The Jewish community of Casablanca declared the day of the November 8, 1942 Allied liberation “Hitler Purim,” and a local scribe, P. Hassine, created the “Megillat Hitler.” 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.”
While the Jews of North Africa welcomed their liberation, the Allies delayed the removal of the discriminatory anti-Jewish laws put in place by the French Vichy regime until March 1943. This is the story of the context for maintaining these law for months after the region was liberated, as told in “Megillat Hitler,” FDR, and the Jews by Rafael Medoff.
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. However, Morocco was less affected than Algeria or Tunisia. In addition, thousands of European Jews and political prisoners were hauled away to forced-labor camps.
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.
The report of the meeting, which was not released until 1968, summarizes the words and position of FDR, “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.”
The French government kept nearly all the original senior officials of the Vichy regime in North Africa in place. 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 European Jewish men were being held. The only changes 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 advocating to FDR that the US should let the French Government representatives make their own decisions on removing or modifying the anti-Jewish Vichy laws in North Africa. The US did not intervene on these issues until American Jewish groups mounted a pressure campaign in the early spring of 1943. 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 urged FDR to eliminate the Vichy laws.
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 French resisted at first, but 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 making Jews in Algeria French citizens was reinstated.