Paris retraces forgotten past of Algerian Jews
"Jews from Algeria", a new exhibition at Paris' Jewish History and Art Museum, gives a rare and intimate look at a community that has been largely forgotten by history.
A crowd gathered at the entrance of Paris’ Jewish History and Art Museum (MAHJ) on Friday, eager to make their way into the opening of “Jews from Algeria”, a new exhibition that gives a rare and intimate look at a population that has been largely forgotten by history.
In one of the exhibition’s many dimly lit galleries, an old man walked up to a display of embroidered silk dresses and other everyday objects.
“It’s a bridal trousseau,” he explained to those around him. “Young girls used to carry evening gowns with them, as well as clothes for their first-born child.”
He then pointed to a collection of silver plated bowls, telling the group that “these belonged to my grandmother. A bride would use these kinds of objects while getting ready for her wedding, and [my grandmother] used them on the day of her marriage in 1905.”
The man’s eyes filled with a mix of emotion and pride. “Eventually they will be passed down to my grandson,” he added.
A broken history
The idea for the exhibition was first conceived in 2005. At the time, renowned French historian Benjamin Stora, who worked as a consultant on the project, was in the middle of writing his book, “The three exiles: Jews of Algeria”.
“It became clear that the history of Algeria’s Jews was in the process of vanishing”, said Anne-Hélène Hoog, the exhibition’s curator.
Jewish communities have existed in Algeria for thousands of years, but were relegated to the status of “dhimmis”, or “protected” second-class citizens, after the arrival of Arabs and Ottomans in the territory.
France went on to colonise Algeria during the 19th century, and in 1870 the minister of justice, Adolphe Crémieux, issued a decree granting all Algerian Jews French nationality. Crémieux’s law was later wiped off the books during World War II in one of Vichy France’s very first moves.
Less than a decade after the end of World War II, fighting erupted in Algeria, marking the start of what would become a protracted battle for independence from French rule. As the conflict raged on, life for Algeria’s Jewish population rapidly deteriorated.
When the Evian Accords were signed in 1962, paving the way for Algerian independence, an estimated 900,000 French citizens fled the country, including some 100,000-150,000 Jews.
“There’s been a break in history, and it is difficult for those who still love Algeria to return there,” said Hoog.
A collection of personal memories and objects
The result of years of research, the exhibition mixes historical facts with intimate family stories and personal belongings. When the museum turned to the public for help in acquiring pieces for the show, around a hundred families stepped forward to offer heirlooms that had been passed down through generations.
“It’s the first time that the museum has reached out to the public,” said Hoog. “It was extremely generous of those who lent us objects, photos or films. So many things that are a part of their personal family histories.”
Several members of France’s Algerian Jewish community and some historians were invited to the exhibition’s opening, where they were able to retrace the steps of a people who had been largely forgotten.
“Antiquity was the most difficult period to represent, because there has been little to no exploration of the history of Jews, Christians or Berbers who lived in North Africa. Traditionally historians have been more focused on the Phoenicians and Carthaginians,” explained Hoog.
At the Paris show, visitors largely dwelled on displays centred on pre-18th century history, pouring over letters and artefacts that had been pulled out of personal family archives, including religious objects, cooking utensils, clothing, as well as photographs and videos.
A celebration of Algerian Jewish culture
“It’s the same pestle that granny used,” said one woman as she examined a display.
Many seemed happy that their memories and family heirlooms had had fresh life breathed into them.
“The exhibition is also about paying homage to a sizeable yet discreet community in France and to pay tribute to its culture,” said Hoog. “Algerian Jews have had an important intellectual influence over history, and have remained faithful to their traditions while respecting secularism.”
In parallel with the exhibition, the MAJH has begun compiling a digital archive of all the photos and footage lent by private individuals, many of which are already available for viewing.
“Jews from Algeria” opened on September 28, and will run until January 27, 2013.