This engaging memoir tells three different stories.
On one level, it’s a Jewish “Casablanca”: There’s no Bogart or Bergman, but this tale, too, features a freewheeling North African location, refugees fleeing Nazis, perilous escapes, and, of course, romance.
It’s also an affectionate portrait of the once-flourishing Jewish community in Tangier, Morocco. We meet affluent Sephardim who speak French, Spanish, and the local Jewish mash-up dialect, Haquetia. The women are commanding housewives; the men are bank executives and import-export merchants.
At its core, Where the Wind Blew is Michel Bensadon’s excavation of his complex childhood. The younger son of mismatched parents from enormously different Jewish backgrounds, Bensadon reconstructs his mother and father’s stories, the shocking end of their marriage, and the aftereffects of that trauma.
Lily Marber is an independent twenty-one-year-old from an accomplished Viennese family running from the oncoming Holocaust when she lands in Tangier in 1939. She meets contented bachelor Elias Bensadon, the twenty-nine-year-old dutiful son of a well-regarded Sephardi family, at a hotel tea dance. Both are quickly smitten, though Bensadon’s family wonders about the morals of this refugiada (refugee).
Personal and historic events overlap. Lily becomes pregnant and they decide to marry. On their wedding day, Elias’s bride-to-be spends the morning at the Tangier beach, horrifying her superstitious in-laws. Meanwhile, Elias makes extraordinary efforts when he learns that Lily’s parents have escaped Vienna but remain trapped in France and fear deportation. A year later, he reunites Dr. Emil Marber, wife Hermine, and their daughter Lisl with Lily in Morocco.
For a while, all is well. Michel is born in 1944. The war ends; the family remains in Tangier. Soon, however, cultural collisions between sophisticated Lily and traditional Elias destabilize Michel’s idyllic childhood. On New Year’s Day 1951, little Michel senses a stormy break between his parents. Shortly thereafter, Lily leaves — abandoning not only Elias but also her two sons. She returns only for occasional visits.
Bensadon’s quest to understand this family drama — which he connects to the treacherous North African wind he knew as Simoun—drives the narrative of Where the Wind Blew. (It seems apt that Michel grows up to be a psychotherapist.) But in telling his personal story, Bensadon conveys much more — the beauty of the Tangier landscape, the historical background of the local Jewish population, sensory memories of Shabbat and Purim celebrations, insight into how Jews interacted with their Muslim neighbors.
This handsomely self-published memoir includes family photos and documents that expand our pleasure (only slightly marred by typographic oddities such as the confusion of hyphens and dashes). By exploring one family’s story, Where the Wind Blew opens a window onto a wrenching moment in the life of a fascinating, overlooked Jewish community.
- Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life in Morocco by Haim Zafrani
- Jews Under Moroccan Skies: Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life by Raphael David Elmaleh and George Ricketts