Why North African Jews Are Missing From the Holocaust Narrative

Racism and stereotyping kept hidden the tale of North African Jewry during World War II. An Israeli scholar examines the topic's absence from local culture

Libyan Jews returning to Tripoli from Bergen-Belsen.
Reproduction by Nir Keidar

My grandfather was a very proud person. He uttered not a word about the Holocaust he endured in Libya; only once did I hear him talk about the renta, the reparations from Germany, which, by a cruel irony, began arriving a month after his mother died. I heard that his mother’s back had been broken in the camp and that from then on she was completely hunched over. So I also understood that there had been Nazis there.

At first, my family’s involvement in that incomprehensible event seemed to me improbable, and later negligible. At some point I started to explore the subject more deeply, and heard about the Giado camp, closed in by a barbed-wire fence, with wooden huts holding more than 300 people each. About 2,600 Libyan Jews were transported to the camp and subjected to forced labor. They suffered from hunger and disease, and were the victims of daily abuse. Many were murdered – 562 Jews died there – and dozens more were sent to death camps, notably Bergen-Belsen.

To this day, it remains unclear whether Giado was a ghetto, a forced-labor camp or a concentration camp. What can be said for certain is that there were many camps like Giado across North Africa. The echoes of war also reverberated in other Arab countries, such as Iraq, where pogroms and other violent incidents took place.

All this is part of the unknown story of the Jews of the Middle East during World War II – a story that is not part of the construct of the Holocaust experience in Israel. In a new book, Yvonne Kozlovsky Golan, who specializes in film history and teaches at the University of Haifa, seeks to understand why the Holocaust experience of these Jews is absent from Israeli media and art, and what this obliviousness signifies.

The idea for the book, “Forgotten from the Frame: The Absence of the Holocaust Experience of Mizrahim from the Visual Arts and Media in Israel” (published by Resling, in Hebrew), Dr. Kozlovsky Golan relates in an interview with Haaretz, arose when she realized that the Mizrahi (referring to Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin) students she taught some years ago at Sapir Academic College in Sderot had no knowledge of the history of their communities, or even of their families, during the Holocaust period.

“I sent them to ask their families,” she says. “Many of them discovered only then that their family had been in the Holocaust. Afterward, we started to look for testimonies, films, plays, television programs. Unfortunately, we didn’t find much.”

There is “deficient understanding,” she avers, with regard to North African Jewry as a whole, and in particular regarding its history during the Holocaust. This state of affairs has given rise to multiple difficulties in documenting, commemorating and representing the experience of the members of this community during World War II. Indeed, until recently the subject was not even taught in the Israeli education system, and effectively disappeared from public discourse. Something of a change occurred a few years ago, with the 2013 publication of “Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen,” by Yossi Sucary, which won the Brenner Prize awarded by the Hebrew Writers Association, and was also adapted for the stage. It was the first Israeli novel to tell the story of Libyan Jewry in the Holocaust. (The book is available in English translation.)

Kozlovsky Golan, for her part, describes the teaching of the Holocaust since Israel’s establishment as being driven by a stereotyping of the subject as an exclusively European “product” of suffering. Communities including North African Jewry were excluded because of the “obligation” to be absent “from a place which is in no way theirs,” as she puts it. In contrast to the horrors that were documented in Europe, the camps in which Jews were incarcerated in North Africa were barely filmed, and whatever photographic record there was lost or destroyed. This helps account for the fact that the image of the Holocaust in Israel and worldwide is very specifically one of a European prisoner in a striped uniform behind barbed wire.

“There were usually no fences in the North African camps,” explains Kozlovsky Golan. “The Jews were not transported in trains. They were put into horses’ stables and they spoke Arabic. The Jews of the East did not have an image that could be imagined. What was not photographed, documented or observed was therefore also not engraved on the collective consciousness.”

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, took testimonies of Jewish survivors from North Africa, from the time the institution opened, in 1953, but it did not accord the survivors or their information proper treatment.

“Unfamiliarity with the culture, language and customs of North African Jewry led to a situation in which those who took the testimonies – most of whom were from Eastern Europe and some of whom were Israeli-born – did not understand in depth [the survivors’] manner of expressing themselves, their worldview or their perception of their identity,” Kozlovsky Golan notes. “They were not asked the right questions and they sensed that many of their stories were viewed disparagingly. The result was misunderstanding between the sides and ultimately an unbridgeable disconnect.”

The prejudices, the racism and the stereotyping with which the taking of the testimonies was fraught generated frustration and anger among the survivors, and above all, led again to the silencing of any real discussion of the North African Holocaust.

Artwork by Nava Barazani, 2011.
Nava Barazani

A shocking example of the gaps of understanding that existed between the interviewers and the survivors concerns the rape of North African women in the Holocaust period.

Kozlovsky Golan: “In the communities of the East the rape of women is considered worse than murder. In addition, a conversation about this subject with an unfamiliar man is not self-evident. Thus, rape stories appear in the testimonies in an implied manner, along the lines of ‘They took all the girls.’ Or ‘All the girls were placed in the well’ ... In practice, North African survivors described sexual exploitation of Jewish women and even the establishment of a brothel in Mahdia, in Tunisia, under the management of a Jewish woman from Eastern Europe.”

Exclusion from memory

The mission of Yad Vashem, having been established with public funds, was to commemorate all the Jewish communities and the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But until 2005, when a small memorial corner was created, the disaster of the North African communities was completely unrepresented.

“Similarly, the study of the Holocaust of North African Jewry, particularly at the start, was not carried out by Yad Vashem but by the Ben-Zvi Institute [which studies Jewish communities in the East],” Kozlovsky Golan observes. “This was as if to symbolize that the Holocaust undergone by these communities is part of the ongoing history of the Jews of the East, and not a phenomenon related to the history of mankind, as the Holocaust of European Jewry is considered to be.”

But exclusion from the collective memory was not confined to the official institutions of the state or academia. It also exists within the communities themselves and among their representatives in politics, culture, research and art, whether because of language disparities or because of the difficulties that the survivors – who lacked political, economic and social clout – faced in Israel.

Yossi Sucary.
Tomer Appelbaum

Kozlovsky Golan says that, “On the official website of Tunisian Jewry there are arguments about whether what happened to the Jews of Tunisia should be considered part of the Holocaust or as pogroms. Are they ‘survivors’ or ‘victims of persecution’? Others doubt that the Holocaust extended to Tunisia and they deplore the attempt to draw an unjust comparison between the Holocaust of North Africa’s Jews and the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews.”

The overwhelming response of North African Jews to their Holocaust experience was silence, or more accurately, silences. According to Kozlovsky Golan, “Some of the Jews were silent as a reaction to personal and public loss and bereavement; others kept silent as an act of protest or due to an inability to come to terms with the violent experience they endured. Still others were silent as part of a strategy of capitulation, deriving from the hope that everything would pass with time.”

Kozlovsky Golan also attributes the silences to mentality: “Among Mizrahi Jewry, it was not customary to speak of the dead. Notions such as ‘Ili fath math’ [“What’s past is dead”] were rife, although the dead were always referred to in the synagogue,” she says. “Furthermore, a mentality of compassion and modesty prompted many survivors to keep their stories to themselves in order to give the platform to European Jewry.”

Kozlovsky Golan also attributes some of the responsibility for this to Mizrahi politicians who came to power in Israel starting in 1977 and who, she says, “have done nothing for the sake of the memory of their communities.” This includes figures from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who have long had key positions in local politics, but “effectively have eradicated the memory of the war.” Additional responsibility devolves on Mizrahi intellectuals (such as the leaders of the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow, past and present), who, she says, “overlaid the story of the Arab Jew onto Mizrahi Jews, but did not address the Holocaust of those Jews or their Zionist activity.”

In her book, however, Kozlovsky Golan does mention Israeli artists who have dealt with the Holocaust of North African Jewry. “After all my searches, I found only three Mizrahi artists who addressed the subject: Joseph Dadon, Itzik Badash and Nava Barazani,” she relates. “Dadon, for example, depicts in one of his works the lives of the Jews in suitcases. In his film ‘Zion,’ he portrays the Holocaust as a colossal cyclicality that befalls the Jewish people from the East and from the West, through the story of Zion, which is portrayed by [the late actress] Ronit Elkabetz.” Badash’s work is about Libyan mourners in Israel, more specifically his grandmother, who lost seven members of her family.

Nava Barazani, who in 2016 became the first female Mizrahi artist to have her work exhibited in the Yad Vashem Museum, transformed the testimony of her mother, who was incarcerated in Giado as a girl, into paintings accompanied by a text.

“Barazani’s work was the first to deal with the Holocaust of North African Jewry to explicitly use the word ‘Holocaust,’” Kozlovsky Golan relates. “More than Dadon and Badash, her work is direct and focused on her mother’s experiences in Libya, which includes the forced labor of the father and the death of her grandmother and her grandmother’s three younger sisters. In another case, which was engraved in the memory of the mother as a girl, a woman sat on the floor breast-feeding her baby, and a soldier arrived and cut off her breast and shot her. The characteristics of Barazani’s work are saliently of the Holocaust, and the protagonists of her work are the German soldier, the Kapo, hunger and martyrdom.”

Kozlovsky Golan hasn’t yet concluded her research and is planning to publish another volume, which will deal with artwork done in Europe on the theme of the Holocaust of Mizrahi Jews. “Greater awareness of the subject is developing among the young generation of political activists and among some Knesset members,” she says. Her hope is that the subject will receive more recognition and visibility among the Israeli public – while there are still survivors among the living.