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JIMENA goes to France to record stories of Algerian Jewish refugees

by dan pine

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Bernard and Lillianne Bekech had no choice but to pay the ransom.

In 1961, their 2-year-old son was kidnapped by gangsters during the chaos of the Algerian War of Independence — during which the Jews of Algeria suffered mightily. The couple paid everything they had to rescue him before immigrating to France along with 130,000 of their fellow Algerian Jews.

 

Didier Nebot, a French author who was born in Algeria
Didier Nebot, a French author who was born in Algeria
Theirs is just one of the many stories from a Jewish community that had been in that North African nation since the days of the Roman Empire.

 

Recently, the S.F.-based organization JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) captured several of those stories on film. Shot in France over three weeks earlier this year, these interviews constitute JIMENA’s most extensive trove yet of testimonials from Algerian-born Jews.

French actor-singer Miléna Kartowski and American filmmaker Manny Benhamou conducted 25 interviews — most in French, some in English and Arabic — and gathered 50 hours of footage. Participants represented a cross-section of the community, including presidents of organizations such as the Algerian synagogue Les Tournelles and Morial (the Association to Safeguard the Memory of Jews from Algeria).

The Bekech family sat for an interview filmed by Benhamou, himself the son of an Algerian Jew who fled in 1961. That man, Eric Benhamou, went on to become a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and the Benhamou Family Foundation funded the project.

“Most Jews of Algeria have a strong personal stake in this,” said Benhamou, a Washington, D.C.–based documentary filmmaker. “It’s an untold piece of history, with a limited window to tell it.”

That’s because many of the people interviewed were in their 80s and 90s. As with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project, JIMENA has sought to record as many testimonials from Mizrachi Jewish refugees as possible.

“Every country in the Middle East and North Africa has a very different, nuanced history,” said JIMENA’s S.F.-based  executive director Sarah Levin, who traveled to France for the interviews. “The experience of Algerian Jews was totally different from those in Libya, Iraq and Syria.”

Perhaps the most distinctive difference was the fact that Algerian Jews were citizens of France, and had been declared so since 1870. So when the revolution of 1961 made life difficult for Algerian Jews, they had another place of refuge besides Israel: France.

“They identified as French,” Benha-mou said. “They went to French school, served in the French military, fought in the French army in World War II.”

 

Filmmakers Manny Benhamou (left) and Miléna Kartowski interview French musician Enrico Macias  photos/courtesy jimena
Filmmakers Manny Benhamou (left) and Miléna Kartowski interview French musician Enrico Macias photos/courtesy jimena
Once the revolution raged, Algerian Jews were often victimized, while remaining divided in their sympathies. After independence, the vast majority repatriated to France. Several thousand moved to Israel, and a handful stayed.

 

“Everyone we interviewed had a friend or family member killed, maimed or wounded in an attack,” Benhamou said. “People were held up at gunpoint [with the perpetrators] demanding keys to their home, keys to their shop. When the French pulled out, the entire Jewish community pulled out overnight.”

Benhamou said the interviews touched him deeply. His own grandfather was one of the interviewees. One elderly woman hailed from a small Sahara Desert town, its Jewish community so ancient that it practiced rituals and spoke a Hebrew dialect that stretched back millennia.

Another JIMENA interviewee, Gaston Ghrenassia, 75, fled Algeria for Paris in 1961, eventually becoming a French music star under the name Enrico Macias. Also interviewed was Didier Nebot, a French author who was born in Algeria and is the former president of Morial, an association of Jews from Algeria.

Levin said the goal is to make the testimonials available to scholars, historians and the public, just like the scores of testimonials of Mizrachi Jews from other nations that JIMENA has already filmed. A side effect, she added: “We now have communities around the world requesting that we held them document and record their stories.”

For now, there are agreements to transfer the footage to Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Over time, the materials may also end up in other universities and media outlets.

“We want the stories preserved and then shared widely,” Levin said. “There are so few organizations and individuals collecting the stories of Jewish refugees. Time is running out.”


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