Canary in Torture Chamber: Henri Alleg wrote about being tortured during struggle against colonial rule in Algeria. His account gained new notoriety with the controversy over Al-Qaeda suspects held after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Published July 24, 2013.
After 9/11, when the legitimacy of waterboarding and other torture methods during interrogations became a topic of fierce media debate, the French Jewish journalist Henri Alleg, who died July 17 at age 91, seemed uncannily prescient.
Alleg, a newspaper editor in Algeria in the 1950s, was imprisoned and tortured by French authorities for supporting Algerian independence against colonial rule. His 1958 account of his experience, “The Question,” recounts how waterboarding, burns, electrical shocks, and other physical and psychological abuse failed to make him betray his political allies. The harrowing account was banned in France but received widespread international publicity.
“I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could,” he wrote. “But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me.”
Born Henri Salem on July 20, 1921 in London to a family of Russian-Polish Jewish origin, he grew up a footloose teenager, visiting Italy when it was under Fascist domination, and Greece when ruled by military dictatorship. These early experiences left him disenchanted with Europe, and in 1939 he decided to settle in Algeria, where at the time hopes for the future seemed brighter. As Alleg states in a moving 2003 documentary “An Algerian Dream,” these hopes were soon dashed by the Nazi occupation of France. In 1941, Alleg explains, he and a friend were hitchhiking in the Algerian countryside, and a French colonial farm owner picked them up, fuming about three main enemies: “the Bolsheviks, the British and the Jews.” Laughing, Alleg explained that their driver had no idea that his passenger was all three at once.
Alleg’s reaction to Fascist anti-Semitic persecution overwhelming Europe and his new home of Algeria was to become a militant Communist, which remained his lifelong credo. Many readers who admired the gritty courage of “The Question” were disappointed by Alleg’s 1989 “The USSR and Jews,” which, after some unavoidable criticism of the treatment of Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union, declares that Jewish life in Russia was “on the whole, positive.” Doris Bensimon, a sociologist of Judaism, pointed out in a 1990 review that Alleg’s anti-American and anti-Zionist positions in describing the fate of Soviet Jews who immigrated to America and Israel “convey every French and Soviet Communist stereotype.” Unlike his fellow Jewish opponents of French policies in Algeria, such as the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who was never a Communist, or others who left the party disgusted by Stalinist persecution of the Jews, Alleg remained loyal in theory to Communist ideals. In a parallel sign of fidelity, although the freeing of Algeria from French rule resulted in copious bloodshed on both sides, neither Alleg nor his fellow revolutionaries ever regretted their participation in the struggle for independence.
In “An Algerian Dream,” the film’s French Jewish director, Jean-Pierre Lledo, suggested that Alleg’s steely resolve was born of his status as a Jewish immigrant to Algeria who wished to prove himself “worthy” of his new compatriots. He even changed his name to Alleg when taking up the underground struggle for the liberation of Algeria, as others assumed noms de guerre when joining the French Resistance during World War II. Deciding to accept the prospect of being tortured to death by the French army required real courage. Murdering innocent men, women and children as retribution was routine during the last bloody years of the Algerian War.
The casualties included some Europeans, among them Alleg’s friend Maurice Audin, who taught mathematics at the University of Algiers. The French army tortured and murdered Audin for his Communist activities, and as recently as 2009, his daughter Michèle Audin, also a mathematician, refused the French Legion of Honor on the grounds that the French government had done nothing to investigate — or admit its guilt in — her father’s disappearance.
Thus Alleg in his 90s was still a current figure, buoyed by a personality which Lledo describes as espiègle, mischievous or impish. When not choked with tears by memories in “An Algerian Dream,” Alleg often beams with a disarming lopsided grin, displaying what Lledo calls his “Jewish” sense of humor. Surviving ghastly historical times can sometimes hang on the ability to see the absurdity in a vits, a joke.
By Benjamin Ivry