Years of Glo­ry: Nel­ly Benatar and the Pur­suit of Jus­tice in Wartime North Africa

Susan Gilson Miller

  • Review
By – January 26, 2022

Years of Glo­ry tells the sto­ry of an unsung Moroc­can hero of World War II, attor­ney Nel­ly Benatar. Born in 1898, she was raised in a well-to-do fam­i­ly in Tangier’s Sephardic com­mu­ni­ty, mov­ing at age eigh­teen to Casablan­ca, where she attend­ed col­lege and earned her bac­calau­re­ate. After mar­ry­ing her child­hood sweet­heart, she had two chil­dren and then com­plet­ed a law degree by cor­re­spon­dence, becom­ing Morocco’s first licensed female lawyer at age thir­ty-five. Although Benatar had worked her way to what could have been a stel­lar legal career, world events inter­vened. It was 1933, and fas­cism was on the rise in Ger­many. Zion­ist news­pa­pers and speak­ers were cap­tur­ing the atten­tion of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, even in remote Moroc­co. With the Nurem­berg laws of 1935, Euro­pean Jew­ish emi­gres start­ed crowd­ing onto ships from Mar­seilles to North Africa, hop­ing to get pas­sage to Lis­bon and beyond. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Moroc­co also fell under Vichy rule, with intern­ment camps, forced labor camps, and the removal of Jews from pro­fes­sion­al life.

Using her exten­sive per­son­al con­nec­tions, Benatar worked tire­less­ly behind the scenes to con­vince key admin­is­tra­tors that their lives would be eas­i­er if she were han­dling the refugees. Work­ing with oth­ers in the res­cue field to pro­vide papers and pas­sage to hope­ful refugees, Benatar was effec­tive by keep­ing a low pro­file, even as con­di­tions dete­ri­o­rat­ed. After the suc­cess of Oper­a­tion Torch, the Allied inva­sion of North Africa in Novem­ber of 1942, she focused on lib­er­at­ing the forced labor camps in the Moroc­can hin­ter­lands, where incar­cer­at­ed Jews were build­ing rail­roads to trans­port coal and essen­tial min­er­als for the Nazi war effort.

After Vic­to­ry in Europe Day, the refugee prob­lem increas­ing­ly fell to Unit­ed Nations agen­cies and large Jew­ish char­i­ties. While the num­bers of peo­ple flee­ing were so huge that Benatar’s one-by-one approach was imprac­ti­cal, she did come to new under­stand­ings about the mean­ing of being state­less” ver­sus dis­placed.” Many had no inter­est in being rein­stat­ed in their birth coun­tries; they iden­ti­fied as Jews, not as Ger­mans or Poles, and Israel looked safer for Jews. As atten­tion shift­ed to the needs of Euro­pean refugees, world inter­est in the Jews of North Africa waned. In post-war Moroc­co, vio­lence against Jews went unchecked, spurring grow­ing Jew­ish migra­tion to Israel.

Through the lens of Nel­ly Benatar’s work, Susan Gilson Miller helps read­ers expe­ri­ence the war from a North African per­spec­tive, refo­cus­ing resis­tance and Holo­caust his­to­ry away from its usu­al Euro­pean set­ting. After all, the movie Casablan­ca, which Miller ref­er­ences in her intro­duc­tion, is many read­ers’ only vision of wartime Moroc­co. Released just two weeks after Oper­a­tion Torch, it did present an excit­ing, roman­tic refugee sto­ry set in Casablan­ca, while also avoid­ing seri­ous­ly ugly scenes of Jews being worked to death dig­ging mines, build­ing dams, and lay­ing rail­road tracks in the Sahara. This study of Nel­ly Benatar makes it clear that Moroc­co was an inte­gral part of the Vichy/​Nazi war machine. The issues Benatar raised about meet­ing the needs of state­less peo­ple, and about the role of Israel as a Jew­ish home­land, are as impor­tant today as they ever were.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions