Avraham Herzl Reginino was 8 years old when he was sent with his family from Tripoli, the capital of Libya, to Italy in a group of 870 Jews expelled for having British passports.
After being held for several months in Italy, the Jews were sent to concentration camps in Germany (Bergen Belsen) and Austria (Reichenau). Reginino remembers the day his older brother was murdered. The camp guards stripped his clothes off in the frigid weather and threw water on him until he froze to death.
The rest of his family survived - thanks to the British passports. "My mother met an American woman in the showers and told her that we were British," Reginino recalls. "The American woman said she would be released soon and would tell the British about us. Thanks to her, they took us out of there after two months and sent us to France, where we stayed through the end of the war."
The preferred treatment accorded to the Libyan Jews who held British passports helped nearly all of them survive the war and return to Libya. The Jews of the Cyrenaica region of northeast Libya, however, did not fare so well. Of about 2,600 Jews who were sent to the Giado forced labor camp 250 kilometers south of Tripoli, 562 died of hunger and disease.
"When I speak to public audiences about concentration or forced labor camps in Libya, the reactions range from astonishment to disbelief," says Yaacov Haggiag-Liluf, an historian who founded and directs the Institute for the Study of Libyan Jewry.
Haggiag-Liluf participated yesterday in the dedication ceremony for a memorial pavilion at the Libyan Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. The pavilion, established in cooperation with Yad Vashem, memorializes those who perished in World War II, as well as the victims of the post-war rioting against Jews and members of the community who died fighting in Israel's wars. Haggiag-Liluf hopes the new pavilion will generate greater interest in the Holocaust of Libyan Jewry, particularly among Jews who once lived in Libya and their descendants.
"The first generation of Jews who came from Libya, who experienced the Holocaust, were ashamed to speak about it," Haggiag-Liluf explains. "Only in the 1990s, we, the second generation, started to bring this out."
The vast majority of Libyan Jews immigrated to Israel after two waves of rioting in 1948 and 1949. With the exception of seeking to testify at the Eichmann trial in 1961, Jews from Libya who experienced the war were reluctant to tell their stories. Haggiag-Liluf attributes this to "shyness" and the desire to integrate into Israeli society by leaving their past behind. He himself, who arrived in Libya as a child, only began to deal with this subject in the 1990s, after completing his doctorate. He founded the institute in 1994 and has since devoted his time to disseminating information on this subject through seminars, workshops and lectures in schools and universities.
"In the beginning, I encountered complete ignorance on the part of history teachers," he says. "But I feel that the subject is slowly beginning to sink in. My message is that even if what happened to Libyan Jews cannot be compared to the Holocaust of European Jewry in terms of the scale and plans for extermination, the external manifestations were same for them - expulsion, the camps, the racial laws, and so on."
Generations of Israelis were taught to believe that the Holocaust was the exclusive domain of European Jewry. Dr. Irit Abramski-Bligh, a researcher at Yad Vashem, presents the Eichmann trial as an example of this outlook: "The requests by Jews from Libya and Tunisia to testify at the trial were rejected, despite the fact that the two communities were included in the `Final Solution' plan and together lost about 1,000 people during the Holocaust, while the representatives of communities like Denmark, where about 40 Jews perished, were allowed to testify at the trial."
Former Supreme Court justice Gavriel Bach, who served as a prosecutor at the Eichmann trial, says in response that he does not recall any such request. "If a request to testify about the expulsion of Libyan Jews had been submitted to me, of course I would have approved it," he says.
The turning point in the attitude toward North African Jewry came in 1997, when Abramski-Bligh published her study of the Libyan and Tunisian communities during the Holocaust as part of Yad Vashem's Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities (Pinkas Hakehilot). Subsequently, a chapter on North African Jewry was written for the new text book "Holocaust and Remembrance" that became part of the curriculum about a year ago.
Another important consequence of Abramski-Bligh's study was the recognition of survivors from the Giado camp as Holocaust survivors who are eligible to receive compensation from the fund the German government set up for Nazi-era forced laborers. On the other hand, many of the group of Libyan Jews expelled because of their British passports are still awaiting recognition as Holocaust survivors. "My brothers tried for years to receive compensation, without success," Reginino says. "We turned to private companies, attorneys. Nothing helped. They've already lost all hope."
Abramski-Bligh's study does not spare the leaders of the Libyan community from criticism. They could have done more during the war, she claims. "The leaders sat in Tripoli, where it was relatively quiet and they hardly knew anything about the Giado camp, since most of the Jews who were sent there were from the city of Bengazi and the Cyrenaica region," she says.