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 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.
“Roger has played a tremendous role in supporting Tunisian-American relations and his country’s continued openness, moderation and support for women’s rights,” said Jason Isaacson, AJC’s director of government and international affairs. “During his time in and out of government he has always supported our initiatives of Tunisian-American bridge building.”
It’s difficult to gauge, however, the significance of Bismuth’s role in Tunisia’s Jewish community. Both Bismuth and Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan acknowledge that they have a cold working relationship, and congregants at Bismuth’s synagogue, Beit Mordechai Synagogue in La Goulette, are reluctant to speak about him on the record.
Beth Mordechai Rabbi Daniel Cohen, however, calls Bismuth “a nice man who does his best to care for the community.”
Jo Krief, a retired fashion designer who is involved with the association to preserve the Borgel Jewish cemetery in Tunis, says Bismuth was named president of the Jewish community only because of his close ties to the old regime. Krief claims the Tunisian Jewish Community operates under an old, outdated structure that lacks transparency, separates Djerba from the mainland community and concentrates all decision making into one leader.
“The Jewish community needs a revolution just like the rest of Tunisia,” Krief told JTA.
Bismuth, who says he meets regularly with the community’s four-member board and provides assistance to Djerba as needed, denies that he supported the former regime.
“I was associated with my country,” he said.
Bismuth asserts that the old Tunisian government itself was not corrupt, saying that talented technocrats ran the state apparatus.
“We spent years building a good government here. It was just the head, the president and his family, that made Tunisia hell,” he said, explaining why Tunisians took to the streets in massive protests in January 2011, forcing Zine El-Abddine Ben Ali to leave and the regime to change.
Until the revolution, he was the only Jewish parliamentarian anywhere in an Arabic-speaking country. In 2005 the Tunisian employers association selected him as one of seven representatives to serve in the Tunisian Senate.
“When we had people shouting kill the Jews in the street of Tunis and at the airport, the whole world called me,” Bismuth said, referring to incidents in January when Islamists made violent threats to the Jewish community while greeting the arrival party of visiting Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and in March when an imam at a downtown Tunis rally in support of Islamic law called on Tunisian youth to kill Jews.
As a businessman, Bismuth has found himself working with the new government.
“It’s not just Jews but everyone in Tunisia’s business community who has to change from working with the old to the new governments,” he said.
Bismuth frequently meets with ministers in the new government, particularly after each of the recent incidents of incitement. He says the government has responded positively after each incident.
He acknowledges, however, that he has greater ideological differences with the new government.
“I have a problem with this government because I don’t believe in mixing religion and state,” Bismuth said. “I think religion is a private matter.”
With his wife, Aase, a Dane who converted to Judaism through the Masorti (Conservative) movement — a conversion that has brought Bismuth harsh criticism from some in the Jewish community who are more observant than he — Bismuth has six children (only two of whom remain in Tunisia), 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. And while life for Tunisia’s Jews remains uncertain, Bismuth has no plans to leave his native land.