When Alitalia Personnel Saved Jews From a Pogrom

An unexpected salvation arrived when rioting broke out in Libya at the start of the Six-Day War

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An anti-Gaddafi fighter looks at Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli in 2011.
An anti-Gaddafi fighter looks at Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli in 2011.Credit: REUTERS / Suhaib Salem
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

ROME – About two dozen men and women in their seventies and eighties, all welling with emotion, ascended the stage one after the other. Some struggled to walk and were assisted by young family members. These were the Alitalia employees who once worked at the airline’s Tripoli office in Libya, and their families.

At the ceremony, which was sponsored by the Association of Libyan Jews in Italy and held a month ago at a hotel in Rome’s Villa Borghese park, they were each given certificates of appreciation for having saved 2,500 imperiled Jews during the pogrom and riots in Libya during the Six-Day War – 55 years ago this week.

Most of the honorees had never told anyone about the events, not even their close family, who were hearing about their compassionate and courageous deeds, in which they risked their own lives, for the first time at the ceremony.

A street in the Old City of Tripoli, Libya in 1949. At right is a Jewish woman wearing a baracanas and handkerchief tied around her head.Credit: FREER / AP

“We did what had to be done. We didn’t think then and we don’t think today that we’re heroes. It was an obvious human act for all of us,” said Umberto Vaccarini after leaving the stage, holding the certificate of appreciation with his name inscribed on it.

Now in his eighties, Vaccarini was deputy manager of Alitalia’s Tripoli office at the time. Each one of the no-longer-anonymous Alitalia heroes received a certificate with his or her name and the words “with special appreciation.”

The certificates were awarded by Dr. Sileno Candelaresi, president of the Golden Lion Foundation of Venice, which also awards the prizes at the city’s prestigious film festival.

Golden Lion Foundation President Dr. Sileno Candelaresi, second from left, next to Walter Arbib and Umberto Vaccarini at the event honoring Alitalia personnel who helped Jews get out of Libya in June 1967.Credit: Yossi Melman

Years-long struggle

The first Jews evidently came to Libya and settled on its Mediterranean shores some 2,800 years ago. Over the years, Jews continued to find their way there as the area was successively conquered by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Spanish, the Arabs, the Turks and the Italians. Each conquest left its mark on the local Jewish community – but the biggest impression was left by the Italian occupation, which began in 1911.

Under Italian rule, the Jewish community expanded and prospered, with many Jews becoming affluent property owners. Until 1936, that is.

The certificate recognizing the courage of Alitalia employee Umberto Vaccarini.Credit: Yossi Melman

Under Benito Mussolini, by then-fascist Italy enacted the racial laws that prohibited Jews from attending university, working in government jobs and bidding on tenders; Jews who held foreign citizenship, as many did, were banned from leaving the country.

After World War II began, their situation worsened and the Libyan Jews lived under very harsh conditions. Jews who held citizenship for Allied countries were expelled, and others were sent to detention camps, labor camps and concentration camps. About 500 died at the Giado (aka Jado) camp in western Libya, and hundreds more were sent to Italy and deported from there to the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen in Germany and Reichenau in Austria.

It was not until October 2010, after a years-long struggle, that the Israeli government finally agreed to grant Holocaust survivors from Libya compensation in accordance with the eligibility criteria under the 1957 Victims of Nazi Persecution Act.

An Alitalia aircraft taxiing at Rome International Airport. The Italian national carrier played an unheralded role in saving many Jews trapped in Libya in 1967.Credit: Alessia Pierdomenico / Bloomberg

In December 1942, Britain and the Allied powers liberated Libya and Tunisia from German-Italian occupation, and life for the Jews there seemingly got back on track. But not for long. In 1951, Libya won independence and was declared a constitutional and hereditary monarchy. Even before that, though, particularly following the start of the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence, relations between Jews and the Libyan authorities had taken a turn for the worse, and from time to time there were riots and eruptions of violence against Jews.

Libya gradually became a dangerous place for Jews. Some 38,000 Jews resided in Libya in 1948, but only 7,000 remained three years later. Most of those who left had immigrated to Israel, while a minority moved to Italy. The Jews who remained in Libya were periodically subjected to serious harassment by the governments of King Idris.

On June 5, 1967, the day the Six-Day War broke out, hundreds of agitated Arabs gathered on the streets of Tripoli and set fire to Jewish businesses and residences.

Civilian prisoners raise their arms when the Israeli army enters in the old city of Jerusalem in June 1967.Credit: Fondation Gilles CARON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The police were unable to control the mobs and a state of emergency was declared. It was not unusual to find policemen collaborating with the rioters, or not intervening to stop them from rampaging. On that day, 60 percent of the Jewish community’s private and public assets were wiped out. The Bet El Synagogue and its 10 magnificent Torah scrolls decorated with silver and ivory, along with hundreds of religious books and Judaica items, were completely destroyed in the day of rioting.

During the pogrom, which went on for several days, at least 10 Jews were killed and dozens more injured. Fearing for their lives, the Jews hid in their homes. They didn’t dare come out and their supply of food steadily dwindled.

Jews who held foreign citizenship pleaded for help from those countries’ embassies and consulates, but these were unable to be of much assistance. And then, at the height of the terror, salvation arrived from an unexpected source. His name was Renato Tarantino – a non-Jewish Italian who ran the Alitalia office in Tripoli and displayed real nobility and compassion when he saw what was happening in the city.

Surviving members of the Tarantino family accepting the certificate on behalf of Renato Tarantino, who ran the Alitalia office in Tripoli, Libya, in the 1960s.Credit: Yossi Melman

Seething with hatred

Tarantino and his deputy, Vaccarini, immediately set out to save as many Jews as possible. Along with the other Alitalia workers, they showed impressive creativity. Using their status and ties in the country, they undertook a variety of ploys, right under the noses of the Libyan authorities.

They rescued desperate Jews who had somehow made their way to the airport in the hope of buying a plane ticket, only to find themselves surrounded by Libyan porters seething with hatred who cursed and spat at them. The Alitalia staff physically shielded the Jews, repelled the rioters and put the Jews in their cars and drove them to safety.

At other times, they put the Jews at the front of the line. “We made up excuses to take passengers off flights and we put Jews on board because we knew their lives were in real danger,” Vaccarini said.

Inside the Dar al-Bishi synagogue in the walled old city of Tripoli, LibyaCredit: Diaa Hadid / AP

He estimated that in those dramatic days, the Alitalia workers saved some 2,500 Jews by flying them to Rome.

Another daring ploy by the Alitalia staff enabled Jews to smuggle some of their property out of Libya. One of these Jews was Victor Magiar, who now lives in Rome. “The Alitalia people enabled me and my family to purchase dozens of tickets to the farthest and most expensive destinations you could think of: New York, Rio de Janeiro, Miami. When we landed safely in Rome, the company was quick to cancel the tickets and to generously refund the money,” he recounted at the ceremony.

Another time, when a plane was preparing for takeoff, the staff decided to delay it. Then they opened the cargo door, removed a lot of luggage and brought on board Jewish passengers who hadn’t been able to get a seat on the flight.

“We are here because of your father,” Magiar said to the late Renato Tarantino’s wife, daughter and grandchildren. “We will never forget.”

Full disclosure: The evening was organized by Libyan-Italian-Israeli-Canadian businessman and philanthropist Walter Arbib. His family home was burned in the pogrom, and he and his mother Yolanda were saved thanks to Tarantino. In 2016, I wrote a biography of Walter Arbib, and at the ceremony I was a guest and panelist along with La Repubblica editor-in-chief Maurizio Molinari.

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