The Overlooked Holocaust of North African Jews

4 May 2016

One of the formative experiences in the life of NIF Board member Yossi Sucary was attending elementary school in Tel Aviv. “I was a Mizrahi kid attending a [predominantly Ashkenazi] North Tel Aviv school,” he recalls, ‘and I’ll never forget the day we discussed the Holocaust. I told the teacher that my grandmother, who came from Libya, was a Holocaust survivor and that many Libyan Jews were sent by the Germans to the concentration camps and exterminated.”

“The teacher immediately said that this was not correct and that I was lying, and subsequently. the school principal told me the same thing. Because both of them were authority figures, I assumed that my parents and grandfather were lying to me. It was only when I was older that I understood that my family was telling the truth and that the teachers didn’t know what they were talking about and that the school was deceiving me. There was no way back from this realization, the sad insight that has made me a skeptic in all areas of my life, and because of this, among other things, I later went to study philosophy.”

In 2013, Sucary recounted this episode when he wrote Benghazi – Bergen Belsen the first historical novel of its kind in Hebrew (published by Am Oved). The book discusses Libyan Jews who were taken to European concentration camps, where many of them were murdered. Jews from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were also taken to Europe and murdered by the Nazis, though in smaller numbers than Libyan Jewry.

The novel focuses on the terrifying experiences of one Libyan Jewish family from the German occupation of Libya in 1941 through the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. In the book, the Hajajis were one of the most respected Jewish families in Benghazi before they were uprooted from their home and deported to Europe, where they perished. Sucary’s groundbreaking novel has already won the Brenner prize, the Israel Institute Prize in Washington, and the Prime Minister’s prize in 2015.

Sucary said, “I had various motives in writing the book. The first motive was literary, and above and beyond that, of course, was historical. In the previous book that I wrote called Emilia, I mentioned my grandmother who survived [the Holocaust] and readers were astonished – including people at the forefront of Israel’s intelligentsia. I understood that there is huge ignorance on the subject of the Holocaust of Libya’s Jews and North Africa’s Jews generally.”

Was the omission of Libya’s Jews from the memory of the Holocaust deliberate?

“Walter Benjamin said that history is written by the victors and the history of Israel and Zionism was written by Ashkenazim when the State was established.”

Photo Credit: Shlomit Carmeli