Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tunisian envoy snubs Oslo crash commemoration

The commemoration ceremony at the Oslo Children memorial in Israel (Eiran Campeanu)

One foggy day in November 60 years ago, two planes took off from Tunisia carrying Jewish children bound for a rehabilitation centre in Norway on their way to Israel. But one of the planes never made it. It crashed killing 27 children, their carers and the airline crew. Only one boy, the haggard son of a poor tailor - Isaac Allal - survived. A commemoration ceremony took place in Israel and at at the Norwegian town of Hurum on 22 November. But one dignitary was noticeable by his absence: the Tunisian ambassador to Norway.

"A memorial service was held in Moshav Yanuv on 22 November, in the presence of the Speaker of the Knesset, H.E. Mr. Reuven Rivlin. Another memorial service was held in Hurum, Norway, at the location of the plane crash, in the presence of State Secretary Elisabeth Walaas.

"Thin, dark-eyed Isaac Allal was the child of a poor tailor in the squalid Tunisian village of La Marsa; he grew up with the pale face and the weak lungs of a ghetto child. Then one day last month a glorious vista opened for him. Relief officials told the Allals that Isaac could go to a convalescent camp in Norway, and from there to Israel.

"This is the beginning of a story that was printed in Time Magazine, 5th of December 1949. Isaac Allal was part of a group of 28 children from Tunisian slums who boarded an airplane heading for a convalescent camp in Holmestrand, Norway. The airplane took off from Tunis airport 20th of November 1949, but never reached its final destination.

"After WWII and the establishment of the State of Israel, while the world was trying to heal its many wounds, the Norwegian government provided a rehabilitation facility, near Oslo, for Jewish youth. This provided the young people with a place of healing, rest and perhaps recovery from some of the horrors of the concentration camps. By 1949, working with the Jewish Youth Aliya Organization, Norway was accepting youth not only from Europe but from North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, as the Jews there were badly affected by the Nazi invasion.

On the 20th of November 1949, a group of Tunisian children kissed their parents good-bye and together with their escorts embarked on a tragic journey.

"Two airplanes took off from Tunis, but only one arrived at its destination. At midnight the Norwegian radio announced that all contact had been lost with the one plane. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, planes and helicopters took part in the search. After two days of searching in the sea and snow covered forests the remains of the lost plane were discovered. Twenty eight children were on board the plane. Twenty seven children died as did four Dutch crew members and three adult escorts. One child survived: an eleven-year-old boy named Yitzchak Allal.

"Identifying the dead children was a long and painful task as there were no lists of names. No one knew for sure who was on the plane that landed safely and who was on the plane that crashed. The parents had to identify their children by the clothes they wore. The coffins of the twenty seven children were sent back to Tunisia where they were buried by their grieving parents, relatives and friends. Some buried as many as three and four siblings.

"The children were on their way, via Norway, to Israel. After resting, learning, and healing at the rehabilitation facility they were to reunite with their families who had planned to move from Tunisia to Israel.

"After the tragedy most of the parents immigrated as planned,their children being a sad reminder of the price and pain that went into establishing a homeland for the Jewish people.The surviving child, Yitzchak Allal, spent time in hospital and then joined his parents in Israel. His parents, together with about 80 young adult Tunisian immigrants were living in a field at the outskirts of a place that later became Moshav Yanuv.

"In early 1950, with this tragedy still fresh in the memory of the Norwegian people, the then head of the Norwegian labor party, Mr. Haakon Lie, raised funds in Norway to help Yitzchak Allal's family and the group who were living in the field, in tents. Fifty wooden huts were shipped over to Israel and thus the first homes were built and Moshav Yanuv was established. The first wooden home was given to Yitzchak Allal's family. This very hut was renovated last year keeping all the original walls and windows. It is now the Founders Home, with activities for the founders who are in their late seventies and early eighties. In the garden of this home is a large rock with the names of all 34 casualties. "

Read the rest of this post on the website of Norway's embassy in Israel


Writing in JSS News, the Tunisian journalist Ftouh Souhail has condemned the Tunisian ambassador to Norway for staying away from the commemoration ceremony.

He points out that Hurum is only a 40-minute drive from Oslo. The ceremony was deferred from the exact anniversary, a Friday, to a Sunday so as not to disturb the Muslim day of prayer.

The Tunisian decision to ignore the proceedings contrasts with its attitude 60 years ago. The accident plunged Tunisia into mourning. Tens of thousands of people attended the funerals of the 'Oslo children' in Tunisia, Muslims mourning alongside Jews.

"I'm sure that Tunisia will not forget this tragedy, but the attitude of the Tunsian ambassador to Oslo creates a serious precedent in the humiliation of Tunisian collective memory," Souhail writes. "The ambassador made a point of staying away without an apology or a word of explanation. It's the first time that a Tunisian envoy shows such flagrant contempt for the memory of the victims. It is contempt for the country in which they were born."

Souhail ges on to point out that such contempt - nay, antisemitism - is all the more hurtful since Tunisian Jews hailed President Ben Ali's re-election in October as a victory.

Norway has a special link to Moshav Yahuv, where it built 27 homes, each dedicated to a victim of the tragedy. The survivor Isaac Allal still lives in the Moshav, together with relatives of the crash victims.

"But the Tunisian ambassdor to Oslo boycotted the event despite being invited," Souhail continues." Apparently he as no compassion for Jewish victims in his country. Shame on him."

Read Souhail's article in full (French)

Update: article on Harissa site by Viviane Scemama Lesselbaum (with thanks: Michelle).

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