Leaving Libya

Founded in 2001 by former Jewish refugees from Libya and Egypt, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) was launched as a grassroots initiative to educate and engage Jewish institutional leaders, policymakers, Jewish college students, and members of the general public to the unknown personal and collective stories of the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their mission is to achieve universal recognition for the heritage and contemporary history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.

JIMENA’s Oral History Project aims to collect and preserve the personal histories of Jews who fled Arab lands and now live in the United States. Little has been done to document, preserve, and expose the personal and collective stories of trauma and loss experienced by Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees are part of an aging population and for the sake of Jewish history and historical accuracy in the Middle East and North Africa, we must ensure that their histories are properly documented. JIMENA’s growing archives of unedited film interviews, transcripts, written testimonies, and copies of documents are available to the public for research.

Niv is honoured to share Doris Nachum’s testimony detailing life in Libya for her family in the late 60s and how they found safe harbour in Israel, and eventually America.

It was June 5 1967, the start of the Six-Day War. Doris Nachum was eight years old. Her house was built on top of a synagogue, in a part of Tripoli minutes from the port and sea.

“Whenever something happened in Israel,” Doris said, “it would not even be five minutes and there would be Arabs out in the street rioting and looking for Jews.”

On that day almost 20 Jews would die and house after house would be burned. The population of Libyan Jews in 1948 is estimated at nearly 40,000. By the time of the Six-Day War that number had dwindled to 7,000. Many left after a series of pogroms in 1945 and 1949, and after Libya gained its independence in 1951. Today not a single Jew remains.

When the news of the war broke out on the airwaves, a neighbour yelled for Doris’s mother, Julia, to turn on the radio. The announcer said 60 Israeli planes had already been destroyed. Julia knew what this meant and yelled down to her husband who was in the synagogue praying. She told him to have all the other men leave and hide, and told him to lock the doors to the long hallway and come upstairs.

Doris’s father ran up the stairs to the attic, where he met Julia and all six of his children. 

“Our home was the first target,” Doris states. She pauses, trying to collect her thoughts; her words falter. “They were banging at the door. My mother knew our doors were strong but not strong enough.”

Doris’s father moved past the children and pulled the ladder up. “My mother told him to pull it up so they wouldn’t know we were home.” Doris’s father froze when he heard the mob break in through the door, and began praying.

Doris and her family later hid in their neighbour’s attic with the neighbour’s family. Below them lived an Arab who Doris’s neighbours had begged to protect them from the mob. When the rioters wanted to go upstairs and tear through the house, he told them that it was his right to refuse them. Surprisingly, the mob turned their attention elsewhere.

It was still early in the morning and Julia didn’t have time to finish her routine feeding and dressing the children before their father would take them to school. The children had nothing but their underwear on when Doris, out of curiosity, peaked out from the window. “It was horrible . . . horrible . . .  horrible, the picture I saw. They were chanting, ‘kill the Jews!’ and in my mind I thought there were a million but there were really more like a thousand.” 

Across the street used to be a bank and inside that same building lived a prominent Jewish family. The grandmother worked in the palace for the Libyan King, Idris. While Doris says that most of Tripoli’s Jewish community was constantly bribing and showing deference to the Arabs, this woman did not.

“If someone got on her back she would get right back on theirs. So everyone wanted revenge. They had everything in their hands: fire, axes, knives, swords . . . everything. They were banging, trying to break the doors and they set the curtains on fire. They tried all day but it was a miracle they couldn’t get in.”

However, the rioters destroyed the synagogue and Doris’s home. She remembers the smell of smoke as it burned. She recalled feeling only a numbness.

At 11 o’clock that night the violence subsided. King Idris knew he couldn’t protect the Jews in their home, but as Doris explained, he wanted to protect them because they were extremely productive members of Libyan society. So the king sent secret police in the night to round them up.

The police drove the family 45 minutes from the capital into the desert, according to Doris. Over 3,000 Jews were kept in an old British Military base, she says. The fences were reinforced with sandbags so nobody could look in.

“We were lucky,” she recalled. But some families weren’t as fortunate. 

The Luzon family had seven boys who were killed. Their bodies burned in the burners used to make the charcoal-like pigment in exterior paints.

While in the camp, Qaddafi gained power and King Idris offered Jews temporary transfer to Italy where the refugees could be safe until he regained control. Doris’s family was flown to Rome.

On the way there, Julia begged the driver to stop by her house. When the mob was at her door she had taken money and some jewelry and stuffed it in a sock, throwing it in the basement for safekeeping. In the rubble of their home, she found it. 

In the line to get on the plane, Doris remembered guards brutally taking any property they found on the refugees. Julia had hid the money and jewels in cans of halva, her hair and a piece of jewelry in Doris’ hand. The guards noticed how closely Julia kept to her daughter, so they stopped them and asked to search Julia.  

“She looked in the guards eyes,” Doris reflected, “and said, ‘Whatever you suspect I have is too little for you and if you take it I will have nothing left.’” The guards let her pass.

From Italy, Doris and her family moved to Israel. The Israeli government put them in a Sh-huna near Netanya, where her family has been ever since.

Doris moved to the United States in 1989 and is currently a real estate agent working in Silicon Valley. She is married and has two daughters.

Header image design by Orly Zebak.

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