Strongman, Lion Tamer, Survivor: The Astonishing Life of Houssein ben Ibrik (~1891–1980)

Born around 1891 in Morocco, Houssein ben Ibrik died nearly a century later in France. What is known about him sounds straight from a romance novel: a fighter of desert pirates, lion tamer, and acrobat strongman who fell in love with a young German woman who’d run away from home to join the circus. Together, as the Third Reich rose to power, Houssein ben Ibrik and Gertrude Appel performed with the legendary Sarrasani circus—he as part of an Arab troupe, she as an orchestra violinist—and raised two children, Ali and Fatima, in the shadow of the Nuremberg Laws (implemented in September 1935) condemning mixed-race offspring.

Houssein ben Ibrik and Gertrude, undated, probably around 1935, private archive of Paula Lee 

Around 1941, the Aryanization of German circuses led to ben Ibrik’s arrest and disappearance, prompting Gertrude to take both children and return to her hometown, Zittau, on the border blurring into Sudetenland/Czechoslovakia. There, she began an affair with an SS officer in hopes of learning her husband’s fate. Ben Ibrik had been taken to France, where he was being forced to wrestle Nazi officers in sporting matches. He’d been chosen to star in this strange political theater because his (pre-ordained) losses affirmed racial hierarchies that put Aryan men on top, and Black men on the bottom.

In the circus, ben Ibrik had been the strongman base of the fabled “Arabian pyramid,” a signature act that, as described by historian Susan Nance, consisted of up to ten men and boys standing in formation on the shoulders of a single man. That man was ben Ibrik, who, when he wasn’t deliberately losing in the ring, was required to listen to the radio and translate for the Nazis, as he was fluent in several languages. This was not uncommon for circus people at the time, as the global community of elite performers prided itself on its cosmopolitanism.

Gertrude secured traveling papers that allowed her little family to pass from Germany into occupied France. On that journey, the train was attacked by the Resistance. They survived, continued the journey to Bordeaux, and, after a brief unhappy reunion, they returned safely to Germany, having no choice but to leave ben Ibrik behind.

In 1944, the bombing of Dresden destroyed the Sarrasani circus building. In the final days of the war, Gertrude died in the bombing of Zittau, effectively orphaning the children, who were then around 7 and 9. Rescued from the rubble by the Red Cross, Fatima and Ali were eventually removed from Germany to France, based on the fact that their father was a citizen of its then-colony, Morocco. Haunted by the horrors of what they’d endured, they assumed it was impossible that the others could have lived through the bombing, beatings, and worse. It would be years before they found each other again. Ben Ibrik had quit performing, for there were no more Arab troupes in Europe. Instead, he found work as a mechanic. He died in 1980.

Note: Ben Ibrik’s grandson, Pascal Benbrik, is a filmmaker who has documented his father, Ali, talking about his childhood with the circus, and has written a related screenplay. Sophie Laurence, ben Ibrik’s great-granddaughter, is filming French survivors about their recollections of the family. The author of this article, Paula Lee, is a historian who is completing a novel, The Madwoman’s Son, based on Houssein ben Ibrik and Gertrude Appel’s story.

Author: Paula Lee

Sources:

Ali Benbrik, untitled, unpublished memoir; Nance, Susan: How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935, University of North Carolina Press, 2009; Pape, Billy: “What’s Become of Arabian Tumblers?” Billboard (Nov. 29, 1947): 72.

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