Four years ago a novel by Israeli author Yossi Sucari hit bookstores across Israel.
Benghazi — Bergen-Belsen tells the story of Silvana Haggiag, a young Jewish woman living her life in Benghazi, Libya during World War II. That is until her family is uprooted by the Nazis and sent first to Italy and later to Germany and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Silvana — a strong female character — must come to terms not only with the horrors of the Holocaust but also with the extra alienation of being an African woman in Europe.
Yossi’s book is subversive. Israelis — and many of us outside of Israel too — had gotten comfortable with a simplified version of history in which the victims of the Holocaust were European Jews. Mizrahi Jews, most of whom came to Israel after the establishment of the state, were largely seen as having not been part of this formative national trauma.
But the story of Silvana Haggiag is grounded in truth. It is, in fact, based on the real life experiences of Yossi’s mother and grandmother. His ability to tell their story — and that of the larger Libyan Jewish community’s experience of the Holocaust — opened up a national conversation about how the history of other Mizrahi communities were also being excluded from what Israelis knew about their past and what they were passing on to the next generation in school curriculums.
That conversation has had an impact on contemporary Israel, where steps are now being taken to ensure that the heritage of the Mizrahi community — which has long been far from the center of power in Israel — is captured and treated with the respect it deserves. NIF has long partnered with Mizrahi leaders to help correct the poor socioeconomic standing of Mizrahi Israelis. And for the last year we have been blessed to be guided in our work by Yossi who serves on our board.
Those of you who may be in New York over the next month have a special opportunity to experience the power of Yossi’s work. A play has been written based on the book and it opens tonight. Details about the play’s run are available here. The rest of us can dig into the book.