By Adi Schwartz
It all seemed like a Hollywood fairy tale: around midnight, a few hundred young men spread across the city, aiming towards governmental buildings and the army barracks. They were untrained, and most of them never held a gun before. Some of their rifles didn’t even have bullets. Their target, no less, was to take over the city and neutralize the entire French army.
The date is November 1942 and the location is Algiers, where the American army is about to disembark in order to fight the German armies in North Africa. In the city itself, a coup d’état takes place by a Gaullist underground, comprised mostly of Jews, who tries to facilitate the American takeover of the city. In one of the more surreal chapters of World War II, a tiny and unorganized army of volunteers managed to fool 20,000 French and Axis soldiers.
The plan was simple: allied forces would land on the coast of northwestern Africa, controlled by Vichy France, and the underground would take care of paralyzing the regime’s troops in order to hand over the city to the Allies. The underground presented fabricated orders from the Vichy General Staff, stating that soldiers in central institutions must be replaced by civil guards.
This allowed hundreds of underground members to take over the post office, the commissariat, the communications room and the commissioner’s house, and the bewildered Vichy soldiers simply made way for them. Their commanders, including Vichy leader Philippe Petain’s deputy, were taken into captivity without a single shot being fired. The chain of stunning events included a Jewish man impersonating a French general and ordering through the radio the entire army to surrender. Eventually, as day broke out, the Americans arrived and took over the city.
This untold drama is recounted in the film “Night of Fools,” to be aired on Thursday in Israel during Holocaust Remembrance Day. The story remained practically unknown since nobody was interested in including it in the historical narrative: the Americans had no desire to share their victory, and the Vichy French were reluctant to be embarrassed by this episode. Historians, on the other hand, devoted most of their time and energy to studying the Holocaust in Europe.
On the eve of World War II, there were about 120,000 Jews in Algeria. After the French occupation of the country in 1830, Jews gradually adopted French culture and were eventually granted French citizenship. Algerian Jews were very proud of the French republic, says historian Claude Sitbon in the film: “They wanted to be more French than the French.”
When France surrendered in 1940, the Germans divided the country into two: northern and western “occupied France” under the control of the Nazis, and the south “Free France”, which was under a puppet government seated in the city of Vichy. Vichy leader Philippe Petain controlled the French colonies in North Africa, including Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in whose capital two million Frenchmen lived.
Starting in 1940, Algerian Jews were persecuted socially and economically. The Vichy regime implemented the Nuremberg laws for the Jews in Algeria: their citizenship was annulled and they were expelled from schools and universities. A Jewish member of the underground says in the film that “the new situation posed a dilemma for the Jews, but we decided to raise our heads and not to surrender.” Indeed, there was an overwhelming number of Jews – about 85 percent – in the Algerian underground, partly because they were least suspected of becoming informants.
Historian Leon Poliakov stressed the importance of the Algiers underground to the success of the Allied landing. According to him, the landing would have ended in catastrophe if it were not for the underground. While more than 500 American soldiers died in the landing at Casablanca that same month, none died landing at Algiers thanks to the underground movement.
In fact, it was a symbolic turn of events, says Sitbon, that it was a mostly Jewish underground that facilitated one of the first Allied victories in World War II. Until then, Germany and its allies were winning all their battles, but after the landing in North Africa their fortune turned for the worse.
Director Rami Kimchi, who is also a senior lecturer at the school of communications in the University of Ariel, says that “the story has all the elements of the Jewish master-narrative: a great danger and a threat of annihilation, leading to despair on the one hand but on the other hand, also to a strong urge to take one’s fate in his own hands. When I started working on the film, I thought that the underground members acted extraordinarily. Only when I met them and heard their full testimonies, I understood that their success was hanging by a thread. They had old guns, but a lot of nerves. You could say that they had more luck than brains. They believed they were right and that God would help them. Luckily, they were correct.”
Adi Schwartz is an independent Israeli journalist and researcher.