Saturday, May 07, 2005

North Africa's Jews and the Holocaust 

Everyone's Holocaust
Wed., May 04, 2005 Nisan 25, 5765

By Goel Pinto

When Pesach came, Alfonso Reginiano's mother brought out two hard-boiled eggs that she had saved for three months, ever since their arrival at Bergen-Belsen camp, and cut them into 21 pieces, one for each member of the family. Reginiano, who was born in Libya and survived the Nazi concentration camp, tells of the humiliation and hunger he experienced in the documentary film "Hashoah Halo Noda'at Shel Yehudei Tsfon Africa" (The Unknown Holocaust of North African Jewry), which will be broadcast this evening on Channel 1.

Shalom Arbiv, also a native of Libya, who survived the Sidi Azaz camp, tells of his transfer to the camp, located 100 kilometers from Tripoli.

"They shot people like flies," he testifies in the film, "and beat them mercilessly with sticks."

The story of Libyan Jewry is also the subject of "Mitripoli Lebergen Belsen" (From Tripoli to Bergen-Belsen), which will also be broadcast this evening, on Yes. The film opens with a scene from the trial of Adolph Eichmann, but unlike many Holocaust films, these pictures are shown to tell the story of those whose testimonies were deemed superfluous to the trial of the German criminal.

"When North African Jewry wanted to tell their story at the Eichmann trial," says Dr. Irit Abromski-Bligh of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority, "they were told, `You do not belong to this story.'"

No comparison

"From Tripoli to Bergen-Belsen," directed by Marco Carmel, is the first of two documentary films combined under the title, "Sh'eila Shel Zman" (A Matter of Time. The two films, each about an hour long, deal with the fate of North African Jewry during WWII. The second film, "Goral Meshutaf" (Shared Fate), directed by Serj Ankari, follows the tribulations of the Jews of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The two films raise many questions, the first of which is how is it that so many Israelis are unaware that the German reach extended to North Africa.

This question makes the two films all the more important. The two directors faced a difficulty that does not confront the creators of documentary films on the Holocaust experiences of European Jews. While films about the European Holocaust - which are part of a known historical context - can focus on personal stories, testimonies and experiences, Ankari and Carmel had to create a documentary film largely devoted to history - to setting the general context - and could therefore focus less on personal testimonies.

The title of the combined program, "Sh'eila Shel Zman," illustrates the point that had the Germans continued their conquests, North African Jewry would have suffered the same fate as European Jewry. Author and journalist Claude Sitbon says in the film, "What happened to us, compared to [what happened to] 6 million Jews, of whom a million were children; how do you dare compare those numbers to your hundreds of dead? As I see it, and this is what's most important, is the paramount need of Israeli society to say: The Nazi problem is a problem for the Jewish people. If this had been mentioned in the 1950s, we would not have become alienated in Israel. Perhaps Tunisian Jewry was saved, but we must not forget the Nazis' overall plan."

Carmel's film presents the experience of Libyan Jewry, most of whom were sent to the Jado camp in their home country. With the Italian invasion of Libya, the Jews' citizenship was revoked and they were subjected to new rules, involving the revocation of their basic rights. After the Allied victory in Libya, it appeared that the Jews had been saved - even though many of them were killed in bombings by the British - but then the Italian army returned and transferred the Jews to the Jado camp.

Jado was not a death camp, says Abromski-Bligh, but many incarcerated there, mainly those with British citizenship, were sent to Bergen-Belsen. Many of the Jews who were left in Jado perished, mostly from typhoid, which ravaged the camp. The film explains that one of the reasons that not everyone was transferred to extermination camps in Europe was that the Nazis feared the Jews would bring diseases with them.

"I focused on Libya," says Carmel, "because the Nazis really took over there, with many concentration camps and many being sent to Bergen-Belsen. Although these were different numbers, far smaller than the figures with which we are familiar from the European Holocaust, it was still a Holocaust. In the film, I do not quote numbers, or count the dead and injured, in order not to quantify the death. It was important to me to stress what happened there and provide a broader picture of the Holocaust of the Jewish people. I did not touch the memory of the European Holocaust at all; I only mention that we were there, too.

In "Goral Meshutaf," Ankari presents the experience of the Jews in northwest Africa - Morocco and Algeria, and mainly Tunisia. Moroccan Jewry was unaffected by the Holocaust, according to the film, but Algerian Jews lost their citizenship with the enactment of the Vichy laws in 1940. Some 120,000 Jews, who had until then considered themselves French, were affected.

"On the day it was announced," testifies Algerian-born Ruth Shahar in the film, "I walked home from school and thought, `We're not French? I have only one option - suicide.'"

Many Algerian Jews enlisted in the anti-Nazi underground. They viewed Free French President Charles de Gaulle as their leader, while the French Christians in Algeria identified with Marshal Petain. Most of the Arabs rejoiced at the arrival of the Germans.

"Germany was portrayed as an anti-colonialist, anti-French, anti-British power," says historian Michel Abitbol. "That was enough for the Arab population to feel favorable toward Germany."

A more bitter fate befell Tunisian Jewry. They were moved to about 10 labor camps and enslaved as forced laborers: They dug ditches for the German forces, built bridges and suffered terribly under the Nazi whip. The Jewish community was forced to provide infrastructure, food, heating and other comforts to the Germans and their prisoners.

"Poor Jews were sent to the camps and forced labor, while rich Jews gave money and evaded that fate," says one witness.

"Why didn't you flee?" the interviewer asks one witness, as survivors have been asked again and again over the years, even at the Eichmann trial. "We feared for our lives," answers the witness.

The film explains that the distance from Europe, from the watchful eyes of Eichmann and Himmler, softened the Germans. One witness told of an Austrian soldier who gave him a coat when he mentioned the cold and the hunger. There is also the testimony of Yvette Sa'adon, who grew up in Tunisia and lived through the Holocaust as a young child.

"It was a nice experience," she recalls, "We hid and they searched for us. When we fled, we saw animals and goats and chickens, which for us was an experience."

Gas chambers, or none

The film also addresses claims that gas chambers were being built in Tunisian suburbs. "I didn't see any," says one witness, "but people told me that chambers were built to burn Jews."

"There was no attempt to build extermination camps," says historian Haim Sa'adon of Tel Aviv University. "We found no documents to that effect."

"Many have criticized me," says Ankari, "that I am expressing a position and stating there were no gas chambers in Tunisia. I am not saying that. I bring three witnesses who claim there were [chambers] and one historian who says otherwise. We even went to Tunisia to film, in the place where [the Germans] had ostensibly begun building the [gas] chambers."

Ankari's interest in the story of North African Jewry during the Holocaust was aroused when an old Tunisian he met told him that there had been a concentration camp near his grandfather's house in Tunisia.

"Only then did I discover that there had been concentration camps there at all," says Ankari. "This is what makes the film so important. It is clear that the Holocaust in North Africa was not like the Holocaust in Europe; there is no comparison. But it is important for people to know that the Germans reached North Africa. Even someone who knows about Rommel and Montgomery doesn't know that the Gestapo was there, and does not know that there were concentration camps."

Lethal injection

The three films - the one on Channel 1, directed by Yifat Kedar, and the two being broadcast on Yes - provide a picture that blends historical facts, imparted by Carmel and Ankari, with the personal, painful stories presented by Kedar.

In addition to the experiences of Reginiano and Arbiv, Kedar's film includes the testimony of Bruria Dadosh, a survivor of Jado. She speaks about her honeymoon in the camp, with her husband, and about their 2-month-old daughter who died.

"She died right after an injection given to her by the camp doctor," recalls a teary-eyed Dadosh. "I think about her all the time."

The most shocking testimony in the film is given by an unidentified, very blurry figure of a man, who relates how he was raped by a German.

"He grabbed me by the throat," says the man, "It hurt. For me, I am no longer a man. I used to be clever. Not anymore. I am nothing. I hope no one recognizes me. No one has to know about this, until I die."

"During the editing," says Kedar, "we trimmed his testimony because it contained harsh, sexually graphic descriptions. This was the first time he told his story, and at the end of his testimony he told the interview's director, Amnon Binyamin, `I hope that I never see you again in my whole life, because you know my most intimate story.'"

Late reparations

None of the filmmakers accuses anyone of concealing the story of the plight of North African Jewry.

"I could have made an entire film on why it took people decades to receive the monies due to them and why they were given nothing," says Carmel, "but I did not want to make a film about insult added to injury. It was important for me to make the first film that highlights this part of history. Later, more films can and should be made on this subject."

Kedar says that many of the witnesses she interviewed were relating their stories for the first time.

In "Sh'eila Shel Zman" a partial answer is offered as to why the witnesses have not spoken up until now. The effort to integrate into Israeli society was too great, explains the film. The discrimination and the melting pot policy were particularly harsh on the North African communities. Their new troubles essentially made them forget the old. Until the 1970s, no one considered what happened "there."

The survivors also never discussed their experiences at home.

"What will I teach them, to be sheep like us?" responded one witness when asked why he never told his family. "I have to give them the faith that they have the strength and the ability to change."

"Why should I tell [them]?" asked another. "To make them feel bad? Let them live their young and beautiful lives."

One of the daughters of the second generation, whose mother survived the Holocaust in Libya, says, "When I mention that my mother was in the Holocaust, no one believes me."

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