Journalist Henri Alleg, Warned of Torture Dangers, Dies at 91

French Jew Faced Waterboarding During Algeria Conflict

Canary in Torture Chamber: Henri Alleg wrote about being tortured during struggle against colonial rule in Algeria. His account gained new notoriety with the controversy over Al-Qaeda suspects held after the 9/11 terror attacks.
wikimedia commons
Canary in Torture Chamber: Henri Alleg wrote about being tortured during struggle against colonial rule in Algeria. His account gained new notoriety with the controversy over Al-Qaeda suspects held after the 9/11 terror attacks.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published July 24, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

After 9/11, when the legitimacy of waterboarding and other torture methods during interrogations became a topic of fierce media debate, the French Jewish journalist Henri Alleg, who died July 17 at age 91, seemed uncannily prescient.

Alleg, a newspaper editor in Algeria in the 1950s, was imprisoned and tortured by French authorities for supporting Algerian independence against colonial rule. His 1958 account of his experience, “The Question,” recounts how waterboarding, burns, electrical shocks, and other physical and psychological abuse failed to make him betray his political allies. The harrowing account was banned in France but received widespread international publicity.

“I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could,” he wrote. “But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me.”

Born Henri Salem on July 20, 1921 in London to a family of Russian-Polish Jewish origin, he grew up a footloose teenager, visiting Italy when it was under Fascist domination, and Greece when ruled by military dictatorship. These early experiences left him disenchanted with Europe, and in 1939 he decided to settle in Algeria, where at the time hopes for the future seemed brighter. As Alleg states in a moving 2003 documentary “An Algerian Dream,” these hopes were soon dashed by the Nazi occupation of France. In 1941, Alleg explains, he and a friend were hitchhiking in the Algerian countryside, and a French colonial farm owner picked them up, fuming about three main enemies: “the Bolsheviks, the British and the Jews.” Laughing, Alleg explained that their driver had no idea that his passenger was all three at once.

Alleg’s reaction to Fascist anti-Semitic persecution overwhelming Europe and his new home of Algeria was to become a militant Communist, which remained his lifelong credo. Many readers who admired the gritty courage of “The Question” were disappointed by Alleg’s 1989 “The USSR and Jews,” which, after some unavoidable criticism of the treatment of Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union, declares that Jewish life in Russia was “on the whole, positive.” Doris Bensimon, a sociologist of Judaism, pointed out in a 1990 review that Alleg’s anti-American and anti-Zionist positions in describing the fate of Soviet Jews who immigrated to America and Israel “convey every French and Soviet Communist stereotype.” Unlike his fellow Jewish opponents of French policies in Algeria, such as the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who was never a Communist, or others who left the party disgusted by Stalinist persecution of the Jews, Alleg remained loyal in theory to Communist ideals. In a parallel sign of fidelity, although the freeing of Algeria from French rule resulted in copious bloodshed on both sides, neither Alleg nor his fellow revolutionaries ever regretted their participation in the struggle for independence.

In “An Algerian Dream,” the film’s French Jewish director, Jean-Pierre Lledo, suggested that Alleg’s steely resolve was born of his status as a Jewish immigrant to Algeria who wished to prove himself “worthy” of his new compatriots. He even changed his name to Alleg when taking up the underground struggle for the liberation of Algeria, as others assumed noms de guerre when joining the French Resistance during World War II. Deciding to accept the prospect of being tortured to death by the French army required real courage. Murdering innocent men, women and children as retribution was routine during the last bloody years of the Algerian War.

The casualties included some Europeans, among them Alleg’s friend Maurice Audin, who taught mathematics at the University of Algiers. The French army tortured and murdered Audin for his Communist activities, and as recently as 2009, his daughter Michèle Audin, also a mathematician, refused the French Legion of Honor on the grounds that the French government had done nothing to investigate — or admit its guilt in — her father’s disappearance.

Thus Alleg in his 90s was still a current figure, buoyed by a personality which Lledo describes as espiègle, mischievous or impish. When not choked with tears by memories in “An Algerian Dream,” Alleg often beams with a disarming lopsided grin, displaying what Lledo calls his “Jewish” sense of humor. Surviving ghastly historical times can sometimes hang on the ability to see the absurdity in a vits, a joke.

Contact Benjamin Ivry at feedback@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “And why should there be Hebrew? I’m not Jewish, I’m a Subbotnitsa.” In 2006, 13 of the 30,000 inhabitants of Sevan, Armenia, were Subbotniks. Now, there are only 10 left: thttp://jd.fo/b4BPI
  • Sigal Samuel started their Dixie road trip in Birmingham, Alabama, where the cab driver has a Bible on his seat and tells them his daddy taught him to respect the Jews. They're sure 'nuff feeling 'chosen' http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/201953/feeling-chosen-in-alabama/?
  • Why Jewish artists continue to be inspired by the Bible: http://jd.fo/q4PRh
  • When filmmaker Nasya Kamrat sought for a way to commemorate the story of her grandfather, a Polish Holocaust survivor, she had an unusual idea: use his paintings for an animated Holocaust documentary. http://jd.fo/p4RGf
  • As part of the Forward's 50-state project, Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel are setting out on a journey through Dixie. To get you in the mood, here’s a brief history of Jewish road trips: http://jd.fo/q4RYl
  • "1. Sex. She had it. She liked it. She didn’t make a big deal of it." What were your favorite Elaine moments on Seinfeld?
  • "Mamie Eisenhower had one, and if you came of age during the 1950s, chances are you had one, too. I’m referring to the charm bracelet, that metallic cluster of miniaturized icons that hung from, and often strained, the wrist of every self-respecting, well-dressed woman in postwar America." Do you have charm bracelet memories? Share them with us!
  • How the Gaza War started — and how it can end:
  • This could be the first ancient synagogue mosaic to feature a non-biblical narrative.
  • "Suddenly we heard a siren, but it was very faint. We pulled the kids out of the pool, and then we heard a big boom."
  • Why the bloody onslaught in Gaza is built on politics and lies: Read and share this explosive insight from J.J. Goldberg.
  • The crisis in Israel caught two interns — an Israeli and a Palestinian — far from home. Guess what? They're still friends.
  • The gang's all here!
  • "Neither the 'blood feud' nor the 'honor killing' theory of Abu Khdeir's murder ever made sense — and their manufacture constituted a blood libel against all Palestinians." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.