How the Shoa affected Libyan Jews

With Holocaust Memorial Day still fresh in the mind, I came across this moving testimony from a Libyan Jew who survived the war and the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. From the blog Israellycool.

Joseph Labi was born in 1928 in Benghazi, Libya to a family of 19. He
was from a proud and renowned family, the grandson of Rabbi Eliyahu
Labi, a rabbi and religious court judge in Benghazi. Labi held British
citizenship and had a pleasant childhood. But those pleasant memories of
early childhood and even the faces of his parents are hard for him to
recall.

In 1938, Italian racial laws were extended to Libya. Joseph and his
fellow Jewish students were removed from their schools and transferred
to a separate school branded with the Star of David. Joseph’s parents
died in 1940, leaving the 12 year-old Joseph under the care of his older
brothers.

In 1942, along with the Jews of Libya, Joseph’s entire family was
deported to the Giado hard labor camp. The Libyan Jews were then
deported to Italy, where they were interned at Castelnovo ne’ Monti. In
February 1944, the Germans sent the 200 Jews, including young Joseph, to
Bergen-Belsen. At first, Joseph refused to eat because the food at the
camp was not kosher, but after a week of being hungry, he relented. Most
children did not survive in the camps.

One of the camp’s prisoners, a religious Jew, proposed that Joseph
have a bar mitzvah ceremony. “I put on tefillin,” said Joseph. “He asked
me to share food with those present, but I only had a small potato.
Fortunately, a woman secured some perfume. I poured some on everyone’s
hand and that was my bar mitzvah.”

In March 1945, in a prisoner exchange deal, Joseph was transferred to
France. From there, alone in the world, he made his way to Spain and
finally to Portugal.

“When we reached Lisbon, we realized that hell was
over for us,” said Labi.

On returning to Benghazi, Joseph met soldiers from the British Army’s
Jewish Brigade who suggested that he go to Eretz Israel. “I went to the
train station. Somebody gave me a hat and dressed me in a Jewish
Brigade uniform and put a bunch of forms in my pocket,” remembers
Joseph. “I boarded the train dressed as a soldier and we went to
Alexandria.”

But the ordeal was still not over. Under the British Mandate, Labi
had to be smuggled into Palestine. He went looking for a new home and to
start a new life in several kibbutzim. Labi volunteered for the
Palmach, and fought in Israel’s War of Independence in the battle for
Latrun.

 Joseph Labi and his grandson

Despite all the adversity, persecution, and deprivation, Labi
married, and he and his wife Yvonne have a son and daughter, seven
grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. He still has the tallit that
he received from the army chaplain who liberated the camps. He has
managed, by many “miracles,” to survive a childhood that was taken from
him. A life, a town, a home and his family were destroyed. He is a
survivor. One of countless numbers who suffered in the North African
Nakba.

The Labi family and the other Jewish families of Libya, were forced
to leave everything and sent to hard labor camps, from there sent on to
concentration death camps. Many died along the way. Joseph Labi was one
of the “lucky” ones to survive, build a family, and reestablish himself
in Israel.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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