Arbres de Vie: Extraits
De Albert Karsenti1
English Summary for extract from Trees of Life by Albert Karsenti:
While the entire book begins with the story of the Karsenti family of Algeria from the late eighteenth century, this extract deals with the wars of the twentieth century and their effects on the family. In the Great War of 1914-1918, Félix Karsenti, Léon Karsenti’s elder brother, a shopkeeper in the provincial town of Tlemcen, as a French citizen was drafted into the French army and served for two years. He was wounded in an explosion and walked only with a cane and special shoe for the rest of his life. Albert Benhaïm, another family member, was also mobilized in 1914 at the age of thirty-six, and spent four years under arms. The Second World War, 1939-1945, marked France’s betrayal of her loyal Jewish citizens of Algeria. A Vichy law of October 7, 1940 deprived them of their citizenship. Léon Karsenti, the father of Albert and René, a career officer, was expelled from the French army, his older children also expelled from school, and the family fell into dire financial straits. Nevertheless, Albert Karsenti, the author, was born in 1942, his father having to brave a curfew to fetch the midwife. The aforementioned Albert Benhaïm, having served in the First World War, experienced the loss of his thirty-year-old son in 1938, and was moreover traumatized by the loss of his French citizenship in 1940. He wrote a humiliating letter in December 1940 to the prefect of Oran, reminding the government of his wartime service, but in vain. He died a broken man fourteen months later. Two of his children, Paul and Léon, would enlist in the Free French Forces after Algeria was liberated in November 1942 during Operation Torch. Léon had originally enlisted as a volunteer, joining the air force in 1923. He was called to arms again in March 1943, serving in Sardinia, then Marseilles and Lyon. Léon Benhaïm served for six years, initially in an internment camp of Vichy, later fighting in several battles, including the Battle of the Rhine. Paul Benhaïm was also put in an internment camp by Vichy, then eventually mobilized in the French army. During his stint of fighting in southern Italy, he did not write to his family, leading his mother to believe that he had died. His travels continued, though, passing through southern France up to Germany, as he distinguished himself in battle and earned the Croix de Guerre.
Lieutenant Léon Karsenti served in the French army during the Algerian war of independence, 1956-1962. His son, Albert Karsenti, the author, would skip high school to participate in demonstrations calling for "Algérie française." By 1962 it was obvious that Algeria would soon become independent, and the Jews as French citizens, though they had lived in Algeria for many centuries, would be forced to leave. Albert, who had been a medical student in Oran, lost his military exemption and was drafted in early 1962. He was sent for training in France. His mother and younger siblings had left for France, in view of the dangers, but the father Léon stayed on until July 5, 1962, Algerian independence day, a day on which he twice narrowly avoided being murdered. Managing to escape to the airport, he gave his family a joyous surprise by arriving suddenly in Paris; the family, traumatized but trusting in the future, began a new life in France.
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1. Albert Karsenti grew up in Tlemcen, Algeria, and attended the Lycée Pasteur in Oran from 1956 to 1960. In May 1962, as Algerian independence approached, he was a medical student in Oran. At that point as a French citizen he was drafted into the French army, being shipped in June to Clermont-Ferrand for training. The family resettled in Nice and Albert eventually became an educator and principal of several ‘collèges’ in the south and east of France. He is now retired and living in Juan-les-Pins.