It should come as no surprise that so many historians have taken to presenting their research in graphic novels; to state the obvious, the form is expansive and entertaining, allowing much space for writing that is systematically offset by imagery. For all that graphic novels are now widely considered worthy of academic interest, they rightfully remain an accessible medium, and thus a perfect tool for public-facing scholarship. Two recent examples are Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, plus Lee Francis IV, Weshoyot Alvitre, and Will Fenton’s Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga.
Undesirables is dedicated to shedding light on dark and ill-known pages of history. Writer Aomar Boum and artist Nadjib Berber set out to describe the effects of Nazi and collaborationist policies on the inhabitants of French-controlled colonies and protectorates of North Africa during World War Two. The book follows Hans Frank—a real-life, Jewish German journalist—from the turmoil of Weimar Germany to the liberation of North Africa.
Escaping to France in the early days of Nazi rule in the 1930s, Frank gets acquainted with the members of the Ligue Internationale contre l’Antisémitisme–LICA (International League Against Antisemitism). Faced with the growth of fascism on the European continent and the spread of its hateful creed on the African continent, LICA was dedicated to promoting inter-communal unity among North African people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Coming to realize in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War that “there was no place to hide anymore,” Frank goes to Algeria to join the French Foreign Legion and fight in World War Two until the French surrender in June 1940.
There begins the second part of the book that focuses on the lesser-known history of the Saharan camps: a network of nearly 70 labor, disciplinary, and internment camps set up by collaborationist Vichy authorities throughout Algeria and Morocco, and where they sent foreigners (most notably veterans of the Spanish Civil War and former members of the Foreign Legion), Jewish people, and political opponents. With Frank, we witness the quotidian brutality of life in the desert camps as he is taken from labor to punishment/disciplinary internment. His ordeal stops not long after he manages to escape and find refuge in Morocco, where the book ends abruptly as he witnesses Operation Torch, the successful Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria in November 1942.
Resting as it does on Boum’s extensive research (he is Chair of Sephardic Studies at UCLA and the author and co-author of several books on Jewish history in Morocco), Undesirables is chock full of information; pages overflow with text boxes, providing a fascinating look at a region that so often only appears in accounts of World War Two at the very moment where this narrative ends. In popular culture, of course, World War Two Morocco is known almost exclusively as the backdrop to one of the most celebrated films of all time: Michael Curtiz’s 1942 Casablanca, first released mere weeks after the liberation of the eponymous Moroccan city. In Curtiz’s film, Claude Rains’ turn as the friendly corrupt French police chief steered clear of criticizing authorities already in the process of turning their coats. The reality was much drearier: as Morocco filled with spies from all nations and soon appeared as a vital strategic point for the conflict, Vichy authorities focused on enforcing antisemitic legislation in the colonies, notably rescinding the French citizenship of Algerian Jews, guaranteed since the Crémieux decree of 1870.
Hans Frank’s path from 1930s Berlin to wartime Casablanca is an extended if subdued epiphany: for all its horrifying singularity, Nazi antisemitism was tied to a long tradition of European antisemitism, which throughout the 19th century became bound up with exacerbated and increasingly insular nationalism. There’s no small irony in seeing fascist officers of the French army cheering on German Nazis while spewing arguments inherited from the Dreyfus affair, in which the antisemitic right painted a Jewish officer as a pro-German traitor. As interesting is the way Boum and Berber smoothly make clear, through the same sadistic French military officers, how inseparable from colonial rule European fascism is. Frank befriends North African Jews and Muslims, Arabs and blacks alike, connected in their status as targets for the hatred and disdain of French authorities.
In Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire famously advanced that the:
… very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century… cannot forgive Hitler for is… the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.
While these procedures were applied to Europe they also redoubled in Vichy’s colonies, as Undesirables shows. Appalled at legislation hampering the rights of Jewish people even in Morocco, Sultan Muhammad V reminded the French that as his subjects Moroccan Jews remained under his protection. In its representations of individual encounters, the book also suggests myriad unsung acts of friendship among the colonized and oppressed populations in Vichy’s colonies.
Arguably, this is one area where Undesirables might have done things differently. For all that the book owes to Boum’s work, in the end only a portion of it focuses on North Africa. The first section of the book gives us Frank’s background and an overview of the rise of Nazism in Germany, a terrain so well-trodden it feels almost off-topic here. Similarly, one might puzzle at the choice of Hans Frank as a protagonist: was it necessary to center European experience in a text ostensibly about North Africa? One wishes more space had been given to the history of relations between Jews and Muslims, the impact of French colonization on pre-war Morocco, as well as local developments from the Allied invasion of 1942 to the end of World War Two—a time period during which independentist movements developed in collaboration with and opposition to American and French representatives and authorities along complex and generally ignored lines.
In his early career, the late Algerian artist Nadjib Berber (who died in March 2023) worked as a caricaturist in the North African press, also authoring children’s books. Berber moved to the US from Algeria in 1992 and continued working in graphic art here, notably as a writer on The Barbarossa Brothers, and on a project about the sect of the Hashasheen. Berber’s black and white photorealistic art in Undesirables at times almost verges into photonovel territory, as each panel seems derived from an existing photo somewhere. The effect can be uncanny and even puzzling, as when Frank befriends a Senegalese tirailleur whose face is clearly Omar Sy’s; but it also gives the book a documentary feel well fitted to its topic.
Undesirables is a teachable, well-researched, and fascinating look into a history that deserves to be known better. It is an invitation to go find out more in Aomar Boum’s own scholarship and in the works of the likes of Ariella Azoulay, so as to better understand the varied and complex recent history of Jewish presence (and absence) in North Africa.
Undesirables: A Holocaust Journey to North Africa (2023) by Aomar Boum and illustrated by Nadjib Berber is available from Stanford University Press.