Hélène Cazes Benatar
Modern Morocco’s first woman lawyer, Hélène Cazes Benatar was born into a well-to-do Sephardic family in Tangier in 1898. During World War II, she organized a major relief operation to help refugees stranded in North Africa on their way to asylum in the West. She also fought for individual legal rights for hundreds of stateless Jewish and non-Jewish ex-soldiers released from Vichy prison camps in North Africa after 1942. In the post-war era, Benatar joined the Joint Distribution Committee in Paris to help resettle the “last million” Jewish refugees in displaced persons camps in Germany. A proponent of mass Jewish migration from Morocco, she departed for France in 1962, where she continued her human rights work until her death in 1979.
Family and Early Life
Rachel Hélène “Nelly” Cazes was born in Tangier, Morocco, on October 27, 1898, the first daughter and second of five children of Amram and Myriam Cazes. The Cazes family were Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardic descendants of Spanish Jews whose ancestors settled in Tangier sometime in the eighteenth century. Nelly’s father was a businessman who supplied arms to the French colonial regime established in Morocco in 1912. Her mother was descended from a branch of the Nahon family of Gibraltar. Nelly grew up in a multi-lingual household where French, Spanish, English, and the Spanish-Arabic-Hebrew dialect Haketia of northern Moroccan Jews were spoken. In 1904, she enrolled in the Girls’ School of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, where, in addition to studying French and Spanish language, history, and literature, she learned about Jewish culture and history.
In 1910, Amram Cazes was sent on a mission to Turin, a center for the manufacture of arms, where Nelly attended an Italian school. When the Great War broke out in 1914, the family moved to Seville, Spain. Politically precocious, Nelly demonstrated enthusiasm for the Allied cause, volunteering at the French Consulate to prepare packages sent to the front. In 1917, the Cazes family moved to Casablanca, Morocco, and she passed the baccalaureate at the all-girls Lycée Mers Sultan in the same year.
In 1920, Nelly married Moyses Benatar, her childhood sweetheart, also from Tangier. In their first years of marriage, the couple had two children, Myriam and Marc. The Benatars’ social circle included progressive Moroccan, Algerian, and European Jews. In 1930, at the age of thirty-two, Nelly made the unusual decision to pursue a law degree by correspondence with the University of Bordeaux. In 1933, she passed the French bar, becoming Morocco’s first native-born woman lawyer, and opened a law practice in Casablanca.
Zionism, Radicalism, and the Casablanca Jewish Community
In the 1930s, lawyer Benatar and her husband became leaders in local Jewish affairs. Benatar wrote articles on agriculture and childcare in Jewish Palestine for the Casablancan Zionist newspaper, L'Avenir Illustré. The editor, Jonathan Thurscz, praised Nelly for her devotion to the Zionist cause. She joined the local branch of WIZO, the Women's International Zionist Organization, and became its president. Casablanca was a stopover on the European Zionist speaker circuit, hosting prominent French women Zionists such as Sasia Erlich and Fanny Weill. Contact with these women leaders was an eye-opener for Benatar; Sasia Erlich, who was also a lawyer, became a friend and corresponded with Benatar throughout the war years.
In 1936, Benatar was invited to join the Governing Board of the Moroccan Zionist Congress as its first female member. She and Moyses became active in community affairs and in 1938 authored a Plan of Reform that would introduce democratic procedures into Jewish communal elections. But the gathering storm in Europe frustrated their plans. Moreover, in January 1939, Moyses came down with a sudden infection and within two days was dead at the age of 39. Nelly was distraught and went into deep mourning.
Refugees, Resistance, and Humanitarian Work
With the onset of war in September 1939, Benatar pulled herself together, closed her legal practice, and joined a Red Cross nurses’ training course at the state-run Colombani hospital in Casablanca. She was scheduled to go to Europe with an ambulance unit, but France's capitulation to Germany in June 1940 changed her plans. Instead, she turned her attention to the sudden wave of refugees engulfing Morocco, many of them destitute Jews in flight from Central Europe. Greatly disturbed by their predicament, she founded the Committee of Assistance to Refugees to provide them with shelter, food, medical help, and travel assistance while in transit through Morocco. Helped by voluntary gifts in cash and kind from the Casablancan Jewish community, Benatar's “Committee” became the address for professional people, artisans, workers, ex-soldiers, families, and single men and women, all fleeing a collapsing Europe.
Meanwhile, the collaborationist Vichy regime, headed by the aging Marshall Philippe Pétain, seized control of “unoccupied” southern France and its overseas colonies. Almost immediately, Jews were on the shortlist of “undesirables,” unwelcome in France and its dependent territories. Despite dire personal threats, Benatar continued helping refugees reach safe havens in the West, by joining forces with the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Varian Fry's Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), and HICEM (an acronym combining the names of three resettlement organizations: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society [HIAS], headquartered in New York, the Paris‐based Jewish Colonisation Association, and Emigdirect, based in Berlin). Representatives of these philanthropic agencies worked closely with Benatar, appreciating her energy and resourcefulness.
Critical to Benatar’s success were her close contacts with the French colonial administration, which officially cooperated with the Nazis but included highly placed defectors who secretly helped her. The head of the French Protectorate in Morocco, General Charles Noguès, met with Benatar several times. Impressed by her selflessness and sense of purpose, he became her personal protector, discreetly aiding her rescue work by warding off German interference.
In the years 1941 and 1942, Benatar and her allies facilitated the movement of thousands of refugees along the “Casablanca Route,” a sea passage from Marseilles with a stopover in Casablanca and continuing across the Atlantic to Martinique, where it separated into a northern branch that headed to the United States and a southern branch that turned toward Latin America. Assisting Benatar in the migration work were her friend Celia Bengio; Malka Fuchs, a multi-lingual Viennese refugee; and Maurice Vanikoff, a Polish-born French lawyer with expertise in refugee affairs.
Benatar joined an anti-Vichy underground group that had formed in Morocco in July 1940. Defying the Vichy police, the members of this organization, known as the Mengin group, distributed pro-Allied leaflets and passed on intelligence about ship traffic through the Strait of Gibraltar. Benatar’s law office was repeatedly raided by French police accompanied by plain-clothes Gestapo agents, but nothing compromising was found; she either destroyed evidence or hid it behind a fake wall. In July 1942, the Mengin group was betrayed, and some of its members were arrested and tortured. Disbarred and forced to close her legal practice, Benatar most likely escaped imprisonment because of her contacts in the upper levels of the colonial hierarchy
Liberation and Work for UNRRA
The Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 swept away the remnants of Vichy rule. Victorious American and British armies quickly converted North Africa into a staging area for the assault on Hitler’s Europe. Benatar exploited this dramatic turn of events to fight for the liberation of thousands of Jewish and Spanish Republican ex-soldiers held in Saharan forced-labor camps. Accompanied by her small staff, she made a dangerous 1800-kilometer tour of inspection of the Saharan camps in February 1943. Within four months of the Allied landing, she had lobbied the U.S. military to agree to the liberation of nearly 1000 ex-soldiers held against their will. Once they were released, she provided them with housing, jobs, and, for those who were stateless, new identity papers. At the war’s end, she supervised their repatriation to France, Palestine, and other countries in the Western hemisphere.
In 1944, Benatar joined the staff of the newly created UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She was assigned as a welfare officer to the UNRRA refugee camp at Fedala, Morocco; when that camp was closed, she was transferred to the Jeanne d’Arc Refugee Center at Philippeville, Algeria. Most UNRRA staff were American and British social workers lacking expertise in legal matters. Benatar’s job was to interview hundreds of stateless refugees, verifying their claims to be bona fide victims of war. With this information, she created a personal dossier for each refugee as a step to regaining their legal rights under United Nations protection. Her service with UNRRA came to an end on V-E Day on May 8, 1945.
After the war, Benatar worked as a lawyer and expert on North African Jewish affairs. In 1945, she joined the Transmigration service of the JDC in Paris engaged with resettling the “last million” Jewish refugees in displaced persons (DP) camps in Germany. In 1948, she was designated the JDC’s first North African representative, supervising projects to support North African Jews. In 1951, she left the JDC and returned to her private law practice in Casablanca. Following France’s withdrawal from Morocco in 1956, she witnessed the failure of Moroccan Jews to gain a foothold in the newly independent nation, choosing instead the path of exile. By the mid-1960s, the Jewish community—a quarter of a million people in 1948—was a tenth of its former size.
Benatar remained in Casablanca until 1962, but with the nationalization of the Moroccan courts in 1962, she left for Paris. She passed the French bar for a second time and resumed her legal work. Her last years in Paris were spent surrounded by family and friends. She died at home on July 8, 1979, and was buried in the Cimetière Pantin in a section designated for Sephardic Jews.
Nelly Benatar referred to her wartime experiences as her “years of glory.” Although she received little recognition for her achievements during her lifetime, she was aware of their historic significance. Before her death, she inventoried her papers for future generations, depositing 18,000 documents from the years 1939-1945 in the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) in Jerusalem. These papers, arranged and placed in context, form the substance of her remarkable story.
Abitbol, Michel. The Jews of North Africa During the Second World War. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.
Ben Ya’akov, Michal. “European Jewish Refugees in Morocco During World War II.” Avotaynu 31, 2 (2015): 41-45.
Ben Ya’akov, Michal. “Hélène Cazes Benatar et ses activités en faveur des réfugiés juifs au Maroc, 1940-1943.” In Les juifs d’Afrique du Nord face à l’Allemagne nazie, edited by Haim Saadoun and Dan Michman, 177-198. Paris: Perrin, 2018.
Boum, Aomar and Sarah A. Stein, eds. The Holocaust and North Africa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019.
Gershon, Yitzhak. “L’aide aux réfugiés juifs du Maroc pendant la seconde guerre mondiale.” Translated from Hebrew by Claire Drevon. Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah 2 (2016): 413-46.
Miller, Susan Gilson. Years of Glory. Nelly Benatar and the Pursuit of Justice in Wartime North Africa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021.