By Kouichi Shirayanagi
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
TUNIS (JTA) — Sitting beside his collection of Tunisian menorahs, spice boxes and jewelry, with Danish Impressionist paintings on the walls, Roger Bismuth was recalling his days as a Nazi slave laborer — and the dramatic change in his life since that time.
Bismuth said that between November 1942 and May 1943, he built bunkers and harbors for the Nazis in the nearby port of La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis. He had left school in 1940 at age 14 to become a construction worker.
“The Germans knew I was Jewish. The major who was in charge of building the bunkers was a nice man — he would pick me up every morning and take me to work,” Bismuth, 86, remembers.
After the war, Bismuth worked for the French building barracks for the colonial soldiers stationed in his port city. At the same time, he was active in the Tunisian independence movement against the continued French colonization of Tunisia..
A product of an almost-lost era, when most Jews living in metropolitan Tunis became doctors, lawyers and businessmen while those on the island of Djerba studied to be rabbis, Bismuth amassed his wealth by developing a major product distribution conglomerate that distributes food, electronic and cosmetic products, including L’Oreal, across North Africa. He also is president of the Jewish Community of Tunisia.
After spending decades developing a good relationship with Tunisia’s old government, which he served as a member of parliament, he hopes to build a strong relationship with the new Islamist-leaning government of his small North African country, keeping the aging Jewish community from further decline.
Tunisia at the time of Bismuth’s birth had more than 100,000 Jews. Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews in the country, and many of them are elderly. According to historians, Tunisia has had a continuous Jewish presence for more than 2,600 years.
When Tunisia was a French colony, the Tunisian Jewish Community Council was a government within a government – operating its own court, issuing marriage licenses and overseeing education for the Jews. Following the North African nation’s independence in 1956, Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, dissolved the council and created a new organization with a dramatically altered the role.
Most of the country’s Jews live on Djerba, which always has maintained a separate organized Jewish community from the mainland. Thus the majority of Tunisia’s Jews don’t use the services of the Tunisian Jewish Community; Bismuth has been its president since 1996.
“There is no poor Jewish person in the street, we look after everyone, no one goes hungry,” he said.Elderly Jews are provided with visits from the doctor, given food, clothes and assistance no matter where they live in greater Tunis, Sousse or Sfax.
The community worked to build the Center for Aging People in La Goulette, which provides kosher food and assisted living to 20-25 residents. A 12-person staff of doctors, nurses, cooks and medical specialists provides round-the-clock care for the residents. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee once provided half the operating costs for the center but with funding from abroad reduced, Bismuth says the Tunisian Jewish community works diligently to get by.
Bismuth maintains ties with the World Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee.