Leaving Algeria

Founded in 2001 by former Jewish refugees from Libya and Egypt, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) was launched as a grassroots initiative to educate and engage Jewish institutional leaders, policymakers, Jewish college students, and members of the general public to the unknown personal and collective stories of the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their mission is to achieve universal recognition for the heritage and contemporary history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.

JIMENA’s Oral History Project aims to collect and preserve the personal histories of Jews who fled Arab lands and now live in the United States. Little has been done to document, preserve, and expose the personal and collective stories of trauma and loss experienced by Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees are part of an aging population and for the sake of Jewish history and historical accuracy in the Middle East and North Africa, we must ensure that their histories are properly documented. JIMENA’s growing archives of unedited film interviews, transcripts, written testimonies, and copies of documents are available to the public for research.

Niv is honoured to share Paul Benhamou’s testimony detailing his journey leaving Algeria for a safer and more prosperous life in America.

To this day Paul Benhamou feels uprooted. When Algerian independence came in 1962 he was forced to leave his home of Tlemcen.

The town is the location of Rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua’s tomb, a 4th century Jewish sage. Every year thousands of North African Jews descended on the city to celebrate a festival dedicated to the rabbi.

Paul remembers the Jewish tradition in his neighbourhood and the three-story apartment building where he and his family lived, even more so. It had an inner court and all the tenants were Jewish.

“On Shabbat you would hear the Kiddush from every apartment,” he said from his West Lafayette Indiana home.

Paul’s father died when he was only three. The pension that the family received wasn’t enough but the neighbours all helped out, he recounted.

As a child Paul developed an affinity for American culture.

“I was in love with American culture. I was fed American culture.”

When American G.I.’s entered the city in 1944 during World War II operations in North Africa, Paul got a chance to meet them. They gave him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and his mother worked for them; hand washing their laundry to make up for the meager pension left to her.

During part of the Algerian Rebellion against the French that broke out in 1954, Paul was studying English Literature at the University of Dijon in France.

In 1870 the Jews of Algeria had been given French citizenship and even though their citizenship had been revoked during the Vichy period, the Jews of Algeria felt French. But when Paul went to study in France he found out that he was not, remembering that “In France they made me understand that I was not French.” 

In his 20s he came back to Tlemcen to teach English. He had returned to the only place he felt was his home. The residents of the apartment building where he had spent his childhood were happy.

“You know Jewish women are always trying to make a match. Once I was a teacher I was a good deal.”

But Paul didn’t stay long. Life in Tlemcen had become difficult and dangerous, as the war with the French was reaching its culmination. But Paul was stoic while he stayed. 

I am a Mediterranean person,” he continued, “We like to enjoy life. In the midst of grenades we were having drinks at 5 o’clock and enjoying pleasantries with women colleagues.”

The curfew was set at 8 p.m.

“Once in a while you heard that a relative or someone you knew was killed. It [the violence] came closer and closer, there was nothing to do. You could go into a cave or just live.”

In 1961 Paul accepted a Fulbright scholarship to study American Literature at the University of Iowa.

“In the states people welcomed me as a French person,” he said..

In 1962 when DeGaulle ceded Algeria to the victorious rebels, Paul’s mother was forced to leave. She moved to Grenoble where Paul’s eldest brother lived. He was dumbfounded watching the news with DeGaulle announcing that the one million French citizens of Algeria would have to leave.

By this time Paul had met and married his girlfriend Reed. While he had a notion of returning to Tlemcen again to teach English he never did.

“I thought about going back and teaching. I sent a letter to the consulate. But it’s a good thing they didn’t answer,” he said, “as a Jew I would have been killed.”

When Paul left in 1961 he had no notion that it would be the last time he would see his apartment on the Rue des Écoles. And as his family came from modest means he didn’t feel a large loss of possessions. Instead he felt a terrible loss of culture.

The sounds of 20 separate but simultaneous Kiddushs were gone. All the girls that he should have married were dispersed to France or America or Israel. The festival of Rabbi Enkaou and all the Jews swelling Tlemcen–gone.

And without ever feeling that France could be a home, he planted his roots in the broad plains of the American Midwest.

He was granted an extension to his scholarship at the University of Iowa and earned a Master’s Degree in French Literature.

In 1963 he brought his wife back to France for the duration of his military service. He says he could have skipped out on serving but as he had his brothers and mother in France he had to serve.

But during that time  he intended to return to America. Paul and Reed came back to Iowa where he finished his education with a PhD in French literature.

“My wife was working. She was the typical American wife who pushes her husband toward the ultimate degree.”

When he finished he had a wide range of teaching opportunities. He took a position at Purdue University where he stayed for  33 years before retiring to his West Lafayette Indiana home.

Today he is very interested in antisemitism in France and has given talks on the subject at the University of Michigan as well as Purdue University.

For Paul, America is as close to a home as he will ever get.

Header image design by Orly Zebak.

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