And how did the Nazis plan to ship millions of Jews halfway around the world to their police state? By forcing a defeated Britain to loan out the Royal Navy for transport, of course. Once interned on the island far from Western eyes, the Nazis would be free to do as they pleased with their Jewish prisoners. University of Toronto historian Eric Jennings has called the Madagascar Plan the “penultimate solution.” Until the winter of 1941-42, at least some in the Nazi hierarchy seriously pursued it. But no Jews ever arrived. The British invasion of the island in 1942, code-named Operation Ironclad, rendered the scheme permanently unworkable. The linchpin of the assault was the capture of Madagascar’s northernmost city, the deep water port and fabled pirate stronghold of Diego Suarez.
I think of Shlomo Dyk as we jolt and bounce through the terraced fields of the central plateau. As an agronomist, he believed this region could support colonists, though he and Alter both expected the indigenous peoples’ opposition would be “greater even than that of the Arabs against the Jews in Palestine.” But Solofo, my lively companion, insists that there have long been Jews in Madagascar, claiming that the “light skinned” residents of Fianarantsoa, the island’s intellectual capital, are their descendants. I smile at the bookish stereotype. But eager to find any trace of this mythical Jewish ancestry, we head south toward the famed university town.
Along the way, we stop in Ranomafana National Park, a lemur sanctuary. There I meet Théodore, who once ran barefoot through the rainforest to hunt the animals he now protects. He guides me over the muddy terrain and through the twisting lianas in his boots and hand-me-down hiking gear. We reach a lookout over the canopy just as the sky clears, and in the emerging sun he takes off his coat to reveal a Star of David on a length of leather tied around his neck. “A woman from Israel gave it to me,” he explains. “She taught me I should say shalom.” He’s never heard of the plan to settle tens of thousands of Jews in his country but sounds intrigued. “Malagasy love peace,” he tells me, “so it would be okay.” I tell him he’s the namesake of Israel’s forefather, Theodor Herzl. He grins and says, “I hope he sends me more tourists.”
When we arrive ?at Fianarantsoa, whose name means “place of good learning,” I am on the lookout for any signs of a Jewish connection but find nothing. While the locals in Fianarantsoa are proud of their scholarly reputation, they don’t associate their ancestry with Jews. Pork isn’t commonly eaten here, I’m told, but then the fruit bat I spy on my dinner menu isn’t exactly kosher. One evening, high above the city, I watch the sun drop behind a ridge on the horizon and imagine that my alma mater, Hebrew University, wouldn’t look out of place in this city of hills. But south of the equator the constellations are all different, and I am disoriented. Ragged child beggars sleeping in strips of rice sacks and cardboard in the filthy streets shock me back into my surroundings.
I am eager to leave here and fly north to my next destination, the battlefield of Diego Suarez, the town where the Madagascar Plan met its end. It’s humid outside of Diego’s Arrachart airport. The concrete portal still bears the French Air Force insignia, and just beyond the terminal, the rusted ribs of a World War II-era hangar rise over rows of palm trees. Squatters have strung their laundry up beneath the hangar’s skeletal shell. Another one of the country’s battered Renaults picks me up. In this one, I can literally see the pavement through a rusted spot worn through the car’s floor. The taxi driver whisks me past women dressed in cheerful printed fabrics selling fresh, sticky vanilla beans at ramshackle stands along the main road. The air smells like ice cream.
At night, the broad boulevards are dark and crowded with people enjoying the evening breezes sweeping in from the sea. The Southern Cross hangs overhead and the whole sleepy throng drifts down to the port to watch ships blink along the bay’s horizon. It was here that in 1942, Royal Navy vessels cruised into the same channel, taking the French by surprise in the early morning hours and dealing Vichy France a strategic blow.