iraq in the Second World War

A group of Tunisian Jews are rounded up and marched through the streets of Tunis carrying shovels in December 1942

On 20 July 1942, a German warplane touched down in the Egyptian desert near El Alamein, where German and Italian forces were battling Britain’s Eighth Army. From the plane stepped Walther Rauff, a blond, blue-eyed Obersturmbannführer – a lieutenant colonel in the SS, the brutal, elite corps of the Nazi Party.

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At 36, Rauff was already an engineer of death. His previous assignments included the mass production of mobile gas chambers used by the SS to murder as many as half a million people in eastern Europe as part of the Final Solution, the Nazi genocide of Jews.

From the plane, Rauff went to Erwin Rommel’s battle headquarters, where he presented his orders to the field marshal’s chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Siegfried Westphal. As commander of a new mobile killing unit, an Einsatzkommando, Rauff was assigned to carry out “executive measures”, meaning mass murder of Jews, as soon as Rommel completed his expected conquest of Egypt. Rauff had come from Berlin, where the Nazi leadership was awash with optimism about Rommel “pressing forward through Egypt into the Near East”, as German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had just told the Japanese ambassador.

After Egypt, Rauff’s next target would be the 500,000 or more Jews of Palestine. And if, as Adolf Hitler expected, Rommel’s tanks drove forward to the oil fields of Iraq, the Jews of that country and of Syria and Lebanon would face mortal danger.

But Rommel’s chief of staff explained to Rauff that logistical problems, especially lack of fuel, were delaying the Axis forces’ advance, so the two agreed that Rauff and his team would move from Germany to Athens, Greece. From there, they could deploy to Egypt once Rommel swept forward into Alexandria – a mere 60 miles east of El Alamein – and Cairo.

It never happened. The desert battlefield would be the site of Rommel’s most famous defeat, and one of the great turning points of the Second World War.

Yet Rauff’s mission to Egypt is fraught with significance. Contrary to popular memory, the Holocaust was not only a European event. Across north Africa and the Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq, the Germans and the regimes collaborating with them systematically persecuted Jews. Hitler had declared his intent to eradicate the Jews of the Middle East, and the SS actively prepared to do so. Allied victories – heroic, and at times close to miraculous – prevented the Nazis from carrying out the worst of their plans, but any full account of the Holocaust requires a map that extends well beyond Europe.


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The early months of the Second World War were disturbing but distant thunder for Jews in the Arab world. Three events in June 1940 changed that. First, the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini announced to an obediently cheering crowd of thousands in Rome that Italy was joining Germany and going to war against “the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the west”: Britain and France. His immediate goal was seizing a scrap of France as it collapsed before the German onslaught. The larger implication was that war was inevitable in north Africa, since Mussolini dreamed of creating a “new Roman empire”, using the Italian colony of Libya as a base for expansion.

A week later, First World War hero Philippe Pétain formed a new government in France and sought peace with Germany. The armistice left Pétain’s government, based in Vichy, in control only of southeastern France, but it ruled most of France’s overseas empire, including the north African colonies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

The third incident came at the end of June. An Italian anti-aircraft unit at Tobruk in eastern Libya shot down an Italian plane, mistaking it for a British aircraft. On board was Italo Balbo, the governor-general of Libya.

SS officer Walther Rauff, photographed in 1945
SS officer Walther Rauff, photographed in 1945. After his mission of mass extermination was halted at El Alamein, Rauff was posted to Tunisia. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Balbo’s death made life go from bad to worse for Libya’s 30,000 Jews. Though a prominent Fascist, Balbo had opposed the Nazi-style anti-Semitism that Mussolini had adopted. The Italian campaign against the Jews had begun in 1938 with the Manifesto of Race that defined Italians as Aryans, and Jews as biologically inferior. A series of race laws barred Jews from government jobs, from teaching or studying in Italian schools, from practising professions including medicine and law, and more.

Balbo avoided enforcing the laws strictly in Libya, especially those that locked Jews out of the colony’s economy. “The Jews are already a dead people; there is no need to oppress them cruelly,” Balbo explained to Mussolini in a letter. Il Duce answered: “Though the Jews may seem to be dead, they never really are,” echoing the Nazi view of Jews as a powerful, clandestine threat. Once Balbo was dead, the official persecution of the Jews in Libya could be escalated.

The Vichy regime in France, meanwhile, showed how fully it had become a German satellite by enacting its own Jewish Statute in October 1940. The move was driven in part by the home-grown anti-Semitism of the French right, but, as Vichy foreign minister Paul Baudouin would write, German pressure played a major role. Modelled on Nazi laws, the French statute defined Jewishness in racial terms, with a Jew being anyone with three Jewish grandparents or with two and a Jewish spouse. Among the measures, Jews were banned from all teaching, judicial and police positions, and most of the civil service. Only 2 per cent of lawyers, doctors and midwives could be Jewish – all professions in which Jews were prominent.

The provisions echoed those adopted in other Nazi satellites in Europe, including Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. In the French case, though, their reach extended to Africa. The Vichy statute was applied directly in French Algeria, while the sultan of Morocco and bey of Tunisia, nominal rulers of French protectorates, issued decrees bringing in similar rules.

After enacting the Jewish Statute, Pétain abrogated the 1870 decree that granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews. Vichy authorities gave Jews a month to sell their businesses. The sultan of Morocco decreed that Jews living in European areas of cities had one month to move back to the old, crowded Jewish quarters. There, with more people packed in, disease spread quickly. Step by step, the Jews of French north Africa saw their lives and livelihoods constricted, in a process parallel to what German Jews had endured early in Nazi rule.

The Jews of French north Africa saw their lives constricted, in a process parallel to that endured by German Jews early in Nazi rule

Another country at the far end of the Arab world briefly tilted into the Axis orbit when, in April 1941, four Iraqi colonels overthrew the British-aligned government. The coup was planned in the Baghdad home of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and exiled leader of the Arab revolt in Palestine in the late 1930s. ‘Abd al-Ilāh, the regent who ruled in place of Iraq’s six-year-old king, Faisal II, fled to Transjordan, while the king was smuggled out of Baghdad by his mother.

Iraq’s government radio station broadcast a stream of “inflammatory agitation against the Jews and powerful appeals to Nazism”, according to a later commission of inquiry. Baghdad was then about one-sixth Jewish. On the streets, members of pro-Nazi paramilitary groups, such as the Youth Phalanxes, seized random Jews and dragged them to police stations, or occasionally murdered them. Meanwhile, Britain’s codebreakers at Bletchley Park deciphered Axis messages that the German and Italian air forces were sending unmarked warplanes to aid the Iraqi junta and that ships arriving at Rhodes bore ammunition to be airlifted to Iraq.

Commander of the Afrika Korps, Erwin Rommel (right), gives orders during the north African campaign
Commander of the Afrika Korps, Erwin Rommel (right), gives orders during the north African campaign. Often described as the “war without hate”, the conflict actually witnessed numerous persecutions against Jewish populations. (Photo by Jean DESMARTEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The British quickly organised an invasion and the Iraqi army had crumbled by June. Husseini and the other plotters fled. When ‘Abd al-Ilāh returned to Baghdad, British troops stayed outside the city in the hope that his return would not look like their doing. A crowd of Jews came to greet the regent, but as they returned home Iraqi soldiers attacked them, with teens from the Youth Phalanxes joining in. Only on the next day did the newly returned regent finally order the police to disperse the mobs. “A large number of Jewish shops and homes were looted, and several hundred Jews were brutally murdered,” the British ambassador reported. The dead of the Baghdad pogrom, the Farhud, may be the least known and least acknowledged victims of Nazism.

Husseini eventually reached Berlin and, in November 1941, met with Hitler. He asked the führer to declare publicly his backing for “the independence and unity of Palestine, Syria and Iraq”. While Hitler avoided such a pledge, he promised that once German armies in the Soviet Union pushed south into the Middle East, “Germany’s objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element” in the Arab world.

Axis armies would actually threaten the Middle East from a different direction. In September 1940, Italy launched an invasion of Egypt from Libya. By winter, the British under General Archibald Wavell counterattacked and pushed the Italians out of Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya. Afraid the Allies would keep going and threaten Europe from the south, Hitler sent an army to Libya under his favourite general, Rommel.

In the expanse of the desert, the fighting see-sawed wildly. Rommel reconquered most of Cyrenaica, then in late 1941 the British Eighth Army overran the province again, only to be pushed back once more. By early 1942, Benghazi, the largest town in Cyrenaica, had changed hands four times.

Mussolini found a scapegoat for Italian military failures: Libya’s Jews. On 7 February 1942, he issued a decree to expel them to a concentration camp in the desert. Colonial authorities started with the Jews of small towns in Cyrenaica, and lists of those to be expelled began appearing in synagogues each fortnight. Survivors would remember that 40 people were packed onto each open truck and that they travelled for five days in the sun to the camp at Giado, south-west of Tripoli. There, men were subjected to forced labour. Inmates received between 100 and 150 grams of bread a day, and when they complained about the lack of food, camp authorities told them: “The purpose of bringing you here is not to feed you, but to starve you to death.” Of the 2,600 Jews imprisoned at Giado, more than one in five died within a few months of hunger or typhus.

Of the 2,600 Jews imprisoned at the Giado concentration camp, more than one in five died within months of hunger or typhus

One factor slowed the sfollamento, the “clearing”, of Jews, according to the German consul in Tripoli: a shortage of trucks. They were needed to supply Rommel’s new offensive, which began in late May 1942. Thanks to his secret weapon, a superb intelligence source in Cairo, he had taken Tobruk in eastern Libya by 21 June. A message from the Cairo source said that the Eighth Army was “decisively beaten” and “if Rommel intends to take the Nile Delta this is a suitable moment”.

Rommel plunged into Egypt. In Berlin and Rome, expectations soared and the SS sped up its preparations to send an Einsatzkommando to the Middle East. Yet during that crucial last week of June 1942, an intelligence breakthrough at Bletchley Park identified and silenced the Axis source. The timing was providential. Rommel was caught by surprise when British commander General Claude Auchinleck made a last-minute decision to move his defensive line to El Alamein. Auchinleck’s change, the topography of the area and dogged fighting by British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and South African troops stopped the Axis advance. Rommel – and Rauff – would never reach Cairo or Tel Aviv.

Following the battle of El Alamein, in November 1942, the Eighth Army, now commanded by General Bernard Montgomery, shattered Rommel’s army and forced it to retreat eastward. Days later, the Allies launched Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of Morocco and Algeria. In response, German forces seized Tunisia as a last redoubt in Africa and the SS sent Rauff’s team.

As German historians Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers have detailed, Rauff carried out a “reign of terror” against Tunisian Jews that included conscripting 5,000 for forced labour. But with shipping to Europe under constant attack, Rauff could not carry out the larger SS plan to send Tunisia’s Jews to death camps in Europe.

The Nazis’ intentions to carry the war against the Jews beyond Europe never wavered. Ultimately, though, defeat at El Alamein turned the tables and kept the SS from carrying out its plans.

Yet leaving north Africa and the Middle East out of Holocaust history has erased the suffering of many of the Nazis’ victims and obscured the full significance of the victory at El Alamein.

Early in 2021, I received an email from the scientist Michael Bevan, son of Lance Corporal John Bevan of the Second New Zealand Division, who fought and was taken prisoner at El Alamein. “My father always thought they were fighting to preserve the British empire,” he wrote, which for “a colonial was not a high priority.” Only in the winter of 1945 in Germany, when as a prisoner of war his father saw female slave labourers building an airfield, did he fully grasp “the evils he had fought to contain”.

Therefore, the soldier’s son went on, understanding how the Eighth Army “established the El Alamein line”, and thus prevented genocide in the Middle East, “has brought new and deserved honour to the brave men of my father’s generation, who fought and suffered in Egypt.”

For their sake, too, the story must be told.

Forgotten victims: The grim fate of Jews in North Africa and the Middle East

Morocco

As a French protectorate, Morocco was subject to Vichy control after the fall of France. While Jews were not sent to death camps in Europe, Sultan Mohammed V issued a decree enacting Vichy’s Jewish Statute. Under wartime rationing, Jews received less to eat than Europeans or Muslims, and a 1941 edict gave Jews living in European neighbourhoods one month to move back into the mellahs, or Jewish quarters, where overcrowding accelerated the spread of disease.

Algeria

The Vichy regime’s Jewish Statute was applied directly in Algeria, where at least 110,000 Jews lived. They were stripped of French citizenship, removed from occupations, given one month to sell their businesses, and those of military age sent to internment camps. Even after the Anglo-American liberation of Algeria in November 1942, Vichy officials remained in office and anti-Jewish measures were only overturned late the following year.

Tunisia

Subject to Vichy rule from 1940, Tunisia was then occupied by Germany in November 1942. The SS sent in the Einsatzkommando under the command of Walther Rauff, who had been originally assigned to the mass murder of Egypt and Palestine’s Jews. Rauff took Jewish leaders hostage in order to round up 5,000 Jews for forced labour, and imposed fines on the pretext that “international Jewry” was responsible for Allied bombings. As many as 400 Jews died due to the German occupation, but the Allied liberation of Tunisia in May 1943 thwarted Nazi plans to ship Tunisia’s 66,000 Jews to death camps in Europe.

Libya

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini enacted anti-Jewish laws that were enforced with increasing strictness in the Italian colony of Libya. In 1942, on Mussolini’s orders, 2,600 Jews from eastern Libya were trucked to a desert concentration camp, where more than 500 died of disease and starvation. The British conquest of Libya after El Alamein prevented the imprisonment of the remainder of Libya’s estimated 30,000 Jews and resulted in the liberation of the concentration camp at Giado.

Palestine and Egypt 

The SS created a mobile killing unit to carry out genocide in Egypt and Palestine as the Axis army, under the command of General Erwin Rommel, reached El Alamein in July 1942. Britain’s Special Operations Executive trained Palestinian Jews for guerrilla warfare after the expected Nazi conquest. But the dogged British defence at El Alamein stopped Rommel and prevented the murder of an estimated 75,000 Jews in Egypt and half a million or more in Palestine.

Syria and Lebanon 

French mandatory officials declared fealty to Vichy and enacted anti-Jewish statutes. Jews were dismissed from government posts, the press and the railways, but enforcement was otherwise sporadic against the 30,000 or more Jews across the two countries. An Anglo-Free French invasion in June 1941 ended Vichy rule, and Free French general Charles de Gaulle abrogated the anti-Jewish laws.

Iraq 

Four colonels, known as the Golden Square, carried out a pro-Axis coup in April 1941, threatening some 110,000 Jews in the country. Government radio broadcast a stream of Nazi propaganda. In Baghdad, pro-Nazi paramilitary group Youth Phalanxes arrested or sometimes murdered Jews on the streets. The regime’s collapse in the face of a British invasion ignited a pogrom in which soldiers and Youth Phalanxes murdered 180 or more Jews. The events shattered Jewish confidence in life in Iraq, setting the stage for a later exodus.

Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His latest book, War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East, was published in January by PublicAffairs

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This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine