Madagascar: An Almost Jewish Homeland

They say that in Madagascar trees eat people, giant birds carry off elephants and crocodiles wear jewelry. I start to think these fables might be true as the Air Madagascar jet – affectionately known as Air Mad – makes its steep descent in the pitch black early morning. The capital city, Antananarivo, lies phantom-like below.

Since Marco Polo, travelers’ tales have fueled fantasies about prehistoric beasts and wild men inhabiting this “most noble and beautiful island” off the coast of Africa. European traders thought they had discovered in Madagascar an earthly paradise “better than…America,” where the natives were “the happiest people in the world.”

Of course, before I departed New York, my wife Jessica pointed out that Madagascar contains no Jewish shrines to explore. Even South African-based Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of the African Jewish Congress, knows of no Jewish community in Madagascar. So I travel not to a place, but back in time, to a lost vision of an alternative future. Like a chameleon, as the Malagasy saying goes, I have one eye on the past and one eye on the future.

Early Zionists debated a host of proposals to settle Jews in remote regions of the world, and one of them was Madagascar. I’m an American-born, naturalized Israeli citizen and sometimes I think it might have been better had Herzl dreamed of a Jewish state in a place less embattled than the Middle East. That’s why I am so curious about this would-be promised land that, at least until a recent military coup, was a relatively pacific republic in the Indian Ocean.

But as the plane lands at five in the morning, there’s nothing promising about it. It’s the dry season, and yet it’s raining. And it’s cold in July in Antananarivo, where the elevation exceeds 4,000 feet.

The city is built on a series of hills split by a ridge of rocky cliffs from which Christian martyrs were thrown to their deaths by the bloodthirsty Queen Ranavalona I in the mid-19th century. Dust kicked up by our Renault panel van clouds my view of the narrow roads that bend across the hills alongside rutted footpaths and past shambling figures carrying colorful bundles on their heads.

Each time we cross a bridge, my driver, Solofo, honks twice to ward off evil spirits. The smoke from 10,000 wood fires fills the air. Wagons pulled by zebu, muscular oxen with humped backs and long horns, veer to the side to let us pass. Mud-daubed homes with thatched roofs sag at odd, exhausted angles. Built from the same red soil on which they sit, the homes look elemental and comfortless. The tombs that dot the hills, however, are made of solid gray stone and concrete. “Why aren’t the houses built with stone, too?” I ask. Homes are for the living so they don’t need to last, Solofo explains, but death is forever.

As we make our way through the capital, the city wakes up. Faces appear in the small roadside snack bars, hotely, that serve traditional meals of rice and meat. Steeples spread across the cityscape and church bells ring out on Sunday, but there’s no sign of Jews. No synagogue has ever graced this skyline. Even Chabad doesn’t have an outpost here. And diplomatic ties with Israel have been sporadic since Madagascar achieved independence in 1960. So I almost can’t believe my eyes when we see a truck flash by with a mazal tov sticker on its windshield.

One of the most persistent Malagasy legends is that the people here are descended from the Lost Tribes. While this story may be no more credible than those of man-eating trees, some Malagasy I spoke with believe it. As early as 1658 the island’s French governor, Etienne de Flacourt, affirmed the Malagasy’s Jewish origins in part because he witnessed tribes practicing circumcision, a custom that remains nearly universal here. Englishman Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, helped popularize the connection between Jews and Madagascar. As the ghostwriter for the popular 1729 Madagascar: Or, Robert Drury’s Journal, During Fifteen Years Captivity on that Island, Defoe outdid Flacourt, suspecting that “the Jews derived a great deal from [the Malagasy], instead of they from the Jews.” He went so far as to claim that the priestly garments used in Solomon’s Temple were merely “improvements” on Malagasy customs. Some 19th and 20th century British and French scholars continued to maintain that the Malagasy descended from biblical era seafaring Jews. A Lazarite missionary, Joseph Briant, published a 1946 monograph purporting to find traces of Hebrew in local languages. Starting from the notion that the Malagasy are crypto-Jews, it’s easy to conclude that Madagascar is itself the promised land.

If the interwar Polish government had had its way, it might have been. Polish politicians in the 1930s agitated to relocate the country’s Jews. In 1936, Leon Blum became the first Jewish prime minister of France, Poland’s ally, and the stage was set for cooperative efforts to resettle Polish Jewry in the far-flung colony. At the instigation of the Polish Foreign Ministry, and with the agreement of French authorities, a three-man delegation set out on a fact-finding mission to Madagascar in May of 1937. Leon Alter, director of the Warsaw-based Jewish Emigrant Aid Society, and Mieczys?aw Lepecki, a Polish military officer and vice president of the International Colonization Society, set sail accompanied by Salomon (Shlomo) Dyk, a noted Tel Aviv agronomist and one of the founders of Kibbutz Merhavia. Their journey was an arduous one, a long sea voyage followed by what was surely a bone-rattling car ride along pock-marked roads, capped by an overland march of several days to tour possible sites of settlement. Seventy years later my trek is easier, though transportation has improved only slightly in the interior regions. The French left behind a colonial legacy of crusty baguettes, flaky pain au chocolat and crumbling infrastructure.

The commission’s report ultimately expressed a muted optimism for the venture. Lepecki offered encouragement, while Dyk and Alter felt that settling Madagascar would be nearly impossible due to the inhospitable climate and widespread malarial swamps. Alter wrote that it would be “[e]specially difficult to convince the ‘shtetl’ Jews…to settle on the soil.” It may seem incongruous today that a Jewish colony could have flourished in Madagascar, but the pioneers in the yishuv overcame precisely these same obstacles. So it’s tantalizing to imagine that had the commission’s report been more sanguine, governments might have mobilized to create a safe haven for European Jews, who then might have survived the war in greater numbers.

After the Polish plan was shelved, it caught the attention of the Nazi hierarchy. Adolf Eichmann was charged with reviving it, leading to his perverse claim at his Jerusalem trial that he was a Zionist sympathizer who desperately wanted to provide Jews with “soil under their feet.” In 1940, Eichmann submitted a detailed report describing the “Madagaskar-Projekt.” Endorsed at various stages by Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself, the proposal called for the recently defeated French to hand over Madagascar. At first, Jews from Austria and Germany would be deported. Four million Jews were ultimately to be resettled there over the course of four years, and the island’s interior turned into a vast ghetto. According to Eichmann’s report, “The overall administration of the Jewish State will be in the hands of the Chief of the Security Police and the Security Service.”

And how did the Nazis plan to ship millions of Jews halfway around the world to their police state? By forcing a defeated Britain to loan out the Royal Navy for transport, of course. Once interned on the island far from Western eyes, the Nazis would be free to do as they pleased with their Jewish prisoners. University of Toronto historian Eric Jennings has called the Madagascar Plan the “penultimate solution.” Until the winter of 1941-42, at least some in the Nazi hierarchy seriously pursued it. But no Jews ever arrived. The British invasion of the island in 1942, code-named Operation Ironclad, rendered the scheme permanently unworkable. The linchpin of the assault was the capture of Madagascar’s northernmost city, the deep water port and fabled pirate stronghold of Diego Suarez.

I think of Shlomo Dyk as we jolt and bounce through the terraced fields of the central plateau. As an agronomist, he believed this region could support colonists, though he and Alter both expected the indigenous peoples’ opposition would be “greater even than that of the Arabs against the Jews in Palestine.” But Solofo, my lively companion, insists that there have long been Jews in Madagascar, claiming that the “light skinned” residents of Fianarantsoa, the island’s intellectual capital, are their descendants. I smile at the bookish stereotype. But eager to find any trace of this mythical Jewish ancestry, we head south toward the famed university town.

Along the way, we stop in Ranomafana National Park, a lemur sanctuary. There I meet Theodore, who once ran barefoot through the rainforest to hunt the animals he now protects. He guides me over the muddy terrain and through the twisting lianas in his boots and hand-me-down hiking gear. We reach a lookout over the canopy just as the sky clears, and in the emerging sun he takes off his coat to reveal a Star of David on a length of leather tied around his neck. “A woman from Israel gave it to me,” he explains. “She taught me I should say shalom.” He’s never heard of the plan to settle tens of thousands of Jews in his country but sounds intrigued. “Malagasy love peace,” he tells me, “so it would be okay.” I tell him he’s the namesake of Israel’s forefather, Theodor Herzl. He grins and says, “I hope he sends me more tourists.”

When we arrive ?at Fianarantsoa, whose name means “place of good learning,” I am on the lookout for any signs of a Jewish connection but find nothing. While the locals in Fianarantsoa are proud of their scholarly reputation, they don’t associate their ancestry with Jews. Pork isn’t commonly eaten here, I’m told, but then the fruit bat I spy on my dinner menu isn’t exactly kosher. One evening, high above the city, I watch the sun drop behind a ridge on the horizon and imagine that my alma mater, Hebrew University, wouldn’t look out of place in this city of hills. But south of the equator the constellations are all different, and I am disoriented. Ragged child beggars sleeping in strips of rice sacks and cardboard in the filthy streets shock me back into my surroundings.

I am eager to leave here and fly north to my next destination, the battlefield of Diego Suarez, the town where the Madagascar Plan met its end. It’s humid outside of Diego’s Arrachart airport. The concrete portal still bears the French Air Force insignia, and just beyond the terminal, the rusted ribs of a World War II-era hangar rise over rows of palm trees. Squatters have strung their laundry up beneath the hangar’s skeletal shell. Another one of the country’s battered Renaults picks me up. In this one, I can literally see the pavement through a rusted spot worn through the car’s floor. The taxi driver whisks me past women dressed in cheerful printed fabrics selling fresh, sticky vanilla beans at ramshackle stands along the main road. The air smells like ice cream.

At night, the broad boulevards are dark and crowded with people enjoying the evening breezes sweeping in from the sea. The Southern Cross hangs overhead and the whole sleepy throng drifts down to the port to watch ships blink along the bay’s horizon. It was here that in 1942, Royal Navy vessels cruised into the same channel, taking the French by surprise in the early morning hours and dealing Vichy France a strategic blow.

At daybreak, I head to the War Cemetery to pay my respects. Winds kick up and bring a midsummer drizzle that locals call the mango rains. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission keeps the grounds in immaculate condition. Ruler-straight rows of graves stretch out between manicured flower beds, fences climbing with bougainvillea and the shade of tamarind trees. The order and symmetry are jarring amidst the haphazardness of this poor land. One of the caretakers, a spry, gray-haired man, shoos a chicken scratching for food off the trim lawn. He is perhaps the oldest person I’ve seen in my two weeks of travel through this country where life expectancy hovers just above 60. I ask if he remembers the invasion. “Yes,” he says softly, “I was a little boy and it was the first time I saw an airplane. There was shooting and bombs, and we were scared.” When I ask him whether he knows what the fighting was about, he shrugs and suggests that the British and French just wanted his country’s mineral resources.

I wander up and down the rows, reading the inscriptions of hardened grief on the tombstones. The markers of British soldiers are carved with crosses, but the many headstones with East African names are otherwise blank. Some stones are chiseled with Arabic, a few soldiers appear to have been Hindu and then, several rows from the front and shadowed by a stunted baobab, I spot a single grave with a Star of David. I hadn’t expected to find a Jewish grave. My fingers trace the worn letters of the Hebrew inscription. Captain Israel S. Genussow, age 28, died July 30, 1944 – exactly 63 years ago to the day of my visit. My hands shake as I dig a rock from the damp soil and place it on the headstone. I muddle through the kaddish while it rains.

Wherever home was for Captain Genussow, I’m sure it was far away from this quiet patch of green on the outskirts of a town at the end of the world. I’m drawn to the story of this man whose tombstone records that he “fell on the battlefield to liberate his people and his land.” But which people? Which land? How did Israel Genussow find his way to this lonely resting spot, and from where? When I turn to look back, the efficient caretaker has already removed my rock from atop his marker.

Several months later, after a number of phone calls, a visit to the National Library of Israel, and thanks to Facebook, I meet Israel Genussow’s youngest brother, Herzl, in Netanya. A tall man with a barrel chest and a shock of white hair, he clasps my hand with a vigor that belies his more than 80 years. His wife, Rachel, makes me tea and places a slice of apple cake and a dainty fork in front of me. Herzl’s voice echoes like a thump on a hollow wall, but I can sense his melancholy. He has never visited his brother’s grave, and here I am, a stranger with a photograph showing up on his doorstep asking him to pry open painful memories.

“What can I tell you?” he says, suddenly switching from Hebrew into a sharp South African English undulled by lack of use. I flip through black and white family snapshots in the family albums as Herzl narrates, “My brother was an excellent student, brilliant, an athlete, handsome.” I read letters from those who knew him, and they all attest to Israel’s generosity and intelligence.

I want to know how his brother came to play a small role in denying the Nazis their Jewish reservation in Madagascar. “Our father was a Zionist in South Africa,” Herzl explains. “He grew wealthy from diamond mining. We played with diamonds the way other kids played with marbles. And people would come from miles to hear us speak Hebrew. We were curiosities from the Bible.” Later, the family moved to Palestine, where their mother, the niece of Solomon Schechter, had grown up. So not only was Captain Genussow Jewish, he was also Israeli after a fashion. When the war broke out, he was a student in England. He volunteered for the British military and was ultimately shipped out to Madagascar, where he drilled East African troops until a single stray bullet squeezed off during a training exercise ended his promising life.

“Do you think your brother knew about the Nazi plans for Madagascar?” I ask. “I don’t know,” Herzl responds, “all I know is that he wanted to fight for his country.” Which country? I ask. “Ours!” Herzl is surprised at my obtuseness. Rachel clears the crumbs from my place with the edge of her hand. “I grew up in Poland…,” she interjects, “as a girl I had to keep my voice down, be polite everywhere, on the bus or in the park, so people wouldn’t point at the ‘noisy Jew.'” Her eyes mist over, her voice trails off. “And you know what happened there….” Herzl adds, “But here we’re like everybody else, here we can be just as bad as every other country.”

Is that what Israel Genussow fought and died for, serving to protect his adopted homeland so it could be just like every other place? I ask. They both turn to look each other, then at me, and answer “no.” Herzl sighs and fiddles with his hearing aid.

The photo album rests open on a picture of Israel in uniform, his moustache neatly trimmed, round spectacles framing his face. Herzl shakes his head in disbelief at the loss of his brother so long ago. He shakes his head at the history that never was, the future his brother never had. He stares out the window toward the Mediterranean, toward his brother’s tomb an ocean away on an island without Jews, where they say crocodiles wear jewelry and the natives are the happiest people on earth. “But here at least,” Herzl says, and raps his knuckles on the table, “here is home.”


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