Yad Vashem Amends Holocaust Day Prayers to Include North African Jews

'I thought everybody was supposed to be remembered,' says granddaughter of a Libyan Holocaust survivor, who initiated the change to remove references solely to Europe

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Libyan Jews returning to Tripoli from Bergen-Belsen.
Libyan Jews returning to Tripoli from Bergen-Belsen.Credit: Reproduction by Nir Keidar
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center has amended the memorial prayers recited on Holocaust Memorial Day to include Jews who lived in Arab countries and not only refer to Jews of European origin, after the complaint of a high school student whose grandfather was a Libyan Holocaust survivor. The amendments appear on the center’s website.

The Yizkor (“Remember”) prayer recited on Holocaust Memorial Day originally beseeched God to remember “all the souls of all the communities of Beit Israel in the European Diaspora” who died in the Holocaust. Now the word “European” has been removed.

The version of the El Malei Rahamim (“Merciful God”) read on Holocaust Memorial Day also confined itself to European Jewry: “God, full of mercy, Who dwells above, give rest on the wings of the Divine Presence, amongst the holy, pure and glorious who shine like the sky, to the soul of all the souls of the six million Jews, victims of the Holocaust in Europe.” In the new version, the words “in Europe” are gone.

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The change was initiated by a Yael Robinson, a 12th grader from Zichron Yaakov, south of Haifa. In May the town held a public ceremony on the eve of the last Holocaust Memorial Day, like it usually does. Robinson, whose grandfather Kalfo Janah was a Holocaust survivor from Tripoli, Libya, attended. Some years ago Janah even lit the torch at the ceremony and shared his story. This year, Robinson felt hurt because the prayers ignored the suffering of her grandfather (who has since died) during the Holocaust

She wrote to the ceremony organizers, saying, “It was strange for me that the Yizkor version read at the ceremony only mentioned Jews who died in Europe, and the El Malei Rahamim prayer again mentions the Holocaust in Europe but doesn’t even mention the Holocaust in North Africa even once.” 

Robinson added that she meant no disrespect toward European Jewry, and realized there is no comparison between the Holocaust in Europe and the Holocaust in North Africa, “But it sounded too strange to me that North Africa isn’t even mentioned once in Yizkor. I thought everybody was supposed to be remembered,” she wrote.

An organization called Movement for a Clean Zichron had been involved in organizing the ceremony this year. Michal Shatkai, one of its members, received a copy of the letter and said the teenager had raised an important point about Yizkor only referring to European Jews, “though there had been a large number of victims from North Africa who died in the Holocaust.” 

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Looking into the origin of the mistake, Shatkai said she found the prayer had been taken from the Yad Vashem website, and indeed it only referred to European Jewry. The same applied to the special Holocaust Memorial Day version of El Malei Rahamim.

Shatkai contacted Vad Vashem on behalf of the organization and received an answer in June: From now on, no distinction would be made between Holocaust victims from different origins.

“This change in the wording of the prayer seems to me and to us to be very important in and of itself, as well as important to the families whose loved ones were Holocaust victims and weren’t memorialized in the prayer until now,” she told Haaretz. “Moreover, we were excited together with Yael Robinson, a girl who just finished 12th grade, to be assured that caring about and acting for values that are important to us and to the society we live in can effect change.”

For years the Yad Vashem website has addressed the impact of the Holocaust on Jews in countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Moroccan Jews suffered from a series of anti-Jewish edicts imposed on them by the French administrators of the country. In Algeria, Jews were deprived of their rights and made to wear a badge designating themselves as Jewish. In Libya, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps, among them Janah. Hundreds died of starvation and diseases. Nazi SS units were sent to Tunisia and imposed anti-Jewish policies. 

Before he died, Robinson’s grandfather told her that as a boy he had seen his father apprehended and thrown “like a sack of potatoes” into a truck that took him to the ghetto. After a few weeks he managed to escape and returned home. “When they wanted to take his father, he tried to grab hold of him so he wouldn’t go, and the German, who had metal tips on the edge of his shoe, kicked him, and until his dying day he had the scars,” she said.

“There is no one version of the Yizkor prayer and it’s known that at memorial ceremonies for various communities and organizations, they adapt it as is fitting,” said Yad Vashem in response. “In general, at the different ceremonies conducted by Yad Vashem, this prayer is not used. In response to a query regarding one of the versions on the Yad Vashem website, which includes the words, ‘all the communities of Beit Israel in the European Diaspora,’ the text was changed to ‘all the communities of Beit Israel in the Diaspora,’ which is more accurate.”