Joseph Scemla

Joseph ScemlaIn the lovely tourist town of Hammamet along the Tunisian shore, a man named Hassen Ferjani owned and operated a small fabric shop. He frequently did business with a successful fabric merchant named Joseph Scemla, a Jew from Tunis who liked to vacation in Hammamet. Over the years, Hassen had earned Jo's trust.

When the Germans arrived, Jo's life turned upside down. Decades earlier, he had assumed French citizenship and was immensely proud of his two sons who had navigated the rigid French school system so successfully. Gilbert, the eldest, had excelled at the elite Ecole Polytechnique before distinguishing himself in the French military. Jean, the younger, was preparing for the entrance exams to the EP when war broke out.

When the Germans occupied Paris, Gilbert made his way back to Tunisia. When the Germans poured into Tunis too, there seemed no escape from the invaders. Gilbert and Jean, along with their father, decided they had to escape German-occupied territory and cross the lines to join the Allies. To help engineer their escape, they turned to their trusted Arab friend, Hassen Ferjani.

Hassen arranged for the Scemlas to be dressed as local Arab workmen, riding a horse-drawn carriage out of town. The family advanced him 20,000 francs to take care of the logistical details. Jo and his sons were convinced that no one would notice them, dressed as Arabs, moving slowly past German checkpoints.

But they were wrong. Hassen, in fact, had deceived them. He had tipped off the Germans, who arrested the Scemlas as soon as their cart approached the checkpoint. When the Scemlas were taken to a military prison in Tunis, Hassen continued the deception by rushing to Jo's wife to warn her that the Germans had not only taken her husband and sons but were on their way to confiscate their goods so it would be best to give him the family jewels and other valuables for safekeeping.

The Scemlas suffered a terrible fate. They were among just a few dozen Jews deported from Tunis to Germany, where they spent a year in Dachau before being transferred to a military prison at Halle, where they were tried and executed by guillotine.

For his part, Hassen Ferjani paid at least some price for his treachery. After the Germans were evicted by Allied forces in May 1943, Jo's wife convinced French authorities to arrest Hassen. He was charged with conspiracy and collaboration with the enemy. The French court sentenced him to death six months before the Germans gave the same sentence to the Scemlas. He appears to have been the only Arab ever convicted by an Allied court specifically for actions that led to the deaths of Jews during World War II.

But unlike his victims, Hassen escaped execution. The death sentence was commuted to life in prison and, on March 19, 1957, the new republican government of Tunisia released him. He had served just fourteen years.

--Robert Satloff

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