The Forgotten “Nakba”

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Nakba. Nakba, Arabic for ‘catastrophe.’ Mirabelle wrote on “Jews Facing the Nakba.”

Nakba was trending for days on Twitter, even though the “official” Nakba Day was over. This year, the conversations and discussions about Nakba grew to a crescendo in some circles and groups.

Nakba has been weighing heavily on my mind for weeks, for there are so many untold stories of catastrophes. I do not mean those that were self-inflicted, as when the Arab nations united to wipe the newly declared State of Israel off the map. They made a conscious choice to do so. However, the Jews of North Africa have a very different story to tell and their Nakba should be remembered.

Let’s begin with the stories of the Kindertransport during the Holocaust, the experiences of children who were sent away to be saved, which have emerged in recent years. Their lives were uprooted, as they were sent away by their parents, many who never saw them again. They were sent alone on trains to England to give them a chance to survive the horrors of death camps in Europe.

We have become familiar with some of those stories. Similarly, stories of what happened in to Jewish children and their families in North Africa during the war are slowly emerging.

Dr. Haim Saadoun, director of the Documentation Center on North-African Jewry during WWII at the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, said recently at a lecture at the Jerusalem Press Club that archives in France have recently been opened, and documents are being published, though most are in French. At last, we are finally able to access new information to combat Holocaust denial. Saadoun hopes this will open the “possibility for a new point of view in Arab world.”

Lists of Jews from Libya rounded up by Vivhy France, in French 1942

North Africa, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco had Jewish communities going back for centuries. As the number of survivors becomes fewer every year, it is more important than ever to find them so they can tell their stories.

In 1942, Libya came under Nazi rule. The Vichy government deported the 6,000 Jews of Libya, first to hard labor camps.

North Africa under time of Nazis Jewish camps

Two hundred were sent to the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen. Their numbers may be small in comparison to the millions murdered in Europe. However, in highlighting the story of one survivor, I hope you will see the forgotten Nakba.

This year at the Yad Vashem memorial ceremony on the night of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I had the pleasure of meeting Joseph Labi and his son Maurice. Before being honored to light one of six memorial torches, one for each six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, Joseph shared part of his story. The story of the Labi family is one story of catastrophe, from one of North Africa’s Jewish communities.

Joseph (one of six honored to light memorial torch and son Maurice Liba, at Yad Vashem

Joseph Labi was born in 1928 in Benghazi, Libya to a family of 19. He was from a proud and renowned family, the grandson of Rabbi Eliyahu Labi, a rabbi and religious court judge in Benghazi. Labi held British citizenship and had a pleasant childhood. But those pleasant memories of early childhood and even the faces of his parents are hard for him to recall.

In 1938, Italian racial laws were extended to Libya. Joseph and his fellow Jewish students were removed from their schools and transferred to a separate school branded with the Star of David. Joseph’s parents died in 1940, leaving the 12 year-old Joseph under the care of his older brothers.

In 1942, along with the Jews of Libya, Joseph’s entire family was deported to the Giado hard labor camp. The Libyan Jews were then deported to Italy, where they were interned at Castelnovo ne’ Monti. In February 1944, the Germans sent the 200 Jews, including young Joseph, to Bergen-Belsen. At first, Joseph refused to eat because the food at the camp was not kosher, but after a week of being hungry, he relented. Most children did not survive in the camps.

One of the camp’s prisoners, a religious Jew, proposed that Joseph have a bar mitzvah ceremony. “I put on tefillin,” said Joseph. “He asked me to share food with those present, but I only had a small potato. Fortunately, a woman secured some perfume. I poured some on everyone’s hand and that was my bar mitzvah.”

In March 1945, in a prisoner exchange deal, Joseph was transferred to France. From there, alone in the world, he made his way to Spain and finally to Portugal. “When we reached Lisbon, we realized that hell was over for us,” said Labi.

On returning to Benghazi, Joseph met soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade who suggested that he go to Eretz Israel. “I went to the train station. Somebody gave me a hat and dressed me in a Jewish Brigade uniform and put a bunch of forms in my pocket,” remembers Joseph. “I boarded the train dressed as a soldier and we went to Alexandria.”

But the ordeal was still not over. Under the British Mandate, Labi had to be smuggled into Palestine. He went looking for a new home and to start a new life in several kibbutzim. Labi volunteered for the Palmach, and fought in Israel’s War of Independence in the battle for Latrun.

Despite all the adversity, persecution, and deprivation, Labi married, and he and his wife Yvonne have a son and daughter, seven grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. He still has the tallit that he received from the army chaplain who liberated the camps. He has managed, by many “miracles,” to survive a childhood that was taken from him. A life, a town, a home and his family were destroyed. He is a survivor. One of countless numbers who suffered in the North African Nakba.

The Labi family and the other Jewish families of Libya, were forced to leave everything and sent to hard labor camps, from there sent on to concentration death camps. Many died along the way. Joseph Labi was one of the “lucky” ones to survive, build a family, and reestablish himself in Israel.

One story to remember the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell the 700,000 Jews of North Africa who were forced from their homes. Organizations like Hillel should have evenings to make these Nakba stories known.

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