Benghazi was never a very nice place. It wasn’t a very nice place in 2012 or in 1940. As Israel marks Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, it is fitting to note that the greatest threat to Libyan Jews during the Holocaust came from their Muslim neighbors.
“Jews in Libya had more to fear from their Muslim neighbors than the Fascists; the Muslims were quite hostile and tormented the Jews,” the Yad Vashem history of Libya notes.
“From June to December 1942 the authorities instituted even more anti-Jewish decrees. Jews were not allowed to make real-estate deals with “Aryan” Italians or with Muslims.”
“Several forced labor camps for Jews, including Giado, Gharyan, Jeren, and Tigrinna, all of which were located about 45 miles south of Tripoli. Some 3,000 Jews were imprisoned in Giado on the orders of Mussolini himself, while many other Jews were sent to the villages outside Giado, and interned in Gharyan, Jeren, and Tigrinna. Giado was the worst camp in Libya: some 500 Jews died there of weakness, hunger, and disease, especially typhus and typhoid fever.”
“After its liberation the Italians no longer ruled Libya, and all of their racial laws were repealed. However, the Jews of Libya were not left in peace: in November 1945, the Muslim population carried out a three day pogrom against the Jews, one of the most vicious pogroms in the country’s history.
“One hundred and twenty-one Jews were murdered, hundreds more were wounded, synagogues were completely ruined, and hundreds of Jewish homes and places of business were ransacked and destroyed. This pogrom came as a great shock to the Jews, and as a result, many revitalized their sense of Jewish identity, as well as their wish to settle in Israel. After the establishment of the State of Israel, more than 30,000 Jews left Libya for the new Jewish homeland.”
The following story comes from a man who was intervened at Giado Camp.
“It started in 1940 in Bengazi, when the family Teshuva was one of the important families in the community. Benghazi had changed hands five times between the Italians, Germans and British. Every time, there were lootings; pogroms; the burning of shops.
“There was an increased anti-Semitic atmosphere, Jews were forced to open their shops on Shabbat, at school children were called ‘donkey’ and made to walk on all fours. I never went back to that school.
“My father sent me back to Benghazi for my education but he was not aware that the situation had become worse there – Jewish children were not allowed to study at Italian schools anymore so we studied at home with private tutors.
“In April 1942 Mussolini ordered all the Jews to a concentration camp in the desert: they were allowed to take clothes and bedding only. It was a five-day journey; we were loaded like cattle onto the lorries. During the day, we were in terrible desert sun and at night freezing desert cold. I was 12 years old then. We arrived at a military base in the middle of the desert surrounded by mountains: 2,700 families were at the Giado camp.
“The area was divided and each family was given 1 meter squared marked off by a rope. A long wooden plank with holes – was used for latrines. There were no showers; no running water, we were covered in lice. The majority of the camp inhabitants contracted illnesses, including typhoid.
“I lost my father, my brother and 5 more from my extended family to illness. When the family returned to Benghazi they found that it was destroyed. Their father dead and their mother a seamstress – the family fell on hard times.
“Shimon was only 13 years old but he realised then that the Jews had no future in Libya; he had to stay and look after the family.
“Around this time I started thinking of Aliya. I managed to grow a small vegetable plot which made the Israeli soldiers think that I was serious.”
In 1945 he obtained a uniform and paperwork. He parted from his family;’ the night before he left Libya, he received his mother’s blessing. He spent the first year in Israel in Ein Vered then he transferred to Ben Shemen boarding school. At the time the students were surrounded by Arabs who stoned their bus and made life very difficult. He was drafted to the Israeli army in 1948 and fought in many wars.
“Asked why not many people know about this aspect of the Holocaust, he replied that if the media took interest, then it would have been better known. People are not aware of this story as the media chose not to emphasis it.”