Jessica R. Hammerman
Central Oregon Community College
The concentration camps reduced inmates to mere biological existence: bodies desperate for food, shelter from the cold, and freedom from the filth that enveloped them. Holocaust literature evokes these individual journeys from freedom to degradation—people slowly losing their individual character to become just hungry, cold, and dirty. Reading these stories can be both gruesome and predictable; because of this, Holocaust fiction risks fetishizing this unimaginable violence.
Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen by Yossi Sucary recounts such a path to dehumanization through the fictional character of Silvana Hajaj, who lived in the Italian colony of Libya. Arrested and then transported from her hometown at the age of 21, she is taken through Tripoli, across the sea to Naples, and held for two years in Civitella del Tronto. Finally, in 1944, she is sent to Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany. The novel, originally published in Hebrew in 2016, has recently been translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan. In winter 2017, a stage version was performed in New York City. Sucary wrote the book with help from historians and extensive interviews with his mother. The novel would therefore be a fresh addition to undergraduate courses about European empires, histories of North Africa, Jewish or Holocaust history. A blurb on the paperback asserts that the book “retrieves from oblivion the lost story” of the North African Jews. It means to include a Jewish population whose fate has been forgotten because of the emphasis on European victims. To add to the texture, the author weaves in several languages: Judeo-Arabic, Italian, German, Dutch, and Hebrew.
Silvana’s journey unfolds over a 5-year period. It begins in April 1941 and ends exactly 4 years later with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. In the opening scene, Silvana finds herself in the middle of the North African front of WWII, navigating her way through the desert on the outskirts of her hometown, a place that seems quite familiar to her. She hears bombings in the distance—the sounds of the Italian-German armies attacking British bases in Egypt. As she makes her way back home to Benghazi, she notices soldiers speaking in a strange language (German). The Nazi conquerors enforce racial laws on the Libyan Jews, the same ones that Italian Jews had been subjected to since 1938. Soldiers corral Silvana and other Jews in the community and shove them into a van. This is the moment when Silvana begins to view Libya nostalgically, noticing the sands, the buildings, the sky in a way that foreshadows her fate, and the fate of the community—any trace of Jewish life in Libya would disappear indefinitely a decade later. But this initial arrest was not the one that took her to the concentration camp. Her mother sprints over to her and whispers urgently, “We are British! We are British!” The family had acquired citizenship on a stay in Egypt a few years prior; these passports offered them the legitimacy they needed to get back home. In the autumn of 1941, the British forces conquered the Italian-German Axis; they were then ruling Benghazi. This hopeful truth gave Silvana’s community the illusion of permanence—it seemed that the British were continuing their colonial expansion in the war context. A British officer approaches her father to help build a British school that would replace the Italian one. Among the Jews in the community, many speak of a duty to help the British defeat the Italians. At a dinner during this façade of peace, Silvana meets a young “Hebrew soldier,” and they share a brief but deep connection. In times of utter desperation—while cleaning the toilets in Bergen-Belsen or asleep aboard the decrepit ship that carries her over the Mediterranean into an internment camp in Italy—she fantasizes about him. Her name for him, “Hebrew soldier,” is a thinly veiled metaphor for the Land of Israel—and her dreams of him/Zionism sustain her through the most desperate of times.
But the idea of a British Libya was short-lived. In January 1942, German tanks appear out of nowhere. Soon, the Benghazi Talmud Torah (religious school) is flattened by German artillery. Nazi soldiers once again round up Benghazi Jews, shoving people into large trucks with the butts of their guns. Silvana and her family try again to lay claim to their British citizenship. Their British passports grant them privileged status as “prisoners of war,” rather than mere “Israelites.” This status offers only temporary relief as they are taken first to Tripoli (where the governor sees her father and smiles but does nothing to save him), and then on a boat, with 300 others, to an Italian mountain prison where they will spend the next two years in shoddy but not desperate conditions, awaiting a “prisoner exchange.”
Only their British passports save the family from immediate deportation. Their time in Civitella del Tronto is hardly a period of rest. Sucary paints a picture of despair, as prisoners there lose their sense of self, their pride. Silvana yearns for routine, as no one enforces lights-out at night, or any other time of day. Prisoners mark Passover hunched over a table covered with a torn cloth. In the monotony of the camp, she wonders whether she should just run away. Left to their own devices and guarded by reluctant Italian soldiers, their conditions worsen as the war drags on. Supplies dwindle, and prisoners are relieved by the occasional Red Cross package. In September 1943, after Mussolini’s defeat, German guards take over. Unlike the Italians, they are brutal. In May 1944, the prisoners are sent to Bergen-Belsen—roughly 400 Libyan prisoners with British passports were sent and nearly all of them survived.
The final 50 pages recount Silvana’s intimate relationship with Rebecca, a Dutch Jewish girl, in Bergen-Belsen. It is a captivating part of the novel where her Libyan background sets her apart as a doubly cursed “black Jew.” In the concentration camp, far from her side of the Mediterranean, Silvana is an odd sight among her light-skinned coreligionists. Many Jews from the Netherlands and Germany had never seen someone with such dark skin, let alone a Jew. In Rebecca, she finds an equal, who also yearns for intimacy as she loses all remnants of her humanity. In fact, Rebecca may be a stand-in for Anne Frank, who died in Bergen-Belsen.
Sucary’s novel thus offers a variation on the Holocaust narrative, replacing Jews from Europe with Silvana and her Libyan community. Written from the perspective of a colonized Jew, this book exposes some of the ambiguities inherent in this identity. On the one hand, the Hajaj family adored European lifestyles, and relied on Europe for legitimacy and survival through their British passports; on the other, they were viscerally connected to their home, which is clear when the characters evoke Libyan food, or speak Libyan Arabic, or contemplate the vast desert, which constitutes 90% of Libyan geography. Many North African Jews held Europe in high regard, imagining it as a place that was more advanced, more humane than their colonies. Of course, this would not spare Jews even from the wealthiest cities in Western Europe in the 1940s.
Libya was colonized decades after the French had settled in North Africa; Italy annexed the territory in 1911 as the Ottoman Empire wheezed its final breaths a few years before World War I. While this novel does not cover French colonial history, the Libyan setting provides a comparative foil for study of Jews in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. As was the case throughout French North Africa, Jews in Libya were indigenous, living among Muslim populations for centuries as a sizeable minority. Jewish communities thrived in Libya during the Ottoman period, but local relations between Muslims and Jews deteriorated around the fin-de-siècle. The Jews of Libya eventually embraced their Italian colonizers, but, as was the case in French Algeria (as told by historian Joshua Schreier in the Arabs of the Jewish Faith), local Jewish leaders did not like the Europeans’ direct oversight of their activities. This is why Benito Mussolini’s 1937 proclamation that he would respect Jewish autonomy in Libya came as such a welcome relief.
Many Libyan Jews, as participants in the colonial system, praised Mussolini; they thought that he would help distance them from the Muslim majority. This fact seems to have been lost on Sucary: Silvana and her family fear the Italians, and even despise Italy, while they pine for the Libyan desert. Fascism was born in Italy in 1921 as Mussolini and the blackshirts took over the fledgling democracy in hope of recovering the glory of ancient Rome in modern guise. Part of this effort included building an empire that could compete with that of Britain and France. Mussolini’s government infamously invaded Ethiopia in the 1930s by raining bombs on the territory, showing a complete disregard for civilians’ lives. He first visited Libya in 1937, announcing his intent to respect Jewish traditions. It was only through pressure from Hitler that he imposed German racial laws on Italian (1938) and then Libyan Jews (1941). Focusing on just the Holocaust context, this book offers narrower view, which at times reads similarly to other books in the genre.
Although there is no way to generalize the Jewish experience in North Africa, a majority of Jews from Libya to Algeria benefited from European authority, which explains why the anti-Jewish laws and brutality came as a horrible shock. Meanwhile, since the 19th century, colonial society had reduced most Muslims to “inconsequential shadows,” as if they didn’t exist at all. This ignorance angered many and spurred North African Muslims toward Arab nationalism. Many groups looking for liberation from their colonial oppressors wanted to re-center the North African experience as an “Arab” or “Muslim” one. By only referring to Arabs or Muslims incidentally, Sucary replicates this problem. If student readers are unfamiliar with Libyan history, they might be deceived into thinking that colonial Libya was a land populated by Jews and Italian/German soldiers.
The wider context missing from this novel receives honest treatment in the short documentary The Last Jews of Libya (2007) by Vivienne Roumani-Denn. There, viewers see the way that Jews initially glorified Mussolini. This film conveys the sense of betrayal that many Jews experienced in 1941— it seemed that the Italians were teaming up with Arabs against the Jewish communities. Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen ends when a British officer discovers Silvana lying unconscious after an unspeakable trauma. Before long, she is singing the Hebrew national anthem and loudly “emphasizing her Arab accent,” a nod to the redemption provided when Israel became a state. This could potentially fool history students into thinking that Libyan Jewish history ended with the Liberation from the Nazi camps. In reality, tens of thousands of Jews continued to live in Libya after 1945. Roumani-Denn’s film provides further perspective: her subjects explain returning to a Libya that was razed to the ground at the war’s end. The war over and fascism vanquished, Muslims attacked Jewish businesses, homes, and institutions as part of a strategy for liberation from their colonizers; these attacks lasted from 1945 to 1949. It was not until after Libyan independence in 1951 that the Jews were forced to leave. It was not the Nazi menace but Arab nationalism that led to the permanent departure of the Jews.
Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen is a story about a young Arab Jew undergoing 5 years of turmoil during the Holocaust. Students will be aware that part of the Eastern European diaspora ended with the Holocaust, but they likely don’t realize that the North African diaspora disappeared so recently. This book will help students to understand the complexity of living in a colonial setting, as well as the utterly despairing truth of antisemitism and the Holocaust. It is, in the end, very much a Holocaust story. A sequel to this story could focus on the 32,670 Jews who lived in Libya in 1948; there are currently no Jews living in Libya.
Yossi Sucary, Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen, trans. Yardenne Greenspan, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, an Amazon company, 2016.
- “Italy,” USHMM Encyclopedia. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005411
- Arabs of the Jewish Faith, Rutgers University Press: 2010. Schreier’s book traces the way the French civilizing mission affected Jews in Algeria—they did not want colonization at first.
- Claire Eldridge, “Remembering the Other: Postcolonial perspectives on relationships between Jews and Muslims in French Algeria,” in Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, vol 11, no. 3, November 2012, 299-317, 304.
- Maurice Roumani, “Libya”, in: Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Consulted online on 11 October 2017. First published online: 2010.