Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Shoah is not just an Ashkenazi story

The Holocaust experience of North African Jewry - including the deportation of several hundred Libyan Jews to Bergen-Belsen - is gradually coming to light, writes Haim Sa'adon of the Ben Zvi Institute in Ynet News.

In February 1968 members of Kibbutz Regavim assembled at the community's culture hall to listen to the testimonies of those members who came to Israel from North Africa.

"The truth is we know very little about the war years in North Africa," the meeting's moderator opened. "Anything you tell us will be new to us and anything you tell us is important. Please forgive the fact that our questions will be influenced by the reality we know. That is, that we might try to force on North Africa the terminology we know so well from eastern Europe."

From a 40-year perspective, the testimonies heard in that meeting did not reveal any unknown historical facts. But in 1968 they constituted a startling revelation for those who perceived the Holocaust as an exclusively "Ashkenazi" story.

Various public struggles launched in recent years have raised awareness to what North African Jews had endured during World War II and in the years that preceded it.

These include the public discussion regarding the Jewish assets in the Muslim world; the struggle conducted by international Jewish groups for restitutions for lost property; the efforts of descendents of North African communities to win a place in the nation's collective memory; the special efforts put forth by the US government to commemorate the Holocaust; the new research approaches to the Holocaust; and the opening of archives from the period that have so far remained restricted.

The story of North African Jews has until today remained absent from Israeli public discourse regarding World War II and the Holocaust. This might have been the result of the conception that they fared better than European Jews.

But this perception ignores the suffering of Jews who lost family members in labor and detention camps; who were forced to deal with a cruel and brutal reality that included forced labor of children, confiscation of property and other plights; who were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and who in many cases were deported to concentration camps in Europe, from where several hundreds of them (from Libya) continued to their death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

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