Monday, April 13, 2015

When the Jewish Brigade came to Benghazi

Benjamin Doron's story, with a photo showing the children performing at the wartime school in Benghazi. Below: the children in their Purim costumes

Nitza Sarner's father Moshe Zeiri was a Palestinian Jew who fought in the Jewish Brigade in North Africa during WWll.  In 1943 he helped found a school for the few Jewish children whose families had not fled the constant fighting and aerial bombardment in Benghazi, Libya. Later, Zeiri opened a teacher-training college for women. Nitza was thrilled to discover this account of the school's establishment by Benjamin Doron (Dadosh), who was then aged 10. (With thanks: Nitza)

It was January 1943.  As was my daily habit, I stood in the square near the municipality, near a group of English soldiers that had just conquered the town for the third time. I was looking for food and collected empty discarded food tins for scraps.  Suddenly I heard voices, and I thought they came from heaven: ‘Shalom, Shalom Jews!’.  Was I having hallucinations? Or was  I day-dreaming?  

On the vehicles they drove into the square I saw a painted Star of David. A few others came to look.  I got closer, and from the little Hebrew I knew, I realised I was not dreaming.  People were hugging each other, shouting for joy.  Ya'akov Guata, who knew Hebrew well, was one of the first to meet the soldiers.  He called to us: ‘come! Come! Jews from Eretz Israel have come to town!’  These were Jewish soldiers who had volunteered to serve in the British Army and fought to bring about the final defeat of the Germans.

The city of Benghazi changed hands five times, and was destroyed by bombing from sea and air.  During the war the town was almost empty.  The foreign residents were told to return to their countries.  Most of our small Jewish community was sent to Giado concentration camp in the middle of the Libyan desert.  Families with British citizenship were sent to Italy, and then to Bergen Belsen in Germany and Innsbruck in Austria.  In the town itself there remained only a handful of Jews that the Fascist authorities did not manage to send abroad.  These Jews came out of their hiding places.  They were sad, emaciated from hunger and completely penniless.  Their bombed houses had been looted by the Arabs.  

 Suddenly, when they saw the soldiers’uniforms had 'Palestine' written on the shoulders, and the Star of David on their trucks, they stood erect and declaimed the blessing: Baruch Shecheyanu… ('Blessed he who kept us alive to this day…’).
Soldier Ben-Ami, who stayed in Benghazi  for two years, wrote:  "Our transport company W.T. 462 was one of the first to reach Benghazi at the beginning of 1943.  As soon as we reached the town I went out to look for Jews.  The town was deserted, almost no one there.  I asked a passer-by in Hebrew: ‘Jew, Jew?’ and, to my immense surprise, the man answered in perfect Hebrew.  This was Ya’akov Guata.  From that moment we developed a strong and wondrous friendship that contributed to our success in the activities undertaken by  the Hebrew soldiers to help the few remaining Jews in the town."
Soldier A. Ben-Yosef (W.T. 405) wrote in his diary: "It was the beginning of 1943, about two weeks after the fateful battle of Al –Alamein that defeated the German Army.  We took Benghazi.  The longest-serving of us were here twice before, and they told us about the town and the Jewish community.  We were ready to meet them, but we also knew of the bombardment and that the Germans were here too.  We found only a few Jews, who told us about the deportation of the Jews: only the ones who hid were left.  Other transport and engineering companies (W.T 468, 148, 178) arrived too.  They distributed food, water and clothing  collected from the soldiers.  I particularly remember the biscuits and sweet jam that made us forget for a minute the bitterness and privation we suffered.  "

 The soldiers reached their peak of activity  when the Engineers Company arrived with a few people who were educators at home.   At the end of the exciting meeting between the soldiers and the head of the community – Renato Teshuva - they decided immediately to start Hebrew education for the children, and also to rehabilitate the remaining small community.

The first task was for the soldiers to collect the children (about 40) of all ages in one class. They started playing games and teaching them songs from Eretz Israel.  In parallel, they started fixing the old school house –  the ‘Talmud Tora’.  The British governor didn’t view this activity with favour, but after many entreaties from the head of community, he was persuaded that it might be a good thing.  

 This obstacle removed,  the soldiers resolved to recreate a proper Hebrew school.  All the units helped in this mission and each released one or two soldiers to do the teaching.  In the spring of 1943, the school was opened in the reconstructed building.  An officer called Reifenberg who was previously a lecturer at the (Hebrew) University in Jerusalem planned the curriculum.  We received textbooks, writing material and furniture from Palestine.  The first headmaster was the soldier Ezra Zeif, then Avner Yerakhmiel Shkornik, and helping him the Hebrew teacher and 'choir-master' Ya’akov Ben-Ami.  He was also the go-between the community and the national institutions in Palestine.  These institutions endowed us with money and anything we needed to run the school and help the community.

From a letter written by  the Hebrew soldier Moshe Mosinsohn to his daughter Debora (later the writer Debora Omer) in 1943:  "

 I mentioned in my previous letter that we opened a school in the town.  (Benghazi).  Every unit sent one man to teach.  Four teachers opened the school – something very precious and wonderful.  Children who were scared, melancholic and frightened were assembled by the teachers after three years of no schooling.
And now, after three weeks, we arranged a Purim play, to which we were all invited.  The performance took place in the hall of a Fascist bank. It was filled  to the rafters.  The head of the community blessed us, as did the British Colonel. At the end, a 14-year- old boy came on stage and said: “The children of the Benghazi school will perform a Purim play for the Hebrew soldiers.  After three years of absence of Torah, our school opened again, and today we celebrate three weeks of learning.  That is why our programme will be short and modest!  But the soldiers must know that this little effort is presented to them with love and appreciation.  A Purim present to the Hebrew soldiers from the Hebrew youth of Benghazi.”*

The curtain was raised and for a moment I thought I was in Kibbutz Na’an, watching a performance of the children at home.
The show finished with “We came to build the land and be built ourselves!"
The audience of hundreds of soldiers stood up and sang with the children with excitement and holiness: “We will be coming to the land to build it and be built”…  A truly soul- elevating moment.  When the lights came on, many were ashamed to lift their eyes as they were full of tears…
The program went on and on, children and soldiers alternating.  In the end all the children went on stage opposite the soldiers and ‘Hatikvah’ burst out from every mouth - loud and clear and with enthusiasm.  When did I ever sing like that?
Taken from the book:” Letters from the Desert”. (Hakibbutz Hameuchad edition 1943)

*It is customary to give Purim presents – usually food

Benjamin Doron's story : A wartime childhood in Benghazi

1 comment:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The American journalist A J Liebling was in Libya during WW2 and experienced the ups and downs of the fighting. He also wrote about the Jews he met there at the time and what happened to them depending on who was in control, Italians, Germans, British.
See AJ Liebling, The Press (New York: Ballantine 1961)