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, Léon 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.”