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The Holocaust in Italian Libya began with the publishing of the Manifesto of Race in 1938 and ended with the British conquering Libya from the hands of Fascist Italy, in December 1942. After the German conquest in 1941, some of the Libyan Jews were sent to camps in Europe, where they stayed until the end of World War II.[1][2][3] Italian Libya had two large Jewish communities, one in the western district of Tripolitania, and mainly in its capital Tripoli, and the other in the eastern district of Barka (Cyrenaica) and its capital Benghazi. During the Holocaust many Jews were killed, and the survivors suffered from terrible living conditions and animosity from their Arab neighbors, until they immigrated to Israel, mostly during the first years of the state’s existence.[4]

Jewish Holocaust survivors return to Libya from Concentration Camp Bergen-Belsen[5]

Background: the beginning of the Italian occupation

In July 1911 the Italian government demanded control of Libya from the Ottoman Empire. When the demand wasn’t met, Italy declared war and quickly conquered the main cities along the coast of Libya. Some of the Libyan Jews supported Italy, and some actively contributed to the war effort. One of the reasons behind the support of Italy and a regime change began with the Italian influence on Libya through commercial and cultural ties. Other causes were the recurring pogroms the Jews suffered from at the hands of their Muslim neighbors; the wave of anti-Semitism that spread through the Ottoman empire (at times, due to Catholic influences) during the mid-19th century didn’t pass over the Libyan Jews. The autonomy that they received from the empire didn’t prevent the recurring pogroms.[6] After the Italian conquest, the Jews received official status and were an important religious-ethnic group due to their key role in the Libyan economy. The studying of the Italian language and European country, which began before the conquest, became more common. The Italian government, which at first saw the Jews as Italians- just like the Italian Jews- began to consider them as indigenous Muslims, or worse. In 1934, After the fascists rise to power, Italo Balbo was appointed as the governor-general of Italian Libya. He developed the “Italian colony” and, like many fascists, saw it as symbol of Italy’s returning to the greatness of the Roman Empire - the last time that Italy controlled Libya. During his reign, the process of modernizing Jewish communities accelerated, and Jews took part in government establishments. Balbo respected the Jewish tradition so long as it didn’t prevent the progress he brought to Libya. One case of clash occurred when Jews closed their shops on the Sabbath, even outside the Jewish community. Balbo sentenced the Jews to be punished by flogging, but later- in October 1937, he admitted at a gathering of the fascist party that he was mistaken, and that he doesn’t distinguish between Catholics and Jews- they are all Italian. Earlier that year Benito Mussolini came to the Jewish community during a visit to Italian Libya, and received a warm reception. He promised that Libyan Jews will be safe, and that Italy will respect the Jewish community, tradition, religion and leadership.

File:Supporters of Hitler and Mussolini in Libya 1943.jpg

Supporters of Hitler and Mussolini in Libya, March 1943

During the Holocaust

Worsening status of the Jews

Italy’s aggressive policies caused her to be an isolated country in Europe, and the winds of war brought her to enter into a pact with Nazi Germany in 1936. The Rome-Berlin axis forced the countries to operate based on common principles, so the German race laws applied to Italy and its colonies.[4] In the racial manifesto, which was published in Italy in 1938, racists and anti-semitic laws appeared as representing the Fascists party’s position. The main laws were:

  • Jews with foreign citizenship were banned from leaving the country
  • Jewish students were banned from high schools and higher education establishments
  • Any Jew with a government position is to be fired
  • All Jewish soldiers in the Italian army are to be demoted.
  • Jews are forbidden from participated in government bids.

Italian Libya’s governor, Balbo, tried to convince Mussolini to postpone to relax the application of the laws on Libya, claiming that they will destroy the Libyan economy. Mussolini gave Balbo to apply the laws as he saw fit. Despite the relative protection that the Jews enjoyed under Balbo, Jewish government workers were fired and Jewish kids were expelled from schools, and moving between cities required a license. Balbo was killed in July 1940, when an Italian ship shot down his place. Italian officials explained the incident as an accident.[2]

After Balbo’s death and Italy joined World War II on the side of Germany, the second half of 1940 brought with it a worsening of the Jews situation. Tripoli was in chaos, and the Jewish quarter in Italy was heavily damaged by the Allies bombings, leaving many Jews dead. Some Jews, like the Muslim population, escaped inland. The Jewish community in Tripoli rented homes for the needy, erected underground bomb shelters and supplied education for the kids who were expelled. As time went by, the race laws became worse- the Jews of Cyrenaica were sent to a concentration camp in Tripolitania, and most of the community’s workforce was sent to labor camps. Jews who were citizens of enemy countries we’re expelled from the country, and the rest suffered from racist and oppressive laws that hurt them socially and economically. Mid-1942, the governor decreed that Jews were disallowed to enter into real estate deals or commerce outside the community, to publish any material that doesn’t relate to religion, and other oppressive laws.[3]

The Jews of Cyrenaica under regime changes

The accelerated application of the Race Laws caused the Jews to lose trust in the Italian government and brought them to support the British instead. When Britain first conquered Cyrenaica in December 1940, the Jews were freed from the race laws. They didn’t hide their support of the conquering army, especially due to the meetings between the community and the Jewish soldiers who joined the war as part of the Israeli unit. The soldiers met with the Benghazi community many times, renewed Zionist activities and supported educational activity. On April 3, 1941, the Italian-German forces managed to push the British forces out of Benghazi, and 250 Jews left with them. The Italian citizens that lived in the city during the British control held a grudge towards the Jews, and conducted pogroms during which two Jews were killed, and a lot of property was pillaged and damaged. When order was restored, the Italian government arrested many Jews with the accusation of assisting enemy forces, and the anti-Semitism was on a rise.[1]

In November of that year, Britain reconquered Cyrenaica and the Israeli soldiers tried to support the community, but in February 1942 the Italian-German army returned, and only a small number of Jews managed to escape with the retreating British army. Italy decided to expel all the Jews to Tripolitania and imposed harsh punishments on remaining Jews, including the death penalty for three of them. During the last British conquering of Cyrenaica in November 1942, the remaining 360 Jews were frightened and deterred from contacting the British army, for fear of another regime change. The Israeli soldiers were an important part of the rehabilitation of the community’s remains. The blow to the Jewish community was the worst of any Libyan community. Over 500 Jews were killed, out of a community of 4000. The Lives of the survivors were in danger. Close to 2,600 Jews were sent to the Jado concentration camp, and some families were sent to other camps. About 200 English citizens were transferred to Italy, and some 250 French citizens to Tunisia.[3]

Jado Concentration Camp

The majority of the Jewish community in Cyrenaica was sent to the Jado concentration camp, approximately 150 miles south of Tripoli. The prosperous urban community was crammed into booths in an old military camp that was converted to concentration camp. The health and sanitation conditions were terrible, and many of the Jews suffered from malnutrition. The camp was run by Italian officers, headed by the anti-Semitic Etorre Bastico, and supplied 100-150 grams of bread a day, aside a small weekly supply of food. The Jews were in charge of distributing the insufficient food supply. After many rejections of the requests of Jewish leaders to increase the supply, the camp officers allowed Arab merchants to sell basic food. They sold it at a high price and only few could afford it. After further requests, they were allowed to receive aid from Tripoli.[7]

Rabbi Frigia Zuaretz requested to set up a synagogue in the camp, and was allocated one of the booths. At the first death in the community, the community leaders wanted to bury him. They found a Jewish cemetery from the 18th century and buried the dead- in numbers that grew every day, mainly due to malnutrition and the spread of Typhus. In January 1943, a few days before the Allies conquered the camp, all the prisoners were called to the plaza and brought before shooters, and it was believed that the order to shoot will come any moment. The order cam but wasn’t sounded. After a few days the camp’s officers retreated and some of the prisoners escaped. When the British arrived, they found the Jews in an unstable and disorganized state. In March of that year, the British military Rabbi Orbach visited, and received permission to bring 60 Jews to Israel. The camp survivors were sent at first to Tripoli, were they became a burden on the local community, until October 1943 when most of the survivors moved to Benghazi. The community never returned to what it was before, and few managed to return to economic stability. Close to 600 out of the 2600 Jewish residents of the Benghazi camp perished.[1]

Forced labor

In June 1942, the Italian Libya's governor decreed that the legal status of Libyan and Italian men was the same, which meant that men of age 18-45 were drafted to military service. The men from Tripolitania county were sent to work in Sidi Azaz and Bukbuk. In August, 3,000 Jews were sent to the work camp Sidi Azaz but due to lacking infrastructure most were sent back to their homes, to serve the country and to work camps in Cyrenaica. The Jews were a substantial work force that the community was lacking.[7] The camp was isolated and desert-like, with few Italian guards and tents. It was an open camp, which allowed the rich to purchase food which they sometimes shared with others. After a while, residents of Tripoli travelled out to meet their family members.[4] The camp residents started their day at 6:00 am with roll call and ended at 5:00 pm. They received 500 grams of bread, rice or pasta as food. Unprecedented consideration was shown when the Italian guards allowed the prisoners to rest on the Sabbath. There was one violent incident, when a prisoner argued with an Italian guard as was shot to death as a result. The guard was transferred and the Jews learned to stay out of arguments with the guards. The Bukbuk camp was set up in East Cyrenaica, on the Egyptian border. The prisonsers were tasked with paving roads from Libya to Egypt for the army’s purposes. The camp was so far from off that there were no guards or fences. There was a lack of water, for a supply only arrived every few day. The work day was officially from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm, but the lack of supervision allowed the prisoners to work leisurely, and despite the complaints of the Italian supervisor who came every few days, the camp didn’t receive guards. The camp did have an Italian doctor who ignored the mostly invented diseases and injuries of the prisoners, which allowed them to claim they are not suited for work and be releases. In October 1942, Bukbuk was the target of multiple bombings, and only in November, with the retreat of Italian forced, were the prisoners released and allowed to find their own way back to Tripoli, most of them with the aid of passing cars.[4]

Expulsion of Jews with foreign citizenship

German soldiers entered Italian Libya in 1941 after Italy’s defeat, but German influence was felt starting in 1938. Due to the involvement and importance that the foreign Jews had in economy and commerce, they were treated normally, and the Italian government wasn’t quick to apply the racial laws and expel the foreign Jews. Yet, there were incidents of German soldiers harassed the Jews. After Italy joined the war in June 1940 the Jews conditions worsened, and in September all the citizens of enemy countries were put in detention camps, in decent conditions. They were all expelled during the second half of 1941, mainly due to the fact that the detention camps became an economic burden. Many of those expelled had lived in Libya their whole lives, and held the second citizenship for convenience only. Approximately 1,600 Jews with French citizenship were expelled to Tunisia. Over 400 with British citizenship were sent to Italy. Those expelled from Benghazi were allowed to take valuables and were sent to a detention camp in Bologna, while those leaving Tripoli were allowed only personal items, and sent mainly to camps in Siena and Firenze. Living conditions were tight but they were treated well by the guards. In September 1943, Germany finally conquered Italy, and in October the man were sent from the Arzo camp, east of Siena, to forced labor. Between February and May 1944, The Tripoli and some of the Benghazi expellees were sent to the Bergen Belsen camp, while most of the Benghazi expellees were sent to Innsbruck-Reichenau camp.[4]

The food supply in Bergen Belsen was terrible, the work was very hard and the SS soldiers abused and harassed the prisoners. The Innsbruck-Reichenau camp was in western Austria and was an offshoot of the Dachau camp. It was surrounded by an electric fence, there was separation between men and women and they were all forced to work. Unlike the other prison, the Libyan Jews were allowed to stay in their civilian clothes. The Germany guards were cruel to the Jews- they were banned from any religious expression or worship, and punishment such as flogging, imprisonment and death by shooting were common.[2]

Beyond the known horrors of the Holocaust, the Libyan Jews were a foreign element in frigid Europe, which made survival much harder. Beyond the different weather, the cultural difference was very difficult. In both camps the Libyan Jews made an effort to observes Jewish dietary restrictions despite the hardship, and traded their cooked meals for bread. Many of the Libyan Jews perished in the camp, mainly elderly people who couldn’t withstand the hunger, torture and disease.


Further reading

  • Michel Abitbol - History of the Jews of Arab Lands
  • Renzo De Felice - Jews in an Arab Land, Libya
  • Seth Ward - The Holocaust in North Africa

See also

External links


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