Site of Amnesia: The Absence of North African Jewry in Visual Depictions of the Experience of World War II

By Kozlovsky-Golan, Yvonne | Jewish Film & New Media, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Site of Amnesia: The Absence of North African Jewry in Visual Depictions of the Experience of World War II


Kozlovsky-Golan, Yvonne, Jewish Film & New Media


In this article, I initially intended to examine audiovisual representations of World War II in cinema, television, and the visual arts as experienced by the Jewish communities of North Africa under the colonial occupations of Italy and France, followed by the Vichy regime, and then the German Wehrmacht. However, through the research I conducted in cinema libraries, the archives of Yad Vashem, memorial archives in Berlin and Washington, D.C., Israel's official television Channel 1 archives, as well as through online searches of Israel's leading Hebrew dailies (Ha'aretz, Yediot Ahronot, and Ma'ariv), I discovered that the North African Jewish communities under Nazi occupation, under the Italian Fascist regime in Libya, and under Vichy control in Algeria and Tunisia from 1940 to 1943 were absent from the films made in the countries that had been their colonizers-France and Italy-and in films made in Israel, the country to which Jews immigrated after the Holocaust. When one considers that around 43 percent of Israel's population is of Mizrahi descent, it is surprising to realize that this subject has not yet been either researched or studied in depth.1

Historical research, for example, has described how Libyan Jews had been subjected first to Italian Fascist rule and then to German occupation. Tunisian and Algerian Jews, as residents of French colonies, lived under the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944, and fought in the Underground. The fate of these North African Jews was similar to that of European Jewry: their houses were blown up; families were buried alive in the rubble; their property was plundered; and they were expelled to concentration and forced-labor camps, from which many never returned.2

The current article seeks to explore reasons for the paucity of visual (cinematic and art) references to the experience of North African Jewry during World War II. This article first sets out to show that there is no correlation between the amount of studies published on the experiences of North African Jews during World War II and their representations in the visual media. Second, it seeks to explain this lack of representation in film and television through the prism of a number of phenomena: miscomprehension, missed investigations and overlooked evidence, social geography and language differences, the impact of considerations of production and memory, the social status of the Jews of North Africa, immigrant absorption in Israel, and the development of the politics of Holocaust memory. These points of reference lead to the conclusion that the representation of North African Jewry's experience during World War II is a site of "amnesia."

The Shoah in Audiovisual Media: Between Empowerment and Disregard

Western viewers are accustomed to films and television miniseries about the terrible tragedy that befell world Jewry under the Nazi regime in the period 1939-1945. A comprehensive study conducted in 2011 among Israeli high school students, youth movements, and Israel Defense Force missions (Edim B'madim, or "witnesses in uniform"), and among participants in organized school and institutional trips to memorial sites in Poland, proved that a considerable percentage of respondents derived much of their knowledge about the Shoah from films or plays about the Holocaust and from the mass media3.

This study supports the results of my previous 2006 findings4 and additional research, which reported that students who read a historical text supplemented by a film on the same subject scored 50 percent higher on the study material than those who read only the text. Other studies of the connection between the Shoah and film depictions arrived at similar conclusions.5 The data show the importance of audiovisual media in restructuring human memory and the historical consciousness of the past based on visual documents, real and fictional: from camp liberation footage shot by the Allies and the Soviets, photographs taken by Germans during the war and available in archives after the war, and the depictions in feature films that were based on the existing visual documents created immediately after the war and over the subsequent decades. …

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