In many Arab cities, the hammam, or Turkish bathhouse, is a neighborhood institution. More than just a place to wash oneself, it is a gathering spot -- almost a social club -- where men and women (separately) share news, spread gossip, tell jokes and relax.
On the main street of a working-class district in Tunis, a man named Hamza Abdul Jalil owned just such a hammam. Dating back hundred of years, the family-owned bathhouse was a fixture in the neighborhood, a place where both Jews and Arabs filled bucket after bucket of steaming hot water.
It was December 1942, a month after the first German troops arrived in Tunis, when the German Nazi police, the SS, ordered Jewish men to gather for forced labor. When few showed up voluntarily, Nazi troops went synagogue-to-synagogue, hospital-to-hospital, even house-to-house to find Jewish men and drag them to labor camps.
Hamza Abdul Jalil knew that it was a dangerous moment for the Jews of his neighborhood.
Twenty-one-year-old Joseph Naccache was a young Jewish man who lived in a narrow alley around the block from the bathhouse. When the round-up of Jews began, Hamza told Joseph that if he ever needed a place to hide, he should come to the hammam. When Joseph began to fear that the German dragnet was targeting him at his home, he took Hamza up on his offer. Hamza protected him inside the hammam, providing refuge and food, so that Joseph could evade his pursuers. Hamza neither requested nor accepted any payment.
After he left the hammam, Joseph was eventually captured by the Germans and sent to labor camps in the Tunisian hinterland. But he still remembers the kindness of the proprietor of the local hammam.
"One cannot say that the entire world was evil," said Joseph in an interview. "Some people were kind. Some were humane."