Madagascar: An Almost Jewish Homeland

By | Nov 02, 2011
2009 May-June, History, International

At daybreak, I head to the War Cemetery to pay my respects. Winds kick up and bring a midsummer drizzle that locals call the mango rains. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission keeps the grounds in immaculate condition. Ruler-straight rows of graves stretch out between manicured flower beds, fences climbing with bougainvillea and the shade of tamarind trees. The order and symmetry are jarring amidst the haphazardness of this poor land. One of the caretakers, a spry, gray-haired man, shoos a chicken scratching for food off the trim lawn. He is perhaps the oldest person I’ve seen in my two weeks of travel through this country where life expectancy hovers just above 60. I ask if he remembers the invasion. “Yes,” he says softly, “I was a little boy and it was the first time I saw an airplane. There was shooting and bombs, and we were scared.” When I ask him whether he knows what the fighting was about, he shrugs and suggests that the British and French just wanted his country’s mineral resources.

I wander up and down the rows, reading the inscriptions of hardened grief on the tombstones. The markers of British soldiers are carved with crosses, but the many headstones with East African names are otherwise blank. Some stones are chiseled with Arabic, a few soldiers appear to have been Hindu and then, several rows from the front and shadowed by a stunted baobab, I spot a single grave with a Star of David. I hadn’t expected to find a Jewish grave. My fingers trace the worn letters of the Hebrew inscription. Captain Israel S. Genussow, age 28, died July 30, 1944—exactly 63 years ago to the day of my visit. My hands shake as I dig a rock from the damp soil and place it on the headstone. I muddle through the kaddish while it rains.

Wherever home was for Captain Genussow, I’m sure it was far away from this quiet patch of green on the outskirts of a town at the end of the world. I’m drawn to the story of this man whose tombstone records that he “fell on the battlefield to liberate his people and his land.” But which people? Which land? How did Israel Genussow find his way to this lonely resting spot, and from where? When I turn to look back, the efficient caretaker has already removed my rock from atop his marker.

Several months later, after a number of phone calls, a visit to the National Library of Israel, and thanks to Facebook, I meet Israel Genussow’s youngest brother, Herzl, in Netanya. A tall man with a barrel chest and a shock of white hair, he clasps my hand with a vigor that belies his more than 80 years. His wife, Rachel, makes me tea and places a slice of apple cake and a dainty fork in front of me. Herzl’s voice echoes like a thump on a hollow wall, but I can sense his melancholy. He has never visited his brother’s grave, and here I am, a stranger with a photograph showing up on his doorstep asking him to pry open painful memories.

“What can I tell you?” he says, suddenly switching from Hebrew into a sharp South African English undulled by lack of use. I flip through black and white family snapshots in the family albums as Herzl narrates, “My brother was an excellent student, brilliant, an athlete, handsome.” I read letters from those who knew him, and they all attest to Israel’s generosity and intelligence.

I want to know how his brother came to play a small role in denying the Nazis their Jewish reservation in Madagascar. “Our father was a Zionist in South Africa,” Herzl explains. “He grew wealthy from diamond mining. We played with diamonds the way other kids played with marbles. And people would come from miles to hear us speak Hebrew. We were curiosities from the Bible.” Later, the family moved to Palestine, where their mother, the niece of Solomon Schechter, had grown up. So not only was Captain Genussow Jewish, he was also Israeli after a fashion. When the war broke out, he was a student in England. He volunteered for the British military and was ultimately shipped out to Madagascar, where he drilled East African troops until a single stray bullet squeezed off during a training exercise ended his promising life.

7 thoughts on “Madagascar: An Almost Jewish Homeland

  1. Rainer Kunze says:

    An interesting feature. I was wrong when I thought the idea of Madagascar as a homeland for Jews was created by the allies after the war but (this also I thought) was dismissed by Churchill who wanted to give the Arabs a pain in the ass by settling Israel on Palestine ground . Now I learned that Nazi Germany invented this idea.

    1. errata says:

      >>Early Zionists debated a host of proposals to settle Jews in remote regions of the world, and one of them was Madagascar.<<

      What do you mean, "Now I learned that Nazi Germany invented this idea."?

      What in the article speaks of Nazi Germany inventing the idea?

      The article clearly states that it was an early idea by Zionists, obviously relative to the Jews who had been settling into areas of South Africa already, etc.

      Just because the Nazi's had a proposal to resettle Jews into this area of the world also doesn't mean it was a Nazi Germany idea any more than they, the Nazi's, invented the word Aryan and the swastika!

      Many many peculiar liaisons were formed before, during and after the "Nazi" regime became evident with their similar separation of Jew and Gentile, and eugenics, which is today found in mainly one nation.


      The "Jewish solution", wasn't just a Nazi ideal, it's an Ashkenazi//Zionist ideal that has never died, to which most of the Western world supports fully and rejoices as the bed becomes too small, the head has not place to rest, and the feet dangle!

      1. tez says:

        Well said

  2. Yakov Zamir says:

    Thank you Adam for learning and then sharing this story. I am marrying a woman from Madagascar and it means a lot to know that her homeland might have become the homeland for our people.

  3. Yitzhak says:

    Interesting. This affirmation of jews origins is quite popular in Madagascar though. However there is not enough proof to confirm it. As from Madagascar I would say may be jews were there long days ago. But left for an X reason.

  4. Fascinating stuff!

    We’re really looking forward to your complete book!

    While many of the earlier plans are no longer possible, hopefully their stories can provide some insight and guidance for our new initiative to create a New Jewish State, now, in a more peaceful part of the world.

  5. Feigue Cieplinski says:

    NO, the idea originated with the Polish government and then after a three person commission surveyed the issue , that was shelved. It is my understanding that once the Nazis took this over it was not the same benign project for sure.

    NO the idea was not of the Zionists, the had in mind Uganda, that was shelved too. The only place that is home is Israel the Zionist said then and so it happened. It was the Territorialist in desperation that they would have accepted any where no matter what including the Patagonia.

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