Robert Fisk: Tombs that bear witness to Algeria's Jewish tragedy

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert Fisk is The Independent's award-winning Middle East correspondent.]

"Do you want to see the Israelite graves?" the security guard asked me.

It was pouring down, a cold storm of rain off the sea, and above the Algerian French cemetery of St Eugène, I read again those familiar words: "Me today, you tomorrow." Almost two decades since I last entered these gates, I felt sure the remains of the Jews of Algeria would not have survived. During the 1990s war, this had become a no-go area for the Algerian authorities, let alone the French embassy's hired guards. The great French cemeteries of Tlemcen and other cities were razed by the Islamists, the tombs of the old Algerian Jews and the French Jews and the pieds noirs and the colonisers of 130 years levelled into the earth.

The GIA gunmen had made bombs beneath the eucalyptus trees of St Eugène, they said, amid the tombs. A few cops had blasted open the vaults of 19th-century French merchants to look for explosives. They found only bones. The cemetery was still there. "You have to climb through this wall," the security man said. And there it was, the tiny synagogue dedicated by "the Israelite community of Algiers to their children who died on the field of honour".

And there were the memorials, still surviving, in Hebrew and French, of Jews from Algeria who gave their lives for France in the Great War. "David Jules Soussan of the 3rd mixed Regiment of Zouaves, died at Etingen, 1918", and "Amar Maurice Moïse, Soldier of the 2nd Engineering Regiment, died at Nieuport, 16 August 1915 Croix de Guerre". Presumably facing Hitler's last assault in the next war, William Levy "died for France, June 16, 1940, at Arpajon (Seine-et-Oise) at the age of 30", killed before he knew how murderously his country would treat his people.

There had been anti-Semitism enough in the 1890s – not from the Muslims of Algeria but from the "civilised" French colonisers who in 1870 were outraged when the French Jewish justice minister Isaac Crémieux gave full French citizenship to Algeria's 40,000 Jews. Muslims were not awarded this privilege, but it was the French right, not the majority Muslim population, who expressed their scorn for the Jews. In a remarkable book, the Algerian journalist Aïssa Chenouf has published the fruits of his extraordinary research into his country's former Jewish population, and unearthed some terrible stories of France's viciousness towards it...

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