The Real Refugees of Casablanca

When it came to gathering refugees, the waiting room of the U.S. consulate was probably the closest thing to Rick’s Café Américain.

(Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Meredith Hindley | Longreads |November 2017 | 2,280 words

On Thanksgiving Day, 1942, an audience stuffed full of holiday cooking settled into the plush seats at the Hollywood Theatre on New York’s Fifty-First Street to watch the premiere of Casablanca, a new film from Warner Brothers. During the summer, the studio had finished shooting the movie, which featured noir favorite Humphrey Bogart and up-and-coming Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, and made plans to release it in early 1943. With few Americans knowing Casablanca was a city in French Morocco — let alone how to find it on a map — the studio banked on audiences’ love of wartime intrigue, along with the star power of Bogart and castmates Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, to sell the film.

But on November 8, reports began to trickle in that the Americans and British had launched Operation TORCH with the goal of seizing Algeria and French Morocco from Vichy France. The assault was a new phase in the war against Nazi Germany, one designed to help the Soviets, who fought a bloody battle against the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Over the next few days, headlines and radio reports buzzed about the fighting in and around Casablanca, as the U.S. Navy battled the French fleet and 33,000 American soldiers stormed Moroccan beaches under the command of Major General George S. Patton, Jr.

Warner Brothers could hardly believe its luck — it had a movie in the can about a city that had just become the site of a major Allied victory. The studio couldn’t buy that kind of publicity. Rather than premiering the film in 1943, Warner Brothers hastily arranged a screening in New York on November 26, 1942, two weeks after the French surrendered Casablanca to the Americans.

As the lights went down, viewers were thrust into cinematic Casablanca, an exotic city teeming with refugees, collaborators, and resistance fighters. They meet Rick Blaine, a jaded barman and sometimes gun runner; Ilsa Lund, an idealistic young woman torn between duty and love; and Victor Laszlo, a magnetic resistance leader anxious to evade the Nazis. Seeking a way to leave Casablanca, Victor and Ilsa find their way to Rick’s Café Américain and inquire about purchasing two letters of transit, which would allow them to depart for Lisbon and then possibly, for America. Captain Louis Renault, a Vichy officer, also seeks the letters, which have been pilfered from the bodies of two dead German couriers. The Nazis soon arrive on the scene to threaten Victor with imprisonment in a concentration camp. But Ilsa’s past relationship with Rick, however, may seal Victor’s fate.

If audience members didn’t become verklempt watching Victor lead the patrons of Rick’s Café Américain in a stirring rendition of “La Marseillaise,” they received another opportunity when the lights came up. Before the premiere, members of the Free French had marched down Fifth Avenue, and at the end of the movie, they assembled on stage and belted out the revolutionary anthem in front of a flag emblazoned with the Cross of Lorraine. “The occasion took the tone of a patriotic rally rather than the premiere of a timely motion picture,” noted the Hollywood Reporter. Sentiments about Vichy France ran deep — even in New York.

The Free French who raised their voices that day embraced the movie as a condemnation of the bastard regime that collaborated with the Nazis, but it’s the plight of the refugees who find themselves in Casablanca and the choices they face that drives the movie’s plot. Despite being the product of Hollywood backlot magic, the film contains elements of truth about how these refugees came to be stranded in a North African colonial city thousands of miles from their homes.

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Casablanca made its debut two-and-half years after Germany marched into France, triggering a massive refugee exodus. As the Nazis advanced, the population of France fled south, hoping to avoid being swallowed up by Hitler’s burgeoning empire. Hungarians, Poles, Russians, Austrians, and Spanish Republicans who had fled their homelands to seek sanctuary in France before the war, once again found themselves on the run. Thousands would end up in Casablanca.

In July of 1940, more than two hundred ships arrived off the coast of Casablanca, the largest port in Africa on the Atlantic coast. The captains stocked only enough supplies to transport their passengers from Marseille, Bordeaux, or Oran. They didn’t plan on baking under the scorching North African sun for weeks as they waited to disembark their passengers. Both refugees and sailors suffered from dehydration and illness as water and food ran out. Once the refugees made it ashore, they had to find housing and navigate the French Protectorate of Morocco’s bureaucracy.

Warner Brothers could hardly believe its luck — it had a movie in the can about a city that had just become the site of a major Allied victory. The studio couldn’t buy that kind of publicity.

To deal with refugee influx, the Protectorate established an internment camp at Aïn Chok, an area approximately five miles southeast of the city center. George Kelber, a passenger on the SS Chateau Yquem, was shunted into its makeshift quarters along with seven hundred other recently arrived refugees. “People are getting exhausted, many of them are ill, and hygienic conditions are far from being satisfactory,” he wrote. “All these people have suffered a lot since four weeks and many of them are morally and physically broken.”

The film Casablanca is crowded with refugees. There’s Carl, the affable German-speaking waiter, and Sascha, the Russian bartender. A Dutch banker boasts of having run “the second largest banking house in Amsterdam.” Annina, a Bulgarian bride with doe eyes, resigns herself to selling her virtue to obtain the exit visas she and her husband need. Then, of course, there is Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance hero, and his charming wife, Ilsa Lund, who are on the run from the Nazis. The word “Jew” is never uttered in the film. For all the clues to the characters’ nationalities the film provides, the fact the refugees who congregate at Rick’s might have come to Casablanca to evade Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policies is never acknowledged.

Most the refugees who found themselves in Casablanca in the summer of 1940, and the months that followed, were Jews. They arrived in a city with a flourishing Jewish community and members of that community provided the refugees with assistance, in particular, Hélène Cazes-Bénatar. A stout woman of 42 years, Bénatar became the first female lawyer in French Morocco. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, she volunteered with the French Red Cross and trained as a nurse, but France’s quick collapse ended any chance of tending wounded soldiers. Bénatar, who had no love for Vichy, would find a different way to serve. Upon seeing the humanitarian crisis engulfing the port with the arrival of the refugees, she founded a refugee assistance committee.

Bénatar’s committee helped refugees leave the dormitory-like quarters of Aïn Chok and find housing the city, whether a rented room or lodging with a Jewish family. The committee also assisted with completing the paperwork for visa applications, signing up with aid agencies, and registering with Protectorate authorities. For those who lacked funds, modest financial assistance was available. In September 1940, Bénatar’s committee had 825 refugees on its rolls. The number fluctuated as refugees departed and new ones arrived.

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“Everybody comes to Rick’s,” says Captain Renault of the nightclub run by Humphrey Bogart’s character. The swanky café serves as a meeting place for the displaced and dispossessed.

But Rick’s Café Américain didn’t exist in historical Casablanca. Indeed, Americans in Casablanca would have been a rare sight in the city of 350,000. Before the war started, there were just over a hundred Americans in all of French Morocco, a motley collection of missionaries, businessmen, and diplomats.

When it came to gathering refugees together, the waiting room of the U.S. consulate was probably the closest thing to Rick’s. Each morning the refugees would line up outside, waiting for their turn to apply for a visa or inquire about the status of their application. Sometimes the line was two hundred deep.

The word ‘Jew’ is never uttered in the film. The fact that refugees who congregate at Rick’s might have come to Casablanca to evade Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policies is never acknowledged.

The crush of people emotionally and physically taxed the consulate’s staff of six. “The American consulate in this city has been a club for hundreds of people who couldn’t get into the United States or Canada, but who came to tell their stories to us and to each other,” wrote Consul General Herbert S. Goold to the State Department. “I suppose it was one of the few places where they did not get a cold shoulder, and I do not regret that these forlorn, harassed people felt that at our office, they could at least hear a friendly word. But they have nearly wrecked us.”

Along with processing visa applications, the consulate staff provided advice about everything from booking passage with a reputable captain to where to sell gems smuggled out of Europe in hems and bodices. Such advice was needed as there were plenty of people in Casablanca willing to profit from desperation. One captain, Imre Horvath, sold berths on his ship — and then sold them again to a higher bidder without giving a refund to the jilted passengers. He also offered passage to New York to a young woman in exchange for sexual favors. Captain Renaults existed on screen as well as in real life.

As the refugees waited at the American consulate, they shared stories of their encounters with the Gestapo and time spent in concentration camps at Dachau and elsewhere. “They spread such fear amongst the waiting groups that there were numerous distressful scenes — fainting, hysterical weeping, and frantic men and women groveling on the floor before the desks of the visa clerks,” wrote Goold. Some refugees also threatened suicide should they be denied a visa. In one case, a refugee tried to cut his throat in the consulate.

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As the war dragged on, it became harder to leave Casablanca. Ships no longer called, chased away by the British blockade. Visas to Mexico, Cuba, and the United States became even more difficult to obtain. So too did the exit and transit visas need to leave French Morocco and enter Portugal to depart from Lisbon, which became the de facto gateway across the Atlantic. Ilsa’s midnight flight to Lisbon was in reality a train from Casablanca north to Tangier, where ship or flight to Portugal could be obtained — provided one had all the necessary visas.

French Morocco also opened a series of internment and labor camps, where thousands of refugees would languish. They were sent there for being the wrong nationality, or Jewish, or politically suspect, a broad category that could justify anything. Refugees could also end up behind barbed wire if Casablanca officials considered them a charge upon the city. “It is difficult to restrain oneself from musing over the very low estate to which Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity have fallen. Evidently, they are only words,” wrote Goold after visiting the internment camp at Sidi-el-Ayachi.

Bénatar continued her work, doing what she could to aid those who found themselves stuck in an unfamiliar land. She kept track of refugees in Casablanca and did her best to obtain information about those who languished in the camps. It was a task made more difficult by Casablanca officials demanding she shut down her committee. Bénatar agreed, only to start it back up again under her own name.

The arrival of the Americans in November 1942, following the success of Operation TORCH, didn’t immediately improve things for refugees. Shipping traffic across the Atlantic, except for military transports, was halted for months and visas remained elusive.

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When Warner Brothers put Casablanca into wide-release at the end of January 1943, it benefitted from another instance of publicity luck. From January 14 to 24, 1943, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and their staffs held a secret meeting in a tony suburb of Casablanca to plan the next phase of the war. Yet again, Americans woke up to headlines and radio reports bursting with the word “Casablanca.” Photographs and newsreels of city’s white-washed villas, palm trees, and street scenes only added to the allure.

There was one audience, however, who would have to wait a little longer to see the film. The Office of War Information refused to clear the movie for viewing in North Africa. According to Aljean Harmetz’s The Making of Casablanca, members of OWI’s staff were concerned about how the movie’s indictment of Vichy France would play with the local populace. Only a few months had passed since Vichy France been ousted from French Morocco and its supporters still walked the streets of Casablanca.

Warner Brothers would, however, materially help the refugees in Casablanca. Since the fall of 1940, Bénatar’s work had received financial support from the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In May 1943, Warner Brothers donated 500,000 francs ($9,000) to the Joint to fund Bénatar’s work. The studio that profited on the story of refugees in Casablanca also came to their aid.

The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history. Casablanca would go on to win Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. It transformed Bogart into a romantic leading man and made Bergman a star. It also became one of the most beloved and highly regarded films of the last 75 years, originally earning the number two spot on AFI’s Greatest American Movies of All Time and membership in the inaugural class of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The fictional story about the desperation, hope, and betrayals faced by refugees who found themselves in Casablanca remains as visceral now as it did 75 years ago.

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Meredith Hindley is a historian and author of Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for World War II in North Africa. She lives Washington, D.C.