I was a child when I was deported in a truck together with my parents from Benghazi to Tunisia, and I was a witness to the bombing of La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, on March 10, 1943. Thirteen members of my family were killed there, among them my grandmother, aunts and uncles, and other relatives. For many years, I have probed the circumstances of the bombing, and in the course of my searching, I discovered and reconstructed from archives new details about the evacuation and deportation of Libyan Jewry to French North Africa during World War II.
The beginning lies in 1938, when fascist Italy under Mussolini enacted the Racial Laws against the Jews. Although Libya was under Italian rule, the laws were not implemented there, thanks to the country’s Italian governor-general, Italo Balbo, who considered the Jews to be an important element in Libya’s economy, and tried to downscale the discriminatory measures taken against them. Following the tragic death of Balbo, in 1940, two temporary governors were appointed and dismissed in rapid succession, before the appointment of Gen. Ettore Bastico, in July 1941.
That September, Bastico demanded that the 7,000 foreigners in Libya, among them several Jews, be transferred to Italy. Bastico claimed that their loyalty was dubious and that their presence was aggravating the food shortage. The Italian Interior Ministry vetoed the idea, citing insufficient prison space, a lack of construction materials for new concentration camps and transportation problems. The ministry suggested that the “dangerous nationals” be interned in concentration camps in Libya itself – and if not, the French and Tunisian citizens (Jews and Muslims alike) among them should be deported to their countries of origin: Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Despite the plan’s official authorization by Mussolini himself, on September 20, 1941, the operation turned out to be complex and difficult to execute.
Over a period of almost two years, between February 1941 and November 1942, the Cyrenaica region in eastern Libya, where Benghazi is located, passed back and forth between the warring sides five times. When the Italians retook Benghazi in April 1941, the city’s Italian residents looted Jewish stores and homes on the pretext that the Jews had aided the Allies and were speculating on food prices. Two Jews who tried to ward off the rioters were murdered.
In light of the intention to deport French citizens from Libya, French Vichy authorities tried to get the Italians to promise to treat the evacuees decently and humanely, to insure and register their property, and to transfer income from their assets that remained in Libya to them in their places of deportation. None of these requests was fulfilled; the restrictions and strictures on the Jewish deportees were harsh. In December 1941, Benghazi was again captured by the Allies, but it was soon retaken by German and Italian army forces. At this stage, the fascist authorities wanted to urgently implement the plan of expelling foreign nationals from Libya while ordering that the rest of the Jews of Benghazi be concentrated in a camp, in the interior of Tripolitania. Only in mid-March 1942 was an agreement finally reached between the Italian authorities and a French delegation for the organized and orderly transfer of all French citizens to Tunisia. Operations were supposed to start by mid-April, but in reality it took longer than expected.
In the meantime, by the first months of 1942, anti-Semitism was already enshrined in Libya in legislation, and the Racial Regulations for Libyan Jews – whose 25 articles mandated discrimination against Jews, as compared to Muslims – were disseminated. Anti-Semitism reached a peak when three Jews were sentenced to death on a charge of collaborating with the British. The brothers Shalom and Yona Berrebbi and Avraham Bedussa were executed in Benghazi on June 12, 1942. At the end of the year, the Italian Racial Laws of 1938 were also adopted in full.
On July 15, 1942, French and Tunisian nationals began to be rounded up and evacuated to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. According to testimonies of the deportees, whole families were packed into trucks in the transports. A day earlier, a first transport of 203 French Jews had been sent westward from Tripoli to Zuara, close to the border with Tunisia. Within a short time, 591 Jews from the eastern province of Cyrenaica were concentrated in Tripoli and from there taken to the border with Tunisia. The trucks drove in convoys across rough roads, leaving the Jews at the Ben Gardane border station. In this way, Jews, most of them of modest means, were expelled to Tunisia during July and August 1942.
According to the records of the Italian African Police in Libya, the deportation operation encompassed “2,542 French nationals and those under French protection, of whom 691 were Muslims and 1,861 were Jews.” Of them, 514 Jews went on to Algeria and were helped there by a representative from the Joint Distribution Committee, the New York-based Jewish relief organization, and by Jewish activist Elie Gozlan’s Association for Study, Aid and Support. Another 31 Jews went on to Morocco, where they were housed in Casablanca. In Tunisia, the Jews were dispersed to various sites: 656 were taken to Tunis, most of them to the city’s suburb of La Marsa; 573 were transferred to a camp in the vicinity of Sfax; and 35 Jews arrived in Sousse and 29 in Gabes.
The Jews from Libya were not welcomed in Tunisia. Documents of the Joint show that the Vichy French administration viewed them as citizens of an enemy country and detained them in internment camps. In La Marsa the majority of the Jews were confined to one overcrowded building, where each family had one room, food was in short supply and sanitary conditions were appalling.
The decisive military campaign for North Africa began in November 1942. On the eighth of the month, Allied forces landed in Casablanca and Oran and advanced to Algeria, defeating the Vichy forces there in Operation Torch. The following day, however, initial German troops entered Tunisia, and in the days that followed large forces took a number of cities, including the La Marsa area. The conquest of the country was completed in the course of the month, and German S.S. troops began implementing anti-Jewish measures.
Under a December 6 order from General Nehring, anti-Jewish directives came into force: The Jewish Community Board was dissolved, a decree was issued mobilizing 2,000 Jews for forced labor, for building German fortifications (the number rose steadily), and the Jews were required to wear a yellow patch. Members of the approximately 100,000-strong Jewish community suffered from systematic terror, including indiscriminate arrest on the street and in synagogues, and their property was looted.
Concurrently, the Allies continued bombing Tunisia’s air and sea ports. At first the American and British air forces operated separately, but in January 1943 their missions were coordinated and placed under a uniform command. On January 24, all the German and Italian air units stationed in Libya were transferred westward to bases in Tunisia. Two German squadrons were stationed in El Aouina and near La Marsa. As a consequence, both sites were repeatedly bombed by the Allies. A particularly massive raid was carried out by American airplanes on March 10 against both cities simultaneously, to preclude attempts at mutual aid. However, the 4,392 fragmentation bombs that were dropped on La Marsa did not hit the airfield but fell in the city itself, killing 200 people, including 50 Libyan Jews – among them 13 members of my family.
Following the liberation of Cyrenaica by the British on November 20, 1942, the Joint began an operation to repatriate to Libya the deported French Jews from Libya, and those who had been incarcerated in concentration camps within Libya. At the end of 1943, Elie Gozlan described the situation of the Jews in Tunisia in a letter he sent from Algeria to the Joint in New York. The bombing raids had left many of them without a roof over their head, he wrote, adding that the Germans’ extortion had plunged the community into dire poverty, and the sanitary conditions were still dreadful.
It was not until the beginning of 1944, as a report of the Benghazi Jewish community notes, that 1,000 Libyan Jews were finally able to return to Tripoli from Tunis and Sfax, after having been held back many times by the British, who closed the border between Tunisia and Libya. The Joint undertook to finance the rehabilitation of the Jews who returned to Libya. The initial cost of first housing the returnees in Tripoli was estimated at 80,600 MAL (Military Administration Lire, about $700 at the time). By November 1944, nearly all the Libyan refugees had returned – after a forced exile of three years.
This paper confirms what others have claimed about anti-Semitism being rooted in fascist ideology. The record of the fascist regime in deporting Jews from Libya or their internment in Libya, leaves no doubt about this ideology, which dictated its policy.
If the fate of Libya’s Jews was more benign than that of their brethren in Europe it was only by chance, as they, too, were included in the plan to implement the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.
Maurice M. Roumani is emeritus professor of political science and the Middle East at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, and founder of the J.R. Elyachar Center for Studies in Sephardi Heritage. This paper is part of a major study on the subject.