How Jews escaped Bizerte, one dark and stormy night

It is 60 years since the Bizerte crisis erupted:  the Tunisian government  issued an ultimatum  for the French to withdraw from their important naval base – the last vestige of colonial rule. France evacuated its nationals, but what to do with Jews whose passports had expired, and what would happen to Jewish residents of Tunisian nationality bereft of French protection ? Agnes Bensimon writing in K. magazine tells how a brave French diplomat and the Mossad stepped up to the plate to mount rescue missions. (With thanks: Veronique).

The Bizerte synagogue, opened in 1954: now a public library

The passport issue proved crucial and its handling delicate. Jews of French nationality (about a thousand) left for the metropolis without difficulty, like all nationals. There remained nearly 900 Jews in a trickier situation. Most of them had expired passports.  For weeks, Jean-Jacques Roos, deputy to Consul General Jeannot, used all the resources at his disposal to resolve issues on a case-by-case basis. In his memoirs for example,  he explains how he worked with a young Tunisian woman employed in the most important travel agency in Bizerte, whose owner was Jewish. She went to her office at the Consulate with the expired passports, Roos then granted the visas and laissez-passers, with the indirect agreement of the Quai d´Orsay, so that the passengers could disembark in Marseille. Jean-Jacques Roos attended each departing ship because the Tunisian police checked passports and searched people. Before boarding, families handed over their money, gold or jewellery to him. Two or three times a day he boarded in his capacity as a French diplomat, and returned their property to them – often to their astonishment. Thanks to his actions, at the end of August 1961, there remained “only” 325 Tunisian Jews who were candidates for emigration according to figures communicated to Paris by Xavier Jeannot (Telegram n ° 70 of August 26): ” Of this number, about a hundred would undoubtedly have had travel documents and could leave by normal means. For the other 225, it  was practically impossible to obtain passports or laissez-passer from the Tunisian authorities. ”

The deadline for the departure of the French, September 30, forced the leaders of the misgeret, the Zionist underground  network in North Africa, to decide to begin preparations for a large-scale illegal emigration operation  codenamed ” Operation Solange. ”

On the ground, Maurice Mattouk, a young recruit of the misgeret was then mainly concerned with the aliyah of the local Zionist youth movement. He had already made a name for himself by organizing the night-time return to Tunis of teenagers who had gone to a holiday camp in the region at the time that violent clashes had broken out. He would be fully engaged in the operation to rescue the Jews from his hometown. He  left with the last emigrants on one of the two ferries linking  Bizerte to Bône [7] on October 1, 1961. During September, as the end of the French presence drew nearer, the situation of some 300 remaining Bizertine Jews worsened and threats multiplied from all sides: “Wait until the French are no longer there and you will see how we will deal with you! » writes  Maurice Mattouk in his memoirs . On September 8, 130 passengers boarded the City of Oran ship, armed with Tunisian passports, escorted by French paratroopers.

No less than three operations were mounted by the misgeret before Operation “Solange”. Operation “Har Sinaï” took place on September 13: ten Jews embarked on a French military ship bound for Bône.  The Jewish Agency took  over responsibility for  them  as far as Marseille, thanks to Consul Jeannot who managed to overcome resistance from the captain. Two days later, Operation Jericho permitted 15 men to board an army boat bound for Bône. Of the 130 names left on the list drawn up by Maurice Mattouk. seven families, or 21 people, left on 22 September by boat, this time embarking in Tunis as part of Operation “Moshe”. But eight days before the expiry of the deadline for the departure of the French, 109 people were still waiting to be rescued.

It was in Paris, after a veritable “diplomatic marathon” that the final outcome was worked out. Under the direction of Ephraim Ronel, the head of Zionist networks in North Africa based in Paris, Israel studied in great detail the possibility of chartering a boat from Haifa to bring the emigrants back to Israel, anchoring a little way from Bizerte, unbeknown to the Tunisian authorities.

The boat was already calling at Naples, awaiting instructions when the operation was cancelled after two Israeli navy experts dispatched to the scene declared it impossible. The risks were too great and the still  painful memory of  the Egoz, which sank in January of the same year sank off  Morocco  counselled caution. In his telegram n ° 70 of August 26, 1961, already quoted, Consul General Jeannot described in detail the terms of this operation and specified: “Consulted in this regard, the Admiral (Amman) considered that such an operation was not impossible but risky in bad weather and could not go ahead without  the official approval of the ministry of defence.”For Mossad leader Isser Harel and his right-hand man, the only solution was  to get help from the French government to organize the rescue of the last Jews in Bizerte. Ephraim Ronel turned to Uzi Narkiss, military attaché at the Israeli Embassy in France, to use his contacts for this purpose. But without an order from his direct hierarchy, the latter refused to take action. The Mossad leader then referred the matter to the Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who gave the go-ahead. (…)

On the Sabbath of September 30, 1961, in the morning, the expiry date for  the withdrawal deadline, the  word was  passed down: “Prepare your bags, this evening we will get you; take the minimum. ” And at nightfall, in private cars belonging to Jewish families and which they  abandoned on the quayside, the last illegal emigrants reached the naval base. They did not have a passport or a pass. They boarded two spartan landing craft. Tarpaulins were installed to shelter the refugees from  squalls and heavy rain. The frightened children wailed. The men prayed under their makeshift shelter. It was the first night of the Sukkot festival. They left behind their country and their home, as the song goes.

The rescue of the Jews of Bizerte heralded the departure of a large number of Jews from Tunisia. Between 1 August and 1 October 1961, 4,200 obtained short-stay visas to leave the Tunisian capital in a hurry and take refuge in France. At the same time, 500 got similar visas for Israel.

David Ben-Gurion and Isser Harel, 1969. (Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel, Uzi Keren)

Read article in full (French)

Bizerte rescue was Uzi Narkiss’s finest hour


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