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Oral history interview with Sylvain S. Smadja

Oral History | Accession Number: 2013.309 | RG Number: RG-50.030.0727

Sylvain Samuel Smadja, born on December 25, 1921 in Tunis, Tunisia, describes being the eldest child born to Julie Smadja (née Uzan) and Albert Smadja (a grain merchant, born in 1890); his one brother and two sisters; the three Jewish quarters in Tunis; speaking French and Judeo-Arabic; his Bar Mitzvah; a serious typhus epidemic in the mid-1930s, which decimated the population; attending the Lycée Carnot, a public school run by the French; being a competitive swimmer; how his father (Albert) became a naturalized French citizen and was called into the military in 1939 but released because of his age; being called up to join the Chantiers de la Jeunesse after the Vichy regime came to power in June 1940; being sent to an officer training school for a month during the nine months he was in the Chantiers; compositions that were arranged by one of the men, Gigi Halphon, in the Chantiers; the athletic competitions held by the Vichy government in Algiers during the war and being excluded because he was Jewish; being sent with all the Jewish men of a certain age to the forced labor camp in Bizerte, where they were forced to clear rubble after an Allied bombing while planes flew low overhead; not being aware of the danger nor of what was happening in Europe at that time; his interactions with the other forced laborers and the German guards; the liberation of Tunisia in May 1943, at which time he was called up to perform military service with the regular French army under the General Giraud; being stationed in Aïn Draham (ʻAyn ad Darāhim) in northwestern Tunisia, where like other Jews he could not bear arms and had to do menial tasks; deserting with his friends and signing up with the Free French Army in Southern Tunisia (they were in the 2e Division Blindée led by the General Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque); training in artillery in Tripolitania (a former province of Libya); spending the winter in tents in Temara, Morocco; going to Liverpool, England aboard the ship “RMMV Capetown Castle” and landing in Normandy, France on August 1, 1944; proceeding to the Château d’Avranches; going to Paris, where his future brother-in-law, Tullio Attias, was wounded; remaining with his group of friends, namely the non-Jewish Bogo brothers and other North Africans, in the Second Armored Division; all the places he went during the war, including Hesse, Diessen am Ammersee, Berchtesgaden, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen; being demobilized after VE Day and sent to Marseille before his return to Tunis; getting married to Liliana Desegni, who was from the Italian Jewish community; the birth of his daughter, Cathérine, in 1947 and his son, Jean-Pierre, in 1950; going to France with his family in 1959; and establishing a construction business.
In part two of the interview Mr. Smadja discusses details of everyday life in the forced labor camp in Bizerte from December 1942 until his escape from the camp; the consequences of his desertion from Giraud’s army in Aïn Draham circa May 1943; how he signed up for the Free French Army, Leclerc Division, in Tunis; his training in Kairouan, Tunisia; the beautiful city of Zabratah (probably the extinct city of Sabratha); his role in the Second Armored Division and what he and his fellow recruits expected while waiting for the Normandy invasion; possibly being entrusted with more responsibilities because his commanding officer, Elkoubi, was also Jewish; his experiences while being billeted with the civilian German population; the two types of Islam that were present in Tunis (the Hanafites and the Malikites); and the description of Tunis from the French writer Guy de Maupassant.

Some video files begin with 10-60 seconds of color bars.
Sylvain S. Smadja
Peggy Frankston
interview:  2013 December 09
1 digital file : WAV.
Record last modified: 2021-02-16 15:51:48
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