Josette Sicsic was enjoying a carefree childhood after moving with her Algerian-Jewish family from Beni Saf to Hyères in the south of France in the 1950s. But the war of independence raging in Algeria continued to haunt her, with tragic consequences for her relatives still in the country. The summer of 1962 was supposed to mark the end of the war, but led to a series of life-changing traumas. In the latest of a series of testimonies to the forced exodus of Jews from Algeria 60 years ago, here is an extract from a memoir Josette wrote for her daughter, uploaded to the Morial website. (With thanks: Leon)
I loved leaving Algeria and the prison it had been for me, arriving in the France of the ‘Trente Glorieuses’, the postwar years when the factories were running at full capacity, unemployment did not exist, mothers gave birth to loads of baby boomers, holidaymakers took advantage of their paid holidays, driving in their little 4 CVs to local campsites. We firmly believed that the future would be brilliant and that each generation would live better than the previous one. I was all the more easily convinced that the future was upon us when our father bought a television.
It was an innovation which not only opened the doors to knowledge with all kinds of great shows like Lecture pour tous and Cinq colonnes a la Une but enhanced enormously my popularity in the neighbourhood because I could now invite my friends and girlfriends to come and watch Jean Nohain and Rintintin on a Thursday afternoon!
But Algeria had not disappeared – either from the news or from my life, nor that of my family. The events in Algeria kept happening and not a week passed by without my hearing about massacres, attacks and other violence victimising Algerians and French. Everyone in France had had enough. The bad news flowed on, despite poor communications – only the mail was reliable. Algeria had always made me feel bad and my parents tried in vain to reassure me. I heard them whispering to each other about stories big and small. The one I was composing in my head derived from a few expressions such as “Charonne metro”, ‘Red Seine’, ‘barricades,’ ‘battles of Algiers’, ‘bombers’, ‘OAS’, ‘generals’ putsches, ‘repressions’ and then one day – the word … “abduction”.
… There are words and moments in life that remain forever etched in memory. It was April 27, 1962, probably a Saturday afternoon. I was in sixth grade and had new little girlfriends. One was Claudine. She invited me to spend the afternoon at her place. She was a very good student and had become my rival. She was an only child, had a nice house and no doubt children’s games and toys that I envied. That afternoon, several of us went to play at her house. It was the beginning of spring, the sun and the first gentle breezes warmed the air of the heavenly place where we lived. As usual, I had to go home on foot, although Claudine’s home was very far from mine.
What time was it when I returned? Who, apart from my parents, were at home? I don’t recall; but what I do remember is their crestfallen faces. They were obviously afflicted by a drama that at first they tried to keep from me and then ended up revealing to me while trying to play it down: “Tonton (Uncle ) Georges was kidnapped! »
The bomb had been dropped, it was exploding in our dining room thousands of miles away and in my little child’s head. I, who naively believed that she was done with drama!
Uncle Georges! Kidnapped! On a Friday night! And my aunt, my very dear Tata Mimi, our model aunt, the one who played the piano, drove a Dauphine, sent us records by Brassens and Charles Aznavour as well as state-of-the-art parkas, was a wreck. Tata Mimi, who travelled to Spain and Italy and invited my sister to accompany her on his travels. She made a nice couple with Georges, her husband, a doctor – tall, burly, smiling, rarely intimidating, with whom she had had two children – twins, twins! My dear cousins, about six months younger than me, my main playmates in Beni Saf.
For a long time I probably stood petrified, trying to understand what this term “cursed” meant, which had brutally turned my life into a drama I believed I had escaped. “Abduction”, the term was relatively new in the vocabulary of this endless war and even if it
seemed less cruel and definitive than the term “death”, I sensed that it was not trivial. I probably witnessed this that evening – in whispers, an unleashing of sighs of despair and tears, many tears, especially as my mother went to our neighbours to telephone her sister in order to learn a little more about the circumstances. Kidnapping was soon going to become the model for a frenzy of revenge by members of the FLN, animated by the signing of the Evian Accords since, officially, the war was over.
France was going to withdraw from Algeria, leaving it to the Algerians to ensure their own safety and prepare for the long-awaited referendum on independence. Except that at the time, I did not did not know all that. I kept imagining that everything was hunkydory – the
world was going to settle down, my family was going to come back to spend the holidays in Hyères and we would go from time to time to Beni Saf to huddle under my father’s comforting parasol.
The days passed in a feverish atmosphere that no words of understanding could relieve. In our immediate surroundings, it did not seem that we had better understood the drama that was being played out. The neighbours were asking questions. What answers should we give them? Especially since the radio and the newspapers did not mention this type of tragedy which, it must be said, did not fit into the classic codes of war. Deep down in all of us, kidnapping or disappearance were words leaving a little room for another term:” hope “. Maybe Tonton Georges was coming back?
Maybe my aunt would find him? Maybe a ransom, as in classic kidnappings, could get him released? So we began to wait for his release. But it was not a classic kidnapping. Every day, fake news kept us hovering around the mailbox and Madame Pucci ‘s ‘phone: she had generously and patiently left us to call and receive calls from Beni Saf. I heard that my uncle had been seen in the mountains, in a village, in a field… I heard that my aunt had run to the mountains accompanied by a representative of the Red Cross International to try to have him released because the French army did not lift a finger. It did nothing. This was confirmed to me much later by one of my cousins who lived there. I heard whispers of conflicting news, fluctuating between hope and despair. At night when I went to bed, I started praying again. as my friend Minette had taught me. She told me that a modest intervention with the Almighty might deliver my uncle!
But it did not. We were in June. The debacle was gathering momentum. The Europeans, caught between the OAS and FLN firestorms, fled as best they could: in boats, in planes, in trawlers fitted out by Spanish fishermen…some went to Spain, notably to Alicante, where the Franco dictatorship did not care where the immigrants came from. Some were ghosts from the fifteenth century expulsion who still spoke Judeo-Spanish, like my grandmother.
My family were also packing their bags, looking desperately for ‘office workers’ (that was the term used) to move their furniture and bring their children to safety. Only my Aunt Mimi and my grandmother appeared not to move. There was no way they would abandon my uncle who we naively hoped was alive. Years later, when tongues were wagging, we learned that he had undoubtedly been killed the very evening of his abduction, in such a brutal and savage way that I prefer not to say. For what reason? No one will ever know. He was a doctor, he treated everyone, he was close to the Algerians and probably also to the Communist Party. Was eliminating him a means to unleash a wind of panic and trigger the escape of a million “pieds noirs” – abandoned to their fate, people which the French army had orders not to protect?
The history of the Algerian war is tragic. That of the last year is even more so. A population made up of petty employees, craftsmen, traders, mostly born there, were called to leave their native land in the greatest chaos and the worst insecurity. No one was protecting them anymore. General de Gaulle had been given full power to liquidate the Algerian problem when the war was won and peace talks were possible. In any case, sixty years later, this is what I read – what we finally dared to say and write – but it was far too discreet for the message to be heard by
all. I mean by the majority of the population for whom the Algerian war of independence was a legitimate war waged by an oppressed population against their oppressors.
And then, the month of June arrived. It was the end of school. Soon it would be summer. I had finished my school year brilliantly with a prize for excellence. I had been moved up a class without a problem. So I was allowed to go and spend the afternoon at my friend Claudine’s, as usual. She was celebrating her birthday. The afternoon was joyful, we probably drank lemonade and ate candy and chocolate cake. Then I left, on foot as always. The path was long. I strolled along with another girlfriend and got home late in the afternoon in the sweetness of these first days of summer and holidays which lasted three months at the time. No sooner had I arrived that I understood that a new tragedy had struck us. My mother ‘s eyes were red with tears. My father was dark and mute. I still don’t remember if my brother and sister were there. In any case, I had to be told the horrible news.
This time, it was my uncle Jean Jacques, my father’s brother – younger, attractive, cheerful, charming – who had been kidnapped. He was on the road leading from Beni Saf to Oran, trying to get boat tickets to leave Algeria. He was with a cousin or friend, I never really knew. I was stunned. Thus, each time I went to play at Claudine’s, terrible news awaited me. I decided not to go there anymore. But, to what end? Although I have never been tempted by superstition, the coincidence haunted me for a long time and I still can’t stop thinking about it every time I see this friend.
The meal was probably horribly silent. The radio said nothing about the new drama. Neither did the television, so keen was France to get rid of the Algerian problem. Turning a blind eye to the disappeared ones, she also forbade her army and her police to deal with the issue. Fo her, the war was over. We were fobbed off with TV news reports of the miserable hordes of men, women and children who poured into Marseilles, all crying as they clutched their meagre luggage. There were a million of them. It was nice to be in full Trente Glorieuses period, but it was not going to be easy to resettle so many. But all of that eluded me at the time. What I wanted was to see my liberated uncles docking in Marseilles, holding by the hand their wives and children, my cousins!
The miracle never happened. Worse, two days later, another tragedy knocked on our door. More painful than the first two. Unspeakable. Terrible. A bolt of lightning. A telegram, one those horrible little blue papers with white bands of laconic text. We were handed it by the postman: the bell rang unexpectedly which startled the whole household. The postman handed over the telegram.
My mother did not want to open it and in turn handed it to my father who, with his usual methodical care, unfolded it slowly as he began to read it. I then saw his face darken and his lips tremble. The telegrams were never bearers of good news. Nor was the doorbell. This is why I continue to jump fifty years later every time someone knocks on my door unexpectedly. My father folded up the blue paper, taking his time to announce the drama that had struck my family again: Colette, the wife of my uncle Jean Jacques, his father and his mother, as well as another cousin who had gone in search of the missing, had not come back! This brought to seven the members of my family who had disappeared! It was June 27 or 28, 1962.
Epilogue: Josette’s Aunt Mimi and her grandmother did finally manage to leave Algeria and join the family in France.