Years of Glory
Nelly Benatar and the Pursuit of Justice in Wartime North Africa
Susan Gilson Miller



IMAGINE A HUSHED MOVIE THEATER in Middle America at the height of World War II, the audience enveloped in dark intimacy. Another cinematic adventure is about to begin. The red velvet curtains part, revealing the familiar Warner Brothers logo, accompanied by a few stirring bars of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. A title flashes across the screen, pinpointing a geography that is exotically distant, yet lately much in the news. A map appears—a slowly spinning globe animated by tiny humanlike forms that flow into a surging stream, crossing the face of Europe and converging at a single point on the African coast.

The deep, authoritative voice of the narrator takes over: “Refugees streaming from all corners of Europe towards the freedom of the New World. All eyes turned toward Lisbon, the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, so a Refugee Trail sprang up—Paris to Marseille—across the Mediterranean to Oran—then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the Americas. But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait, and wait.”1

The Hollywood blockbuster Casablanca was released at the end of November 1942, just two weeks after the launching of Operation Torch, the Allied landings on the coast of North Africa that marked the first step in the retaking of Fortress Europe. In bold strokes, the movie told a tale of a love lost, regained, and lost again, instantly capturing the hearts of Americans dispirited by the grinding monotony of war.

More than a simple love story, the film also touched on a subject of political concern; the tide of European refugees knocking on the doors to the West. The message was clear. North Africa was awash with people fleeing Hitler’s Reich, with nowhere to go. It was a human wave of such force, energy, and chaotic power that whole cities—in this case, Casablanca in French Morocco—had been engulfed by it.

The movie Casablanca spoke directly to the American people, and eventually to audiences around the world. It brought home to Americans the anxieties of the refugee experience, the obstacles that individual refugees faced, the precariousness of their situation. The conjuncture of cinematic fantasy and the quotidian gave Casablanca an emotional intensity that went far beyond the bounds of script or casting. The movie turned nameless and faceless forms into real people facing genuine dilemmas.

Refugee lives frame our story. Between the years 1939 and 1945, many thousands of people fleeing fascism found a temporary haven in North Africa, then under French dominion. How they got there, what they did once they arrived, who helped them, and how they dispersed so completely at the end of the war is our theme in this book. The subject is not a new one. Bits of it were stolen by Hollywood, and serious historians have had their turn, focusing mainly on the military aspects. Yet the topic of refugees in North Africa during the war has never been the subject of a study of its own, with its own cast of characters and its own inner logic.

The topic of refugees fleeing from Nazism has recently come into its own. Under the rubric of “the last million,” scholars have explored the enormity of the wartime refugee crisis by unraveling its bearing on postwar politics—and especially on its entanglement with two mega-themes: the incubation of the Cold War and the growth of an international movement for human rights.2 Yet North Africa has been strikingly absent from these discussions, even though some of the most important decisions during the war about how to treat refugees, including concerns about refugee rights, took place in the region. Independent aid organizations like the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee and giant government-led efforts like the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) got their start in wartime refugee relief on Maghribi soil, at camps such as Fedala in Morocco and Philippeville in Algeria. North Africa provided a proving ground for even more ambitious experiments that unfolded in Europe after 1945, when refugee resettlement became a topic of global concern. In this book, we explore those early efforts and the people who made them happen, and how they helped lay the groundwork for the postwar treatment of Europe’s multitudes of displaced persons.

In the first two years of war, our subject is humanitarian relief in Morocco, the politics of “rescuing” homeless people—many of them stripped of their citizenship—and the mechanisms in place for sending them on to safe havens in the West. In 1942, we turn to the dark secret of the forced-labor camps in the pre-Sahara region and the relentless war on Jews and other ostracized groups waged by Vichy, the collaborationist regime led by Maréchal Philippe Pétain that governed France and its colonies during most of the war years. In 1943, 1944, and 1945, the subject is the liberation of the North African prison camps, and the massive effort directed toward rebuilding broken lives on the basis of democratic values. The tissue that connects these distinct yet related phases of the conflict is provided by a Moroccan Jewish lawyer who dedicated herself to helping those people set adrift by the excesses of war.

Hélène Cazes Benatar is the pivotal figure in our account. Between the years 1939 and 1945, her life offers a vantage point on the full spectrum of events relating to the war in North Africa, including the fall of France in 1940, the turmoil of the Vichy years, the post-1942 period of liberation, and the fate of Morocco’s Jews after the war. Her background and education, her values and outlook, her strengths and vulnerabilities, are the inflection points of our narrative. Yet for all her virtues, it is curious that Nelly Benatar, as she was known to all, left such a small footprint on historical memory. No street in Casablanca is named for her; no forest in the Holy Land bears her name; no monuments stand in her honor. Hers is an example of what Virginia Woolf called the “infinitely obscure lives [that] remain to be re-corded.”3 For years, Benatar tried to win recognition from the French government for her wartime exploits, but without success. Yet she stood at the confluence of major events, thanks to her extraordinary charisma and her sense of how to make use of the ebbs and flows of history.

In the course of the war, Benatar faced down Gestapo operatives, pro-Vichy thugs, and obstinate bureaucrats, refusing to retreat. She built entire structures of humanitarian relief almost single-handedly from materials at hand: her social connections, her legal expertise, and most all, her friendships with people in power, such as General Charles Noguès, the head of the French Protectorate in Morocco between 1936 and 1943. A complex personality whose motives were not always transparent, Benatar was a study in contrasts: both rescuer and collaborator, fervidly Francophile but wary of French parochialism, secular by temperament yet intensely Jewish in feeling. After Paris was overrun in June 1940, her preoccupation was refugees—feeding, protecting, and caring for them, and whenever possible, moving them on, for Morocco was a point of transit, never a permanent home. In November 1942, following the Allied landings in North Africa, she took on new causes: repatriating prisoners, restoring broken families, working to rebuild a Moroccan Jewish community upended by the war. After the war, she staked out a position of activism that inevitably led to her separation from her homeland. She tried to stay on, but when she realized that Morocco was no longer a suitable stage for her ambitions, she left, as did many thousands of others.

Benatar was not a theorist, dedicated to the lofty goal of remodeling the postwar world to prevent a recurrence of the errors of the past. She was a practitioner who understood that concrete questions of individual rights, embedded in reality, were at the heart of the refugee problem. Helping her clients rebuild their lives with dignity was the purpose of her work. She must have felt she had succeeded, because she called the period 1939–1945 les années glorieuses—her “years of glory.” Why glory when everything else around her was permeated with loss? The paradox implicit in this small phrase—given the immense human tragedy on which it rests—is one of the mysteries we will try to resolve in the course of our narrative.

The organization of this book is chronological. Each chapter concerns a single year between the years 1939 and 1945—seven chapters in all, bookended at one end by a sketch of the prewar context, and concluding with a chapter on the postwar. Each chapter brings together multiple layers of action: the longue durée, consisting of the overarching events of the wider war; the actual situation on the ground in Morocco and North Africa; and finally, at the microhistorical level, Benatar’s entanglement with refugee politics and refugee lives.

Each layer of action marches in step with the others to create an interrelated whole. In the first few months of the war, stranded refugees were a local problem, bedeviling French officials in Morocco with an unwanted responsibility. Transients stranded on their way to the New World depended on the help of people of good conscience like Nelly Benatar. But as the number of refugees grew, and as the opportunities to move on diminished, the refugee situation became increasingly internationalized. In 1942, when news of deportations to the Nazi death camps leaked out, the clamor for Allied intervention became deafening.4 By mid-1943, the picture had changed completely, from indifference to refugees to extreme concern for those who may have survived. The Allied governments hastily founded UNRRA in November 1943, specifically to “[provide] for the relief of victims of war in any area under the control of any of the United Nations.” Spearheaded by UNRRA, a massive program of refugee relief grew up practically overnight. Throughout these transitions, Nelly Benatar was on the scene, playing a leading role in transforming refugees from inert objects of pity to individuals with legally defined rights.

My own pursuit of Nelly Benatar began by chance but quickly became an obsession. While carrying out research in the Moroccan National Archives, I was startled to find letters from a Moroccan woman lawyer addressed to high French colonial officials about refugee affairs. Her epistolary voice was so strong that I was curious to learn more about her. With the help of the internet, I discovered that she never wrote her memoirs or was the subject of intensive research. I also learned that she left behind a large personal archive—eighteen thousand pages in all—letters, documents, directives, requests, memos, reports, lists, and intelligence briefings from the period 1939–1945—tracing, in their ensemble, the arc of her wartime activities.5

Her personal archive is the main source for this book, and it is complemented by material found in other collections in France, Morocco, the United Kingdom, Israel, and the United States. The documents reveal aspects of Benatar’s private and public life during the war with a richness of detail that a memoir could never provide. Stored in her apartment in Casablanca, her papers eventually made their way to Paris, and from there to Geneva, before finally coming to rest at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.6 Along the way, the original order was disrupted, and papers went missing. Research on some aspects of her wartime work were published, but an in-depth consideration of her place within larger themes of the modern history of North Africa and its Jews was lacking.7 This aspect, dormant in her papers, was waiting to be addressed. As the French historian Arlette Fargue has written, archives resonate with something deep inside us; they are “small lives that have become ashes” revealed in just a few sentences.8 Among my reasons for writing this book, recovering Nelly Benatar and relocating her to a meaningful place within the broader framework of her times, takes precedence.

My own historical studies of modern North Africa have focused, in one way or another, on Muslim-Jewish relations and on the convivencia that existed between the two groups that was gradually lost over the first half of the twentieth century. Like many others, I have always been perplexed by the suddenness and finality with which Jews abandoned their Moroccan homeland in the 1950s and 1960s, never to return, and I never fully understood why. It seemed to me that the standard explanations (pro-Zionism, religious fervor, economic fears, collapse of empire, anti-Semitism, pan-Arabism) were too pat, too diffuse, to explain the epic break that dispersed such precious human material and left Morocco a poorer place. I hoped that by studying the critical period of World War II through the life of a compelling personality like Nelly Benatar, I would discover connections among refugee lives, the end of empire, and the Jewish problem. I was not disappointed; in the course of writing this story, I learned that the three topics converge in surprising ways.

In Benatar’s archive, I looked for the nuances that defined her personality, treating her as an exemplary subject as well as a deeply human one. I tried to identify the critical turning points in her self-perception as a Moroccan Jew, beginning with her response to the stigmatization of European Jews before the war, passing though her personal connections to the trauma of the Holocaust, and culminating in the demise of Casablanca’s Jewish community after the war—each turning point loosening the emotional bonds that kept her in place. I wanted to imagine what she thought and why she made certain decisions, often with little to go on other than the barest of facts and her own intuitions. The convergences among the long list of her interests—rescue and humanitarian work, refugee rights, justice and equality for all—offered, at the very least, a framework for observing a considered life.

The reader will notice that when I write, I often use conditional signifiers usually banished from the historian’s quiver of words—“perhaps,” “it may be,” “it seems that”—phrases that nakedly expose the fragility of some of my own arguments. I reach conclusions that may convince some, but that others may find tendentious. It is possible that I have become too familiar with my subject, assumed too much, omitted too much, and overstepped my bounds as a historian. But I leave that to the reader to judge.

Susan Gilson Miller

Davis, California

January 2021


1. The script of Casablanca, written by Julius and Philip Epstein, is available online at On the making of the film, N. Isenberg, We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017); A. Harmetz, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (New York: Hyperion, 2002).

2. Refugee rights is a burgeoning field of historical study. Recent works include S. Moyn, “Two Regimes of Memory,” American Historical Review 103, no. 4 (October 1998): 1182–86; G. D. Cohen, In War’s Wake (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and “The Politics of Recognition: Jewish Refugees in Relief Policies and Human Rights Debates, 1945–1950,” Immigrants and Minorities 24 (July 2006): 125–43; E. Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); J. Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018); and relevant articles in E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, G. Loescher, K. Long, and N. Sigona, The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

3. V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929; New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1981), 89.

4. A. Tartakower and K. R. Grossman, The Jewish Refugee (New York: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress, 1944), 422–27.

5. “Private Collection Hélène Benatar, P129,” Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP), Hebrew University, Givat Ram, Jerusalem. The collection was digitized by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC, as RG 68.115M, “Private Collection Hélène Benatar, 1936–1953.” Dr. Serge Lapidus, of Paris, husband of Benatar’s daughter, Myriam, wrote two memoirs about his mother-in-law: Nelly Benathar; une femme de tête, de coeur et de courage, n.d., and Tanger & Gibraltar, Les colonnes d’Hercule, berceaux des ancestres de Myriam, also undated. My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Lapidus for sharing with me this unpublished material.

6. S. Bar-Asher, “Jewish Refugees from Nazi Europe in North Africa: A Document from the Archive of Cazes Ben-Attar” [in Hebrew], Pe’amim: Studies in Oriental Jewry 114–15 (2008): 257.

7. M. Ben Ya‘akov, “European Jewish Refugees in Morocco during World War II,” Avotaynu 31, no. 2 (2015): 41–45; and “Hélène Cazes Benatar et ses activités en faveur des réfugiés juifs au Maroc, 1940–1943,” in Les juifs d’Afrique du Nord face à l’Allemagne nazie, ed. H. Saadoun and D. Michman (Paris: Perrin, 2018), 177–98; Y. Gershon, “L’aide aux réfugiés juifs du Maroc pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale,” Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah 2 (2016): 413–46. See also two recent publications that mention Benatar and her wartime activities: M. Hindley, Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2017); R. S. Simon, The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa: The Impact of World War II (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020).

8. A. Farge, The Allure of the Archives (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 32.