I always have had a special bond with my 88 year old grandmother, Laura. It began when I was a baby, as she helped my mother raise my twin sister and I. It continues to this very day (30 years later): each time I visit, she prepares my favorite Libyan cuisine – Mafroum (meat-stuffed potatoes), Couscous and Chraime (spicy fish). She has loved me unconditionally since I was born and has never complained about anything although I knew that she did not have easy time after arriving in Israel from Tripoli, Libya in 1967. She lost her husband (my grandfather), a few years afterwards and had to work hard in several cleaning jobs in order to support her four children. Despite being close, we never talked about our family’s past history in Libya; I never asked. This changed when I began my academic studies at the department of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I discussed my origins with my professor and she suggested that I write my seminar paper on the Jews of Libya. I could take advantage of the fact that my grandmother is still alive and provide a firsthand testimony of her life in Libya.
At first when I addressed my grandmother and indicated that I was interested in her life story in Libya, she was surprised. After all, I was her first of nineteen grandchildren to show an interest. We scheduled a date for an interview for the following week. I came to her house with a recorder and a camera and discovered my short grandmother dressed up wearing her best jewelry. She agreed to be interviewed only if I stay for lunch afterwards, an offer I could not refuse. I assumed it would take one hour, and before we had noticed 3.5 hours flew by. Her story fascinated me and I kept asking more and more questions, which my grandmother was more than happy to answer. She even brought out old photo albums filled with black and white photos from Libya, providing detailed explanations for each photo, as if they were taken yesterday. Her eyes were lit up as she spoke about life in Tripoli and I was transported from 21st century-Israel to the Libya of the 1950s and 1960s. For a couple of hours my grandmother became young again, sharing gossip and love stories from good old Tripoli. I felt lucky to have had this precious opportunity to spend quality time with her and was swept away by her stories and the way she told them, mixing Hebrew with words and phrases in Italian as well as a few in Arabic which are the two spoken languages in Libya.
It was only then, when I took the time to interview my grandmother that I discovered that my family belonged to the small and wealthy Jewish community of 4000-6000 Jews who chose to remain in the country under the independent Libyan regime of King Idris who began his rule in December 1951. They did not have their bags packed in anticipation of an opportunity to leave to the newly born state of Israel (established in 1948). On the contrary, they were integrated into a narrow stratum of foreign and Muslim elites, all of whom were part of the same social milieu and were rooted in Tripoli by their property, assets, and financial interests. They lived a rich life that ended brutally in June 1967, when they were rapidly forced to leave their hometown following the sudden outbreak of anti-Jewish violent riots associated with the Six-Day war (fought by Israel and her neighboring Arab states), and gave up their homes and all of their possessions. 17 Jews were murdered in these riots, including two entire families: the Luzon family and the Raccah family, the family of my grandfather’s sister. My grandmother always said that the main reason for my grandfather’s death was a broken heart: he couldn’t stop thinking of his sister and her family that were killed.
Since very little was written about this wealthy community, I took it as a mission to record their forgotten lives. I continued my path on a 3 year research journey that took place in both Israel and Italy, the center of the Libyan Jewish community, and ended in 2014 with a written MA Thesis and a few other articles on this topic.
Next year, 2017, we are going to commemorate 50 years since the 1967 war, the war that completely changed my grandmother’s life. Since the long interview in which my grandmother opened up her heart to me, I have been looking at her with an increased amount of admiration. I admire her for her courage and strength considering the difficulties she went through within her lifetime and her sharp shift from the good life of the past in Tripoli to the difficult and harsh reality of the present in Israel. In Libya she did not have to work, her family had money and they were living ‘la dolce vita’ but when they arrived to Israel they had nothing – no work, no money, no language – and needed to start from scratches. My grandmother’s story taught me an important lesson for life – to always bear in mind that we have to be thankful and appreciate what we have today and live in the moment because we don’t know what the future holds for us, for good or bad.
In the picture attached you can see my grandmother Laura with my uncle Jules-Hai (in the car toy) and his aunt Eliza Debasch surrounded by their relatives who were murdered, 3 generations: Emilia Habib, the grandmother, Fortuna Raccah, the mother (Efraim, her husband is missing in the pic) and Isacco and Rachele (Lina) – the children. May their souls rest in peace.