Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Libyan Jewish experience in the Giado camp

Nowhere did Jews suffer more during the wartime Fascist occupation of Libya than in the concentration camp of Giado: a fifth of all prisoners died there. As the Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent of the Rome newspaper Il Messagiero, Eric Salerno met Giado survivors and recorded their experiences. Here is the text of a paper he prepared for the recent Libyan Jewry conference held in London.

In the course of my research into the more violent aspects of Italian colonialism in Libya - the repression of the Arab population (starting from 1911 with the initial invasion and in 1929-32 in what general Graziani defined the “pacification of Cyrenaica”, and later the treatment of the Jewish comunity after the promulgation of the Racial Laws in 1938) - I came across a very interesting aspect concerning the relationship between the different Libyan communities. Over the course of centuries, Arabs, Berbers and Jews, had at different times fought each other, but also had experienced a very interwoven and, in many cases, fraternal relationship. That to some extent was put to the test by the attempt, at times successful, of the prevailing colonial power to “divide and rule”.

The Jewish comunities in Tripoli and Benghazi had maintained longtime relations with the communities in Italy. Many of the Jews carried British passports, others were considered French nationals. When Italy invaded, most of the Jews found it natural, after years of Ottoman rule, to support the new governors. However, there were - and these should be researched - cases in which Libyan Jews, especially those of the Gebel (the troglodytes or cave-dwellers who can trace their presence in the region 2,000 years), fought alongside the Arabs and the Berbers against the Italian army.

One of the most horrible aspects of the repression of the population of Cyrenaica was the establishment of the concentration camps. It is an experience that, in different periods of the Italian colonial adventure, connects both the Arab and Jewish communities. As time goes by, it is more and more difficult to assemble oral testimonies about those tragic events. I first encountered this problem when collecting, in the 1970s, stories about Sollum and el Agheila, just to mention two of the Italian concentration camps in Cyrenaica in which some 40,000 men, women and children, uprooted from their lands, died.

Today the situation is even more difficult: the people who suffered most have passed away, those with memories tend to be very old and are not always able to concentrate on facts. Emotions, as important as perceptions are, but not necessarily historical proof, take up a major place in their stories. And the archives, though more and more accessible, are not always complete. The documentation from that period in the Italian archives – I refer both to the camps set up in Cyrenaica in 1930 and to the plight of the Jews of Libya and the concentration camps, and forced labour camps that were set up by the Fascists in 1941-1942 - is not very rich. One gets the feeling that some papers have been destroyed, or maybe those that underlined the ferocity of the actions of the Fascists, were never placed in the official files. Maybe they were never written. What is clear from the documents that do exist, is that had World War II lasted longer, the Jews of Libya would have suffered the same fate as the six million that died in the Nazi extermination camps in Europe.



In the last few years, to make up for lack of documentation I dedicated more time to oral testimonies, as I did in the 1970s. In Libya, I was able to meet with Libyan Arab veterans of the Second World War, men who had been forced to fight against and for the Fascists, and who had clear memories of the concentration camp in Giado, although less recall of the forced labor camps to which other Libyan Jews had been taken. In the archives of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, I found recordings made over the last 20 years or so. I myself was able to speak with many Libyan Jews both in Israel and in Rome where hundreds of those that left Tripoli and Bengazi still reside.

The repression of the Jewish community of Libya started with the imposition of Racial Laws in Italy in 1938. Mussolini was following in the steps of Hitler. For a few years discrimination against Libyans of Jewish decent was minor but the situation became intolerable with the war. The Racial Laws, first imposed in Italy and only later in Libya - for economic reasons as the Jews were considered fundamental to the wellbeing of the colony - were just the beginning. Things got worse when Mussolini received word that members of the Jewish community in Benghazi had demonstrated their happiness at the arrival of the Allied soldiers (understandably, as they were accompanied by elements of the Jewish Palestine Brigade), that had entered Libya from Egypt. It was a difficult situation; the front was moving back and forth. In 1942, Mussolini ordered that all the Jews of Cyrenaica be transported to concentration camps in Tripolitania. Giado, high on the Gebel south of Tripoli, was to be the major camp. It was clear, by that time, that had the war in North Africa lasted longer, the Jews of Libya would have met the same fate as the six milion in Europe.

One of the most complete stories about that period was told by a man by the name Ofek. When the British retreated, and Italian and German troops re-entered Cyrenaica and Benghazi, his family were deported to Giado, as were hundreds of other Jewish families . What follows is part of his testimony.

"Every two weeks, the oppressors posted in the synagoges a list of families who should prepare for departure. We were taken in freight trucks on a five-day journey. At night we slept under the stars. Altogether, 2600 people were taken away. I was 18 years old at the time. We were forced to work for 12 hours straight, without a break, hoeing and transporting dirt. It is self-evident that with the meager food we received and the backbreaking work, we could expect a slow, tortuous death (as in the work camps in Europe). We organized a delegation of Jews to go to the commander and request larger rations. The officer laughed at us and said, "We didn’t bring you here to support you. We just didn't want to waste bullets on you. Now get back to work!"

"It was only after much persuasion and crying that the cruel commander allowed neighboring Arabs to sell us vegetables, dates and barley. We obviously did not have any money with us, so how did we buy the food? The sale was in exchange for labor. After an exhausting day's work, we did work for the Arab villagers, such as sewing clothes."

Yehuda Chachmon, born in Benghazi in 1932, said that before the war the Italians 'treated us well and gave us all our rights'.

"A few months before the war started, they began mistreating us. They would curse and humiliate us. The first transport for 150 people was in trucks with no cover. It was a four-day ride in the desert till they reached Giado. It was a military camp situated near an Arab village named Giado, about 40 kilometers from the Tunisian border. There were approximately 3,600 of us in the camp. The shacks were long buildings. Every family of 10 got 3.5 meters to put their belongings. The rest of the space was used for a dining room, a kitchen and a bedroom. We slept on the ground. The bathrooms were wide open. Men could see women and women could see the men. There were no doors or anything. The showers too were door-less. The fence was 2.5-3 meters away from the shacks. If a prisoner dared go near the fence, the police were entitled to shoot and kill him. The fence was made of barbed wire and the guards were Arabs. I remember their names: Brobashi Abas and Abid Oni. There were also Italian guards…the Italian guards were the Arab guards’ commanders. The Arabs treated the Jews very well…When they saw a Jew they wouldn’t talk to him or torture him. Only the Italian major and the camp informer gave us trouble. The Italian police were cruel to us."

Many of the Libyan Arabs that I spoke with, insisted in describing the good, often personal relationship, with the Jews in their towns and villages. This confirms what the historian Yacov Haggiag-Liuf writes in his History of the Jews of Libya: "the relationship with the Arab population improved, with each helping the other, as a result of a common bitter destiny. The Arabs gave refuge to Jews outside the Hara (Jewish quarter) and in the villages near the city, even if, at times, they overcharged them rent. And for their part, the Jews helped the Arabs when they could with basic necessities. On the other hand, the Italians , particularly the Fascists, abused the Jews, humiliating and offending them with insulting names, beating them whenever possible".

I believe that this aspect – the relationship between the different comunities that deteriorated only with the political and emotional situation that emerged with the foundation of the State of Israel – is important: it shows that, once a political solution is found to the Palestinian question and peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors, the anti-Israeli antagonism that in many cases is portrayed not as anti-Zionism but also anti-semitism, would slowly disappear.

2 comments:

nayzak said...

This imposes the question of
was it to the benefit of Jews to create what is called the stat of Israel or was it to the benefit of the west so that they can eliminate the Jewish control of the west economy

bataween said...

Actually Israel received most support from the Soviet Union, which thought it would be a bastion of socialism in the Middle East