Hidden Histories: Susan Gilson Miller

Professor of History Susan Gilson Miller explores the margins of history. The gaps she finds in our knowledge of the past resonate with the questions and needs of people in the present.

Susan Gilson Miller - UC Davis
Susan Gilson Miller

History is contentious. Scholars that study the past must navigate through multiple histories, reflecting the diversity of memory and record-keeping methods, while also developing new narratives influenced by their own inquiries as well as by concerns of the present.

“Historians, in their own individual ways, try to bring to light the narratives that reach for an element of truth,” Miller says. “There are so many absences in our knowledge about the past, but, as people move through time and their interests change, these absences also come forward. This creates the opportunity to match historical investigation with current interests in the world.”

Miller is a historian of the modern Mediterranean World, specializing in North African and Jewish history. She studies the region’s urban development and the lives of ethnic minorities, including the preservation of religion, architecture, and memory. In her current research project, Miller continues recovering history from the margins, challenging the Eurocentricity of Holocaust Studies by uncovering the story of Sephardim Jews in Morocco during World War II.

Breaking ground at the periphery

Miller’s passion for illuminating obscure historical topics is reflected in her own groundbreaking academic career. As a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Michigan, she was the only woman in her cohort. She also joined the field of Middle Eastern Studies at a time when, along with Arabic language studies, this subject was an unusual field of scholarly inquiry. Moreover, even though history programs at the time did not require field work, she sought to study abroad in the Middle East and successfully earned the first Fulbright grant awarded to a married woman with a family.

“I decided that, to be a good historian of the Arab World, I had to live in the Arab World,” Miller says. “It was unusual for women to work for the Ph.D., in those days. Most of them who did, I must say, were not married women with children.”

Western scholars who studied the Middle East typically focused on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. But the political upheaval caused by the Six-Day War of 1967 dramatically affected the options for scholars. Consequently, Miller and her family traveled to Morocco, a country at the periphery of the Arab World. There, Miller worked for three years on her dissertation, learning dialectical Arabic and serving with the Peace Corps as well. 

Her project translated a report of Morocco’s embassy in France written by the scholar Muhammed As-Saffar, who wrote about the intellectual encounter of his countrymen with Western customs, between 1844-1845. “This was a first look by Moroccans at modernization in the Industrial Age and the great advances in technology Europeans were making,” Miller says. Since 1992, Miller’s book about this peculiar encounter (Disorienting Encounters) has sold over 5,000 copies, remains in print, and continues to be assigned in classes as a valuable case study.  

"Historians, in their own individual ways, try to bring to light the narratives that reach for an element of truth." - Gilson Miller

A hidden history of the holocaust

Miller was made aware of the obscured history of the Sephardim Jews by their absence in the historiography. “You can consult The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies, and you will find no mention at all, in that 900-page volume, of what happened to the Sephardim during the Holocaust. 

“Sephardic Jew” is an ethnic term that refers to Jewish people that had some connection to Muslim Spain during the Middle Ages, until their expulsion by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492. Nowadays, the term more broadly refers to any Jewish person whose family  is of non-Western origins.   “In the popular mind, there are Ashkenazi Jews, of the West, and Sephardic Jews, of the East,” elaborated Miller. “This really is, in a way, a misnomer, but it has stuck with the idea of a bifurcated Jewish world of Europeans and non-Europeans.”

Miller’s earlier experience in Morocco already placed her research interests in the Arab World. Her work on Sephardic Jews now also allowed her to look at Jewish history from that perspective. “I found this subject very fascinating. There were a quarter of a million Jews in Morocco that were affected by the Holocaust. In fact, Eastern Jews comprised 10 percent of the world’s total Jewish population at the time, but up until recently, they have been left out of the Holocaust narrative altogether.”

Recovering Hélène Cazès-Benatar

Helene Cazes Benatar
Helene Cazes Benatar

During World War II, Jews in Morocco, which was controlled by the Nazi-allied Vichy French government, faced discriminatory race laws. During her examination of these events, Miller by chance came across letters about Jewish refugees, signed by a Moroccan Jewish lawyer named Hélène Cazès-Benatar (right).

As Miller further researched the life of Cazès-Benatar, she discovered an incredible story. Cazès-Benatar was the first woman in Morocco to pass the French bar exam and become a lawyer. In 1940, she founded the Committee for Assistance to Foreign Refugees, financed by local Jewish communities and international organizations. The Committee under Cazès-Benatar provided shelter, humanitarian aid, and protection to thousands of refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

In order to protect the refugees from persecution or deportation to internment camps in Europe, Cazès-Benatar concealed documents from the Vichy French police. Through the Committee, she also worked with organizations to employ Jewish refugees (to avoid grounds for deportation) or to help transfer them to safer territories. These and many other daring actions placed Cazès-Benatar in constant risk, but her efforts to protect all refugees in Morocco continued even after the war’s end. Her last activities focused on helping North African Jews migrate to Israel. 

Cazès-Benatar died in 1979 at the age of 80. Miller’s research also led her to Cazès-Benatar’s final resting place in a French cemetery. The headstone epitaph, written in French, Miller translates as: “To our mother, a legendary woman who saved all those in distress.” 

History from the margins

In all of her work, Miller strives to deepen our understanding of history by looking at the past from the margins. Understanding those left out of the predominant story not only helps fill in gaps, but also reveals important truths about the present. 

In the case of Miller’s recent historical findings, the narrative reveals important aspects of the lives of both women and Sephardim during the Holocaust, in turn expanding our views about a history that are very relevant in understanding the modern world. “In Arabic, ‘Maktub’refers to something that just has to be—it’s been preordained,” she says. “And I do feel like I have a mission.”

— Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani

This feature originally appeared on the website of the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences