Opinion |

Yad Vashem Responds to Criticism: North African Jews Were Always Part of the Holocaust Narrative

It is important to understand that this 'competition' over the degree of suffering in the Holocaust leads to a distortion of reality and a loss of proportion

Irit Abramski
Irit Abramski
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Libyan Jews in a transit camp in Italy, prior to their transfer to the Bergen-Belsen death camp.
Libyan Jews in a transit camp in Italy, prior to their transfer to the Bergen-Belsen death camp.Credit: Reproduction by Nir Keidar
Irit Abramski
Irit Abramski

Eness Elias’ recent article about Holocaust commemoration in Israel (“Why North African Jews Are Missing From the Holocaust Narrative”) unfortunately contained some inaccuracies and claims that have no basis in reality.

In her piece, Elias mentions the terrible tragedy that occurred in the Giado (or Jadu) camp in Libya. In 1942, the Italian fascists imprisoned more than 2,600 Jews from Cyrenaica, and a few months later, more than 500 other Jews were sent here. The scenes at Giado were reminiscent of those in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos: piles of dead bodies, with no one to bury them. However, contrary to what the article claimed, it is not the case that “there were many camps like Giado across North Africa.”

What happened in the Giado camp did not happen anywhere else in North Africa – not even in Tunisia, where there were 30 forced labor camps, most of them under the command of the SS.

Elias is angry at the prejudices against North African Jews and the silence concerning the fate of North African Jews in the Holocaust – particularly, seemingly, by Yad Vashem, whose mission “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.”

This is incorrect. Twenty-five years ago, Yad Vashem added the communities of Libya and Tunisia to the Valley of the Communities, which commemorates 5,000 Jewish communities that were damaged or destroyed in the Holocaust. Among the torch-lighters in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony 36 years ago (1982), 34 years ago (1984), 19 years ago (1999) and just two years ago (2016) were survivors from Libya and Tripoli. Also, in the field of education, 18 years ago a chapter on North African Jewry was included in the high school textbook “Holocaust and Memory,” edited by Prof. Yisrael Gutman, while more than a decade ago Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies produced a special unit on the subject.

Moreover, it is not accurate to say that research on North African Jewry and the Holocaust is not done at Yad Vashem but rather at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The first Israeli scholarly study on the subject was edited by Prof. Michel Abitbol at the Hebrew University and published in 1986 (and in English three years later). Entitled “The Jews of North Africa During the Second World War,” it was published jointly by the Hebrew University and the Ben-Zvi Institute, together with Yad Vashem. Also, a comprehensive study of these communities was also published by Yad Vashem 20 years ago as part of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities project.

I edited the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Libya and Tunisia, and collecting the material for it took seven years. It included research in archives in Israel and abroad, recording the testimony of more than 100 survivors, historical maps that were constructed specifically for the study, photographs from private collections and archives, and a wealth of information about the history and culture of the communities in the big cities and small towns before, during and right after the Holocaust. The interviewees – men and women alike – were very pleased with the final product and proudly gave the 533-page book as a precious gift to their families.

The meetings to collect the survivors’ testimonies were an emotional experience for both interviewer and subject, and certainly did not “lead to frustration and anger among the survivors” and did not entail “prejudices, racism and stereotyping.”

The use of phrases such as “exclusion from the collective memory” and the accusation of deliberate racism on the part of the Ashkenazi establishment all points to a lack of knowledge or a disregard by the writer for all of the things described above and for other efforts, such as the annual memorials held by Yad Vashem for the communities of Libya and Tunisia, just as it does for other communities.

It is important to understand that this “competition” over the degree of suffering in the Holocaust – the idea at the heart of the article, which cites a new book by historian Yvonne Kozlovsky Golan, “Forgotten from the Frame: The Absence of the Holocaust Experience of Mizrahim from the Visual Arts and Media in Israel” – leads to a distortion of reality and a loss of proportion. Filling in the information gaps on the Holocaust was a gradual process and meant that, for many communities, it was late in reaching the public consciousness. Such was the case, for example, with the 2.6 million Jews who were murdered throughout the Soviet Union. This was largely due to the shock at the first reports about the death industry at Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and other extermination camps, and the closing of related archives. The delay in filling in information on the Holocaust of North African Jewry had different causes, notably a shortage of information – including that possessed by the survivors.

The history of the North African communities in the Holocaust emphasizes just how focused the enemy’s intentions were. It’s indicative of the madness and entrenchment of Nazi ideology: Even in places where it was in the German interest to focus every effort on winning the war, they methodically began implementing the first stages of the Final Solution: racial laws; the yellow patch; humiliation of Jewish communities; forced labor camps. Fortunately for the Jews of North Africa, the Germans and their local allies did not succeed in reaching the latter stages of the planned annihilation.

Dr. Irit Abramski is a Holocaust researcher and editor of the Encyclopedia of the Communities of Libya and Tunisia, published by Yad Vashem.