Paul Benhamou

Paul Benhamou

Paul Benhamou feels uprooted. When Algerian independence came in 1962 he was forced to leave his home of Tlemcen.

The town is the location of Rabbi Enkaoua’s tomb, a 4th century Jewish sage. Every year thousands of North African Jews would descend on the city to celebrate a festival dedicated to the Rabbi.

Paul remembers the Jewish tradition in his neighborhood and more particularly the three story apartment building where he and his family lived. It had an inner court and all the tenants were Jewish.

“On Shabbat you would hear the Kidush from every apartment,” he says from his West Lafayette Indiana home.

Paul’s father died when Paul was only three. The pension that the family received wasn’t enough but the neighbors all helped out, Paul says.

As a child Paul developed an affinity for American culture.

“I was in love with American culture. I was fed American culture.”

When American GI’s entered the city in 1944 during WWII operations in North Africa Paul got a chance to meet them. They gave him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and his mother worked for them; hand washing their laundry to make up for the meager pension left to her.

During part of the Algerian Rebellion against the French that broke out in 1954 Paul was studying English Literature at the University of Dijon in France.

In 1870 the Jews of Algeria had been given French citizenship and even though their citizenship had been revoked during the Vichy period the Jews of Algeria felt French. But when Paul went to study in France he found out that he was not.
“In France they made me understand that I was not French. It made me mad and I could never adjust… before or after to France.”

In his twenties he came back to Tlamcen to teach English. He had returned to the only place he felt was his home. The residents of the apartment building where he had spent his childhood were happy.

“You know Jewish women are always trying to make a match. Once I was a teacher I was a good deal.”

But Paul didn’t stay. Life in Tlemcen had become difficult, dangerous, as the war with the French was reaching its culmination. But while he was their Paul was stoic.

I am a Medeterranean person,” he continues, “We like to enjoy life. In the midst of bombs of grenades we were having drinks at 5 o’clock and enjoying pleasantries with women colleagues.”

The curfew was set at 8 pm.
“Once in a while you heard that a relative or someone you knew was killed. It [the violence] came closer and closer there was nothing to do. You could go in a cave or just live.”

In 1961 Paul accepted a Fulbright scholarship to study American Literature at the University of Iowa.

“In the states people welcomed me as a French person,” he says. Overall he felt welcomed.

In 1962 when DeGaulle ceded Algeria to the victorious rebels Paul’s mother was forced to leave. She moved to Grenoble where Paul’s eldest brother lived. He describes watching the news with DeGaulle announcing that the one million French citizens of Algeria would have to leave. He was dumbfounded.

By this time Paul had met and married his girlfriend Reed. While he had a notion of returning to Tlemcen to teach English he never went.

“I thought about going back and teaching. I sent a letter to the Consulate. But it’s a good thing they didn’t answer,” he says, “as a Jew I would have been killed.”

When Paul left in 1961 he had no notion that it would be the last time he would see his apartment on the Rue des Ecoles. And as his family came from modest means he didn’t feel a large loss of possessions. Instead he felt a terrible loss of culture.

The sounds of twenty separate but simultaneous Kiddush’s were gone. All the girls that he should have married were dispersed to France or America or Israel. The festival of Rabbi Enkaou and all the Jews swelling Tlemcen – all of it gone.

And without ever feeling that France could be a home, he planted his roots in the broad plains of the American Midwest.

He was granted an extension to his scholarship at the University of Iowa and earned a Master’s Degree in French Literature.

In 1963 he brought his wife back to France for the duration of his military service. He says he could have skipped out on serving but as he had his brothers and mother in France he had to serve.

But the whole while his intent was to return to America. They came back to Iowa where Paul finished his education with a PH.D in French literature.

“My wife was working. She was the typical American wife who pushes her husband toward the ultimate degree.”

When he finished he had a wide range of teaching opportunities. He took a position at Purdue University where he has stayed 33 years before retiring to his West Lafayette Indiana home.

Today he is very interested in Anti-Semitism in France and has given talks on the subject at the University of Michigan as well as Purdue University.

For Paul, America is as close to home as it will ever get.