Jacqueline Gmach interviews writer Naim Kattan for the Middle East and North Africa Collection
USC Shoah Foundation’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Collection will gain at least five more testimonies this spring when Project Director Jacqueline Semha Gmach travels to Paris for four months.
Gmach will identify and interview five Jews currently living in Paris who were in Morocco during the time of the Holocaust and witnessed the impact of Nazism in North Africa. This will help round out the collection's Moroccan testimonies - currently there are only two others. The goal is for at least two of the new testimonies to be given in Arabic.
USC Shoah Foundation’s MENA Collection currently has 50 testimonies, either recorded in the last two and a half years or from the Visual History Archive’s original Holocaust collection, of witnesses identified as born in the Middle East and North Africa and residing there during World War II and/or the surrounding years. They experienced or witnessed the destruction created there by Nazi occupiers or governments that were Nazi sympathizers, which is crucial for understanding the global impact and scale of Nazi ideology and its policies. After the war, many of these individuals experienced continued antisemitic persecution in their home countries and were forced to flee.
The collection includes testimonies of individuals from several countries including Algeria, Egypt, and Iran. Testimonies are given in English, French, Hebrew, Italian and Farsi.
Recent MENA interviewees include writers, artists, scholars and activists and others who describe Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa before World War II, experiences of antisemitism and persecution during the war such as the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Baghdad, and the impact of the European Holocaust on their lives. They also reflect on the North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities today.
Six of the testimonies are currently viewable in the Visual History Archive and IWitness, USC Shoah Foundation’s educational website. Ruth Pearl’s testimony is featured in the IWitness activity Skittles, Deplorables and ‘All Lives Matter’: Leadership and Media Literacy.
Claudia Wiedeman, USC Shoah Foundation Associate Director of Education – Educational Technologies and Training, said that the testimony of Ruth Pearl has already proven to be a powerful voice in IWitness.
“We are looking forward to bringing more of the MENA testimonies to students through IWitness,” she said. “Their unique experiences of prejudice and persecution during World War II will help to teach young people today about the importance of tolerance and responsible civic participation.”
Jessica Marglin, Ruth Ziegler Early Career Chair in Jewish Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California, agreed that the experiences of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II have been understudied, in part because of the lack of oral histories available to scholars. USC Shoah Foundation’s MENA Collection is, thus, an “invaluable resource.”
“As a scholar of the history of Jews in modern Middle East, I cannot overemphasize the importance of collecting oral histories from Jews who lived through the Second World War in the Middle East and North Africa,” Marglin said. “Needless to say, the collection of these oral testimonies is all the more urgent given that the generation of individuals who remember WWII is aging rapidly.”
She has also experienced firsthand the impact that testimonies can have on students. When she assigns her students to write research papers about Sephardic Jews in the Holocaust using the Visual History Archive, they are engrossed in the testimonies, and the personal stories of the survivors make a huge impression on her students.
“Expanding the materials available for students interested in the effects of the Holocaust and WWII on Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews would offer even more opportunities to engage students with the research potential of the Visual History Archive, as well as to use the individual stories of those who lived through WWII in the Middle East to bring the history of this period alive,” Marglin said.