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Whatever the actual numbers may be, equally pertinent both to history and to its fictional filming in “Free Men” is to understand what would motivate an impoverished Algerian immigrant, psychologically and emotionally, to fight Nazis in defense of Jews. Here, Stora’s professional and life expertise is invaluable, as recounted in his “self-history,” “Three Exiles: Algerian Jews” (“Les Trois Exils, Juifs d’Algérie”), reprinted this past spring by Pluriel.
In “Three Exiles” and other works, Stora uses his own family history as a springboard for understanding the historical fate of North Africans — more specifically Algerians, and even more specifically, Algerian Jews. Stora ranges from accounts of brutal anti-Semitic oppression to sweet memories of Jewish cultural delights in Constantine, Algeria, such as the Sephardic culinary wonder known as la dafina, the slow-cooked Sabbath-evening dish that is sometimes inadequately described as a North African cholent; in Constantine, la dafina was a patiently simmered concoction of beef, potatoes, chickpeas, eggs and spinach, among other ingredients.
In 1962, Stora and his parents left such delicacies behind after his homeland’s independence from France was declared. They settled in France, where he still lives in the working-class Paris suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine. At first feeling estranged in his new surroundings, Stora found context and purpose during Paris’s 1968 student revolution, when he became a Trotskyite activist alongside such budding politicians as Lionel Jospin, who would later serve as France’s prime minister and as the Socialist Party candidate for his country’s presidency. Stora’s own political achievements were humbler, although they did alienate his father, a traditional-minded semolina salesman from Algeria, and his mother, whose only dream was for her son to embrace the stable career of dentistry.
Instead, Stora acquired the historical and social acumen to appreciate working-class sufferings and to see why in Paris, circa 1940, some Algerian immigrant laborers were ardent anti-fascists and devoted supporters of Léon Blum’s socialist Front Populaire. As ill-treated immigrants, some Arabs preferred to side with persecuted working-class Jews rather than haughty Nazi propagandists within France’s Vichy government. In a comparable way, North African Jews enjoyed the music and culture on offer at the Paris Mosque, where they could be sure to avoid pork products, elsewhere a French culinary staple, in any meals served. Stora notes that even today, we can encounter French Jews who during wartime requested to be documented as Muslims at the Paris Mosque in order to save their families.
On the human level and the cinematic scale of “Free Men,” Stora’s judgment has been wholly validated. And in the historical context, Satloff writes in “Among the Righteous” that albeit in very modest numbers, it can be demonstrated that during “Nazi, Vichy, and Fascist persecution of Jews in Arab lands, and in every place that it occurred, Arabs helped Jews.”
When the first volume of Stora’s “The Algerian War Seen by Algerians,” (“La Guerre d’Algérie Vue par les Algériens”) appeared in 2007 from Les Éditions Denoël, it was praised by Le Monde for “offering a viewpoint, in the cinematographic sense of the word, which is both original and up-to-date.” This same cinematographic sensibility made it only a matter of time before Stora’s talents hit the big screen. He was historical adviser for the 1992 French film “Indochine” which won the Oscar for best foreign film, and he wrote the documentary “The Algerian Years,” broadcast by France 2 television in 1991. In “Les Hommes Libres,” Stora has found a subject of unprecedented closeness to his heart and the essence of his work as a historian.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.
Watch the trailer for the new film, “Free Men” (Les hommes libres).
Watch Stora speaking about Algerian Jewish history in 2007.
Listen to Salim (Simon) Halali in an early hit, “Nadira.”