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Roumani, Maurice M. 1995. Aspects of the Holocaust in Libya. Del Fuego, 123-128.

 
Introduction

The Holocaust is usually associated with European Jewry. Little is known as to whether other Jewish communities, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa, had also suffered a fate similar to that of their brethren in Europe. The extent to which these communities suffered at the hands of the Germans or their proxies was minimal in number compared to the suffering in Europe. Nevertheless, Germany's penetration into the Middle East and North Africa did not spare the Jewish communities with whom they came in contact from suffering the same destiny as their brethren in Europe. The fact that their success was only partially realized was due to the turn of events at the battle of El Alamein and the eventual defeat of the German forces on North African soil.

Racial Laws

Italy occupied Libya in 1911 and remained in control until 1943. During this period, the Jewish community experienced ups and downs in its relations with the governing Italian authorities in the new colony. This relationship had several facets. It facilitated for the occupiers the promotion of their commercial and industrial interests in Libya, but above all it provided the Libyan Jewish community with the opportunity to reform its own education system and its rabbinate. However, from the year 1935, and especially after the self-declaration of Mussolini to be the "Protector of Islam," the attitude of the Italian authorities in Libya towards its Jews worsened. In effect, the declaration set in motion a process of de-legitimization of the activities of the Jewish community in the fields of Jewish education and Zionist activities. The decree also touched on such fields as commerce and trade. This period was marked by a closer rapprochement between Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. By 1938, the Italian Authorities had begun to implement the "Fascist Racial Laws" for Italian Jewish subjects in Italy and in the colonies. These laws were due in part to the pressure brought to bear on the Mussolini regime by Hitler. In Libya, however, the implementation of these laws was slower than in Italy, due to the important role that Jews played in the economy of the colony. When the Second World War began and Italy joined the Axis powers on the side of Germany, these laws were rigorously upheld. The Fascist Racial Laws in Libya included the following provisions:
  • The expulsion of Jews from high schools and institutes of higher education.
  • The dismissal of Jews from government offices, banks and municipal councils.
  • The dissolution of all Jewish-Italian joint ventures.
  • The demotion of Jewish soldiers in the Italian army.
  • The stamping of "Jew" in all official documents carried by Jews.
  • Additionally, the laws prohibited foreign Jews from living in Italy, Libya, and the Aegean Islands. To ingratiate himself to Germany, Mussolini issued a later decree banning Jews in Italy and in Libya from public schools. Import-export licenses in Libya were limited to Italians, Maltese, and Arabs. Jews were not allowed to participate in public bids for the needs of the army, prisons, or the police force. This field was traditionally in the hands of the Jews, but now they were to be excluded. The Italian daily and weekly press began to attack Jews with anti-Semitic overtones, calling them by names such as "Porco Giuda" (Judah the Pig), "Ebreo Lurido" (Dirty Jew), and "Ebreaccio" (Jewboy). Jews who refused to open their shops on Saturday were flogged in public squares. When this policy gave no results, two Jews were executed. Only then did Jews open their shops reluctantly on the Sabbath. However, they refused to benefit from the sales of that day. To do so, they put an Arab in charge of the store with the understanding that the income of that day belonged exclusively to him. In addition, there were frequent punishments of Jews for minor offenses, which were normally overlooked, such as not standing at attention when the Italian flag was raised. From the correspondence between Italo Balbo (governor of Libya) and Mussolini (De Felice, 1985:197), it appears that Balbo was reluctant to carry out the Fascist Racial Laws in Libya because he believed that these laws would do irreparable damage to the domestic and foreign prestige of the country. Balbo's reluctance was satisfied only in part. On June 10, 1940, Italy officially entered the war on the side of Germany by declaring war against France and Britain. Jews suffered most from this turn of events. Tripoli, and especially its Jewish quarter, came under daily heavy bombardment from the allied ships, as well as from planes which took off from bases in Malta. Jews were forced to find refuge outside the city. In addition, they suffered economically, not only because of the raging war, but also from the enforcement of the racial laws discriminating against them in their food and gasoline rationing. During the war, all schools, cultural and social clubs were closed and no activity was permitted. As the Italians began to suffer setbacks on the battlefield in September, 1941, they enforced the racial laws against the Jews even more strongly. Many of the 1600 Jews of French nationality and 870 British subjects were arrested and placed in detention camps that were built for this purpose. Between January and March, 1942, an agreement was reached between the Italian and the French authorities to facilitate the transfer of French subjects and those holding protected status to Tunisia. Three hundred others of British nationality were sent to Italy. There, they were interned in various places in the country, including Civitella del Tronto and Bagno, near Ripoli. (De Felice, 1985:174). Those in Civitella were later put to work by the Germans in military camps along the Sangro frontier. Between July and October 1943, about 100 Jews were deported to a concentration camp in Insbrook, Austria, where they remained until April 1944; their liberation came at the hands of the British forces. In May 1944, a few of the detainees were sent to Bergen Belsen and Biberach, near Munich; most of them managed to survive and were liberated by the Allied Forces in 1945. On the Western frontier, the Jews of Cyrenaica were ordered by Mussolini to be sent to a detention camp in Libya. This "clearing out" process (De Felice, 1985:179) was aimed at evacuating 591 Jews from the capital, Benghazi, and sending them to an internment camp in Giado, 235 kms. from Tripoli. When the Italians ran out of space in this camp, some Jews were sent to another camp set up for foreigners in Gharian near Tripoli. By late June, 1942, more than 2500 people were removed from Cyrenaica. Those who were interned in Giado faced many hardships and bad conditions, which resulted in the breakout of typhus in the camp, causing the death of young and old members of several families. About 500 people perished in the camp. In August of that year, another camp was set up in Sidi Azaz, near Tripoli. According to De Felice, one thousand Jews were sent to this camp to work as slave laborers. Of those, 350 were employed in Tobruk. When the Axis forces withdrew, they were abandoned in the desert. After a long march across the desert, they managed to reach Tripoli, exhausted but safe.

    Conclusion

    At the end of the war, the Jewish community of Libya was shattered, in disarray and too exhausted to embark on any serious recovery program. There was a lot to be done but they were overwhelmed by where to begin. The JDC and other Jewish organizations were instrumental in rehabilitating the community. However, the experience of the war years left a bitter taste in the minds of Libyan Jews. They did not only suffer from the war, but also tasted some of the experience that befell their brethren in Europe. The Jews felt that their former friends, the Italians, had no choice but to cooperate in implementing the Third Reich's racial policies once they allied themselves with Germany. This alliance included the promotion of German anti-Semitism in North Africa.

    Bibliography:

    De Felice, Renzo, Jews in an Arab Land, Libya, 1835-1970, 1985. Austin:University of Texas.

    Zuaretz, F.A. Guweta Ts. Shaked, G. Arbib and F. Tayer, eds. Libyan Jewry. Tel Aviv: Committee of Libyan Jewish Communities in Israel, 1960.

    Roumani, Maurice M. "Zionism and Social Change in Libya at the Turn of the Century." Studies in Zionism. Vol.8, No. 1 (1987).
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