Twelve. Benghazi Bergen Belsen by Yossi Sucary
2013,Am Oved publishing,304 pages. Written in Hebrew, read in Hebrew.
Israel has always had an ambivalent relationship with the full account of the history of the holocaust. It took sixteen years, and a public trial, to change the opinions that the citizens of the country who lived here throughout the Second World War had about the holocaust survivors — up until then they were shamed into silence and hiding, because their victimhood didn’t resonate well with the young country’s ethos of resistance and bravery — and their stories were finally allowed to be heard.
But even then, the holocaust was reserved only for Jews of a certain geography — mainland Europe. There was a large number of Jews who were also prosecuted, mass murdered, carried in train cars to concentration camps and killed there en masse. They came from the North African countries that were then occupied by Italy, and they had the misfortune of not only being designated sub-humans by the Germans, but also by the other Jewish inhabitants of the concentration camps.
Now — sixty one years after the Second World War is over — some cultural debate is starting to percolate in Israel about the role of North African Jews in the holocaust, and this book is part of it.
It tells the fictional story, based on historical fact, of a family in Benghazi, a city in Northern Libya which is one of the better known cities in Libya to westerners, due to other, more recent, circumstances. At the beginning of the Second World War, Libya was an Italian province, ruled by an Italian installed governor based in Tripoli, and residents of the city, especially wealthy Jewish residents, had good relations with both the Italian authorities and their muslim neighbours.
The novel depicts the gradual affect of the horrors of the war on the residents of Benghazi, by focusing on a single Jewish family named Hajaj, and primarily on its eldest daughter Sylvana. The head of the family is a well-to-do building supplies merchant, who, through his connections and merchandise has kept in good relations with the Italian authorities and is a respected member of the Jewish community in the city. The daughter, being the eldest of two unwed daughters, is brought into the building supplies business as a partner at the beginning of the novel, and the war is only a curiosity happening in the periphery, noted by the changing types of soldiers occupying the city — the Italian soldiers that were there before the war are replaced by the German “black uniforms”, who are then replaced by British soldiers, whom the Germans replace again when the British retreat from the area. The Hajaj family, and another neighbour family, have another shield against the possible affects of the war — they are British citizens carrying British passports, and at the first occurrence of their being deported to an external camp with other Jewish residents, those passports help them return to the city.
But as the novel progresses and the war becomes more and more horrible for Jewish citizens of countries around Europe, their fate gradually becomes worse — they are first taken to a prisoner camp in Italy, at the Civitella del Tronto fortress, and are then moved by freight trains to Bergen Belsen, which is their intended, and for some, actual, final destination.
The novel goes through Sylvana’s gradual descent from indifference, to hope, to despair, to bare survival, throughout the different stations of this journey, and through her eyes several horrific scenarios are described.
The novel ends with the same uncertainty that the war itself had ended for the many inhabitants of the concentration camps who have been left for dead by the retreating Germans and found by the advancing occupying forces— Sylvana survives, and the novel ends with her singing the Israeli national anthem with several other freed inmates in a recording to British radio, but her family, that has been separated from her, may or may not still be alive. And a new journey begins for her.