Africa / Chronological / Destinations / Europe

Tunisian Jews on the French Riviera: A Link in the Franco-Jewish Chain

The recent uprising in Tunisia reminded us of Claudine, whom we met in the old section of Cannes, where a kashruth sign in the window of a butcher shop had caught our attention. Curious, we stepped inside just as an attractive, well-dressed woman was gathering up her packages. An impromptu conversation ensued. She determined who we were and where we were from. “Do you have plans for tomorrow night?” she asked. We did not. “Then come to me for dinner.” That turned out to be typical Claudine. You meet Jews away from their home, and you invite them to your home for Shabbat.

The sun was low the next day when we drove up alongside the theater where the vaunted Cannes Film Fesitval is held. There, leaning against a silver Mercedes, was Claudine, elegant, poised, and possessed of a sultry manner evocative of Marlene Dietrich. “Follow me,” she said. “We are off to Mandelieux.” We thought she said “Manderly,” and as things turned out, we were not far off, for this night’s setting would equal the magic found in the famed Daphne du Maurier novel.

It was a brief but exhilarating trip to Claudine’s house in Mandelieux, the closest we’ve ever come to a chase of the sort better suited to a Cannes movie screen, a thrilling series of steep climbs and sharp, edge-of-the-cliff turns at breakneck speed. At last, she stopped before a wall which slid open to reveal a driveway nearly perpendicular to the ground below. Below us was the glittering Côte d’Azur, above us, the beautiful house Claudine shares with her surgeon husband Marcel.

A small crowd awaited our arrival, long-time friends of Claudine and Marcel. Introductions followed, cocktails were served amidst lively conversation, in French and – for our benefit — English. Still we found it difficult to pay attention, so distracting was the setting. The high-ceilinged living room was wide open to a lushly landscaped patio projecting from the hillside with heart-stopping drama. At its center, a swimming pool reflected the deep blues and pinks of a darkening sky. But by the time we moved into the dining room, we had a sense of the place and the crowd as well, most of them long-time transplants from their ancestral homeland, Tunisia. And all were Jews.

The candelabra was lit and the table set for Shabbat, with a glass of wine and a pure white bowl at each setting. We joined with the others in blessings over the wine and challah, then turned to the dish before us, a bed of couscous at its base. Platters began to be passed down and around the long table: sautéed eggplant and zucchini, lamb stew, chicken with raisins, spicy meatballs, pieces of garlicky fish, stuffed cabbage, varied rice preparations. Aromas of Middle-Eastern spices rose from the bowls. Taking our clues from the others, we took a portion of each offering, adding it to the bed of couscous. And over the flavorful and fragrant dishes, we learned the story of our fellow diners.

Most had lived through the Second World War, one of the guests began. Nevertheless, despite the arduous six-month period, when Tunisia was occupied by the Germans, they recalled secure and happy childhoods until 1956 when the French left. “I had a carefree childhood,” our ebullient hostess declared, her mood having suddenly turned serious. “My father was the head of the Jewish community in our city, Sousse. He raised sheep, sheared them, and sent the fleece to the south of France to be processed into wool. We had some Arab friends, all from the higher classes, doctors, merchants. But when Tunisia became independent, the Arabs took over all the places and pushed the Jews out.

“Once the French were gone, every day a guard would come to our home and bring my father down to the City Hall,” she continued. “My poor mother would be so anxious until he came back. She was afraid they would put him in jail. They harassed him with unfounded accusations that Jews were doing this or that, and my father was forced to pay off and pay off.”

A distinguished looking gentleman sitting across from us interjected, “In Tunisia, we lived in a house overlooking the football stadium. One day a Muslim man said to me: ‘Can I come to your house to watch the football game?’

“‘I am sorry,’ I told him. ‘It is a private residence. I can’t allow strangers in for such a purpose.’

“‘Never mind,’ he said to me. ‘Next year, you will no longer be here, and I will be living in your house.’

“I don’t know if he was the one who moved into my home,” the gentleman concluded. “But he was correct in one thing. By the next year, we were no longer living there.”

By the next year, he and his wife were in Paris – France and Israel being the major destinations of Tunisia’s emigrating Jews in the period following the nation’s independence. By the mid 1960s, an ancient community dating back to the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem and enhanced by Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal nearly half a millennium ago had significantly diminished. “The Jewish community of Tunisia was traumatized,” said Claudine. “In 1948 we numbered 105,000. Today the figure is closer to 1,500.

“When we left Tunisia, we left our homes and most of our belongings behind. We were allowed to take very little,” another guest noted. “At the airport, a guard spotted the watch on my wife’s wrist. He demanded she take it off and give it to him. Naturally she obliged.”

“Our parents suffered greatly,” a biologist who was sitting across from us said. “They left behind beautiful homes and were thrust into poor little apartments. The food in France was different. The French spoken in Paris was different from the French they knew. For the most part, our generation had studied French in college. But many of the older people spoke Judeo-Arabic, the equivalent of Yiddish for the Ashkenazi.

“But for those of us who were young adults, the transition was easier,” she added. “We came with very little in the way of tangible wealth, but we were educated, we had connections and faith in ourselves. After a while, most of us prospered.”

“Also it was the custom for young Tunisian Jews to do their studies in France,” Marcel pointed out. “I, for example, attended medical school in Paris. But like the others, I would return home for the holidays. It was during one summer holiday that I met Claudine.”

Subsequently Claudine joined Marcel in Paris, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne and studied Classical Greek. They married in 1959 and made their home in Paris. Marcel’s roots were solidly French. His grandparents were French from the time before Tunisia was a French Protectorate. As fighters in the French army, his grand uncle was wounded during World War I, his father during World War II. By the time Claudine’s parents emigrated to France in 1965, the young couple were well integrated into life in France; they found an apartment in the neighbourhood that by then had become a community of Tunisian Jews. “Although we lived among the French, we saw our friends and family from Tunisia frequently,” Marcel told us. “We enjoyed eating in Tunisian restaurants; we were close to everyone who reminded us of Tunisia.”

“There are some Jews who never left Tunisia,” Claudine interjected. “They are old and very poor for the most part. We help them, but they do not want to leave. On the other hand, there are those among us who left in the 1950s and 60s, yet still return to Tunisia for holidays.”

Others, like the people around the Shabbat table that evening, found the south of France a more appealing vacation destination. Marcel and Claudine began renting properties on the French Riviera while their children were young, eventually building their dream house as a second home. But when we returned to the Côte d’Azur two years later, Marcel had retired from his surgery practice in Paris, and they were living in Mandelieux full time. This time, our friends picked us up at the recently re-opened Palais de la Mediterranée in Nice, the magnificent Art Deco landmarked hotel and casino overlooking the Bay. Its award-winning architect: Olivier Clement Cacoub is, Marcel noted, a Tunisian Jew.

Many things about this evening differed from the previous one. It was mid-week, not Shabbat. Instead of Mandelieux, we headed north to the hilly cobble-stoned town of Mougins, whose Provençal light and picturesque vistas attracted Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill, Isadora Duncan and Christian Dior. Instead of following Claudine at breakneck speed, we enjoyed a leisurely drive as passengers in the rear of the silver Mercedes. And instead of a memorable home-cooked Tunisian dinner, we feasted on the French Provencal preparations of Chef Alain Gallatore at Le Bistrot de Mougins. During the Cannes Film Festival, this rustic yet elegant bistro is a favored destination of figures from the French cinema, we learned, chief among them the eternally lovely Catherine Deneuve.

But despite such changes, the pleasures of an evening with the Claudine and Marcel resumed where we had left off. This time our conversation expanded from the specificities of the Tunisian Jewish experience to larger Jewish-related subjects: the situation in Israel, terrorism, the imminent presidential election in the United States, and the status of Jews in France in the post 9/11 world.

As émigrés to France, the Jews of Tunisia and other North African countries that became independent in the post war period are part of a population that today numbers 600,000, third largest in the world after the United States and Israel, with a range of ethnic backgrounds that bears comparison to these two countries.

There are Jewish communities in Alsace dating back to Roman times. They had flourished, were destroyed and their residents expelled when Jews were suspected of causing the plague, and then rebuilt after the Revolution, when France became the first European nation to grant Jews full citizenship. Today Strasbourg and its surrounding areas are thriving centers of Jewish life.

There are descendents of Sephardic Jews living in southwest France, whose ancestors, exiled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th and 16th centuries, found sanctuary in Bayonne. A Jewish community in the Champagne region dates back to the Middle Ages when Rashi, the renowned Torah and Talmud commentator, lived and taught in Troyes. There are descendents of Eastern European Jews who came to France during the early decades of the 20th century and survived the war.

Throughout the epochs, anti-Semitism was a constant, reaching its most brutal expression during the Second World War, when nearly one third of France’s Jewish population was destroyed. At the same time, there were the many heroic, humane examples of French Christians who put themselves at risk to save Jewish lives.

An encompassing overview of the Jewish experience in France is at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Marais, Paris’ historic Jewish section that dates back to the 11th century. It is housed in a 17th century townhouse, which, by the 1940’s, had been converted into apartments tenanted largely by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. On the wall of a small courtyard, those who were deported and killed by the Nazis are memorialized in a manner akin to death announcements posted on the walls of Eastern European towns: a spare listing of name, birth date and occupation. It is a minimalist artistic gesture of enormous power that even exceeds in emotional impact the museum’s impressive collection of paintings and ritual objects, archives and texts.

In Nice, a very different kind of museum suggests a connection among Jews who have made France their home. On a hilltop, a lovely park shaded by pine, olive and cypress trees and planted with lavender beds, surrounds the simple white stone building that is the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall. Here are the most important collections of the artist: stained glass, tapestries, sculptures, sketches, engravings, and seventeen biblically-inspired paintings of scenes from Genesis, Exodus and the Song of Songs. The Russian-Jewish painter of dreams and myths lived in Nice for many years. He called France the place where “I was reborn for the second time.” Perhaps the same might be said of Claudine and Marcel’s friends, the larger Jewish Tunisian family of France. All embody the age-old themes of the Jewish diaspora: displacement, resettlement, perseverance, achievement, and ultimately the difficult balancing act Jews in the Diaspora practice every day: melding into the larger society while retaining a specific historic identity. Like Chagall, these Jews of the Magreb managed to find a new home and be re-born in France.

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