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Morice Tondowski

morice_tondowski.jpgIn 1937, a 26-year old Jewish tailor's apprentice named Morice Tondowski left his home in Kalish, Poland, and set out for France to escape the coming war. He eventually drifted south, to Nice, where he found steady work sewing ladies' coats. When war broke out, Morice -- like all male refugees in France -- was ordered to register for military service. He joined the Foreign Legion, where he imagined himself sitting out the war in some obscure colonial outpost. He was eventually sent to Meknes, Morocco, a once-grand capital of a medieval Arab dynasty.

In 1940, after the fall of France and the ascension of the collaborationist regime at Vichy, Morice's life changed abruptly. One day, he was stripped of his rifle by his French commanding officers without any warning or explanation, and sent to the fringe of the Sahara Desert. Not far from the unmarked Algeria-Morocco frontier, he had arrived at the hot springs oasis of Berguent.

He was marched with dozens of others to an empty expanse, five miles away, under the gun sights of French soldiers and Arab and Senegalese colonial troops. Along with Morice were other Legionnaires, regular army soldiers and illegal refugees -- all Jews. Morice and the other men were ordered to dig holes in the gravelly, hard-packed earth and told that that was where they would sleep, with only a thin canvas then to protect against the desert night frost. So began Morice's life as a prisoner in the only all-Jewish labor camp established by France in Arab lands.

For Morice and about 7,000 prisoners -- including 2,000 European Jews -- life in Vichy's desert labor camps was hellish. They worked from dawn to dusk with little food, water, rest or medical care; their job was to gather, break, load and move rocks to clear the way for the great French national project of the Trans-Sahara Railway. Torture was common and frequent. The camp commandants and senior officers, mostly Legionnaires, were vicious. Many prisoners died from the work, from the elements, from the torture. One survivor called his camp "a French Buchenwald."

Morice says he told his closest friend, a man named Brenman, that he had to keep working every day to survive. "Hitler will lose, the war will be over, and we will be free. But you have to live and to live you have to work." It is an eerie echo of the motto that adorns the gate to Auschwitz -- the infamous slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" (or "Work will make you free").

His friend Brenman was not so lucky. He tried to escape but was captured and thrown into the tombeau, an open grave where he had to lie still, broiling by day and freezing by night, with no food and barely enough water to keep him alive. When he died, he weighed only 75 pounds.

Morice survived to tell his story to British intelligence, eventually joining the British army tracking down Nazis.

-- Robert Satloff

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