The Arty Semite

Memoir of An Algerian Jewish Prostitute

By Benjamin Ivry

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“Locked Rooms: the Story of an Algerian Jewish Prostitute,” released on Amazon Kindle by Nouveau Monde editions, is the work of Germaine Aziz, who died in 2003 at age 77 after having survived daunting challenges. Aziz’s memoir, which originally appeared from Les éditions Stock in 1980 and was reprinted in 2007 by Nouveau Monde, is marked by the eloquence of plain speech.

Aziz was born in Paris to a grievously poor Algerian Jewish family – her father was the son of a noted rabbi from Oran. After her mother’s early death, Aziz was sent to live with relatives in that city’s Jewish ghetto. There, she noted that Arabs and Jews were “intertwined, united by the same music, the same poverty, the same language.” Both were also despised by French colonials: “Jews and Arabs received the same contempt from Frenchmen, as picturesque elements, foul but colorful.” Aziz’s life alternated between celebrating Shabbat at her paternal grandfather’s home and hearing anti-Semitic insults from the French. These became worse during the Second World War when Aziz observed, “There was no need for the Germans to occupy Algeria for hostility towards Jews to spread.”

To escape crushing poverty, at seventeen, Aziz accepted a job as a bar hostess in Bône, a city in northeastern Algeria now called Annaba. Her employer enslaved her as a prostitute, forcing her to work in windowless rooms. In the original French, her title “Les chambres closes” also implies “sealed rooms.” Aziz vividly describes the odors, diseases, and filth she endured in a series of brothels, where she was bought and sold with no chance of escape, due to police and governmental cooperation with a system that treated prostitutes like chattel. For fifteen years she tried to flee, before finally returning to Paris in the 1950s and comparative liberty, albeit that of a streetwalker.

Only in her 40s did Aziz manage to change her life via a series of humble jobs, finally being hired as a phone operator for the newspaper “Libération.” As she wrote in another memoir, there she struck up a chatting friendship with actress Simone Signoret (born Kaminker), among other notables. Aziz concluded that coming to terms with her Jewish identity and serving as a witness for those who did not survive experiences like her own, were essential elements of her survival.

See Germaine Aziz on a French TV program in 1993 describing her work at “Libération”here.

And watch Aziz reminiscing about Simone Signoret here.


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