When I began to do my research for The Storyteller of Casablanca, I discovered the largely untold story of thousands of refugees fleeing from Nazi-controlled Europe to North Africa to try to escape onwards to America and Britain. This human tide, washing up on the beaches of Morocco, comprised an extraordinary array of characters from widely differing economic and cultural backgrounds.
One of the most famous arrivals was Josephine Baker, the barrier-breaking African American singer and dancer. She made the journey to North Africa when the Nazis took control of Paris, nailing a sign to the door of the Folies-Bergère which read ‘Access Forbidden to Dogs and Jews’. But Josephine refused to be cowed and spent the following years using her talents as an entertainer as cover for her work as a French resistance agent, carrying messages written in invisible ink on sheets of music back and forth between Morocco and Portugal. Her efforts provided invaluable information about conditions on the ground to the Free French under General de Gaulle and helped with the co-ordination of resistance activities in the run-up to Operation TORCH – the American invasion in 1942, which established an Allied bridgehead into Europe.
During the remaining years of the war, she travelled around North Africa and Italy performing for the Allied troops and helping to raise more than three million francs for the Free French. She was made a sublieutenant by the Women’s Auxiliary wing of the French air force, was awarded the Medal of Resistance and the Croix de Guerre, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by de Gaulle.
Another inspirational woman who lived and worked in Casablanca during the war years was the human rights lawyer, Hélène Cazes-Bénatar. She was a pioneering figure, becoming the first female lawyer in French Morocco. Upon seeing the humanitarian crisis engulfing Casablanca with the arrival of the tide of refugees, she founded an assistance committee to help refugees find their way out of the hastily-established camps that had been set up to accommodate them on arrival and arrange housing for them in the city, either renting rooms or lodging with Jewish families. The committee also offered support with the lengthy and complicated applications for visas, as well as entry and exit permits which were required on the onward journey out of Morocco via Portugal. When officials demanded she shut down her committee, Bénatar promptly started it up again under her own name.
People queued for hours on end at the American Consulate, desperate to apply for their visas or enquire about the status of their applications, and the line could be two hundred deep. The Consul General, Herbert S Goold, wrote that as they waited, the refugees shared stories of encounters with the Gestapo and time spent in German concentration camps. “There were numerous distressful scenes – fainting, hysterical weeping, and frantic men and women grovelling before the desks of the visa clerks.” But behind the scenes, the staff were also working, under cover of their official roles, to prepare for Operation TORCH. Vice-Consul Stafford Reid was one of the main agents, establishing a clandestine radio transmitter – known as Station Lincoln – in the basement of the consulate and co-ordinating a resistance network across the city.
These are just three of the extraordinary real-life characters who make an appearance in The Storyteller of Casablanca. To find out more about the roles they and others played in this extraordinary period of wartime history, you can pre-order the book here: