The Woman Who Taught England Chemistry

Back in the 19th century, it wasn’t considered appropriate to teach women chemistry. Jane Marcet thought it might be worthwhile anyway, so she wrote a chemistry book for women that became the one of the world's most popular textbooks for half a century.

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A woman born in 18th-century Britain was expected to look pretty and keep quiet. At least that’s how we imagine things as we look back at the past from the comfort of our 21st century. But as the European Enlightenment took hold, more and more families provided their daughters with an exceptional education that went beyond what women were expected to know at the time. This was the case in the family of Jane Haldimand, the daughter of a Swiss merchant and banker from Geneva, who had no objection to exposing his only daughter to the same subjects his sons were taught, by the best tutors money could buy.

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Portrait of Jane Marcet, from the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, the University of Pennsylvania

It so happened that Jane studied Latin and the basic principles of chemistry, biology, history, and philosophy. She also developed an interest in art and learned to draw and sketch. At the age of 15, she was forced to take on the duties of managing the household after her mother died in childbirth. Jane became responsible for raising her younger siblings and hosting her father’s clients, and through conversations with the latter, she managed to further expand her knowledge.

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Jane Marcet in the company of her books

When Jane Haldimand married her husband, he didn’t recoil from her extensive education, quite the opposite. Her husband Alexander Marcet was a client of her father’s. He was a doctor who had studied in Edinburgh after having fled there to escape conflicts that broke out in Geneva in the mid-18th century.  Jane accepted her new name – Jane Marcet – by which she’d become well-known in the future. She shared her husband’s hobby, which he preferred over tending to his patients: The couple were simply quite interested in chemistry. The more successful Dr. Alexander Marcet’s clinic became, the more time the two could devote to scientific research. Indeed, Dr. Marcet lectured on chemistry and conducted public demonstrations and experiments, and the couple’s research contributed to medical knowledge and the diagnosis of kidney stones. The two were among the founders of the Royal Society of Medicine, and Alexander played a central role in it.

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Portrait of Marcet’s husband Alexander, by H. Meyer

In the late 18th century, science was in vogue. Dr. Marcet was only one of many popular chemistry lecturers who appeared before the general public and demonstrated the latest scientific innovations. However, this knowledge was generally the domain of men alone and wasn’t considered suitable for women. Jane Marcet didn’t necessarily set out to change this, but she wanted to spread the knowledge she had accumulated over the years in a quick and easy manner, and to make it accessible to women as well. That is how her book Conversations on Chemistry, published in 1805, came about.

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Conversations on Chemistry in Which the Elements of That Science are Familiarly Explained and Illustrated by Experiments. The first edition of this book didn’t include the name of the author. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

It took Marcet about three years to write it, apparently with the help of her husband who edited the chapters. In order to avoid a conflict of interest with her husband’s work, Marcet first published the book anonymously, even though the preface clearly stated that the author was a woman. Marcet also wrote outright that the book was adapted for women and she emphasized that she believed it offered a level of knowledge suitable for ladies. At the same time, she admitted that she was not a scientist and hadn’t delved into the complexities and intricacies of science in a way that others might think wasn’t appropriate for a woman.

As hinted at in the title, the book is structured as a conversation between a teacher and her students, who are referred to by their first names. The teacher explains and demonstrates chemical principles mainly based on the work of the 18th century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who laid the foundations for much of modern chemistry. Interspersed throughout are sketches that Marcet herself drew, including some depicting various chemical experiments and devices.

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An illustration from the book, drawn by hand by the author, from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Practically overnight, the book became a smashing success. Sixteen editions were published in Britain alone from 1805 until 1853. Numerous versions and revised or annotated editions of the book were also published in the United States, and imitations were also printed. Marcet herself was involved in updating and revising the additional editions that were published in Britain, and in 1837, her name finally appeared on the cover. The book became the leading chemistry textbook during the first half of the 19th century. A copy of the first edition is kept in the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel, and pictures of it have been included in this article.

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The book is written as a conversation between a teacher and her students. The readers are invited to act out what is written. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Marcet herself continued publishing similar Conversations on… books on subjects like the natural sciences, economy, and theology. But her first published book, Conversations on Chemistry, was the most successful and what she became best-known for. The book’s level of influence can be summed up by the following anecdote: While working as an apprentice in a bookbinding workshop, a young boy came across Marcet’s book. He wasn’t deterred by the fact that its target audience was women; he kept leafing through it and fell in love with the world of chemistry. This boy was from a lower-class family, he wasn’t fortunate enough to receive a formal education, and had to study on his own. Michael Faraday would go on to became one history’s most important chemists and physicists.

Even Borscht Tastes Like Home

New on the shelf: When we leave home, even when we make that decision willingly and voluntarily, there is still a connection to the place we left behind. And there’s nothing like food to reawaken those memories and that unique sense of longing.

By Noa Reichmann

“All Ukrainians are supposed to love borsch(t)—but what if you hate the red stuff? A young girl despises Eastern Europe’s most beloved soup, and not even the grandmothers of Kiev can persuade her to change her mind…”

         From the cover of I Hate Borsch!

Yevgenia Nayberg, an award-winning theater designer, author and illustrator, grew up in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States.

As a Ukrainian girl, she was expected to love sour beet soup, otherwise known as borsch or borscht – but what to do, she really can’t stand the “red, thick, disgusting soup!” With many a humorous illustration, she describes her excitement at all the elements of Ukrainian agriculture being enlisted in the service of making this national dish. Her sense of persecution is also translated into amusing, brightly colored illustrations.

While preparing to leave for the United States, Yevgenia receives many recipes for making borscht, and every grandma she knows swears her own recipe is the one true original. Arriving at the Promised Land of America teaches her new things about the hated dish: it’s called borscht there rather than the Ukrainian “borsch”, it comes in bottles and has no taste at all…

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Moving to the US exposed Yevgenia to new foods and tastes. But as time passed and after eating “tons” of American food, she felt something was missing. Maybe she missed the sight of the red liquid in the white ceramic bowl, the heavy crooked spoon on the wooden table, or the “amber tea in the cloudy glass”. After opening up her old suitcase and taking out her old children’s clothes, she took the borsch recipes, laid them on the table, read them one by one, and then went to the kitchen to prepare the dish.

The book ends, naturally, with the author’s own recipe for borsch.

Unfortunately, many Israeli citizens have also had to recently leave their homes, and not out of choice. Some of them don’t even have any souvenirs of their former lives, which were turned upside down in a day.

The National Library of Israel collections include recipe books produced in various communities around the country, many of them in kibbutzim.

Because of the character of life on the kibbutz in the past, most of the recipes in the older books refer to baked goods: cakes, cookies, and salted pastries. There are also recipes for salads and other dishes appropriate for hosting guests, but usually not recipes for whole meals.

This was the case with a publication released by the “Baking Mothers Organization” of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in 1985. An absolute majority of its recipes cover cookies and cakes.

The online cookbook put out by Kibbutz Be’eri in 2022 is representative of kibbutz life in the 21st century. It includes recipes for all parts of the meal: starters, soups, main dishes, and desserts. It contains traditional foods from different Jewish communities, alongside foods from around the world: sushi salad with seaweed alongside Hungarian goulash with nokedli or couscous soup.

The very mention of some dish we knew in the past always has an emotional connection – of rejection, or of longing.

May the dishes, morsels and recipes we encounter only conjure up pleasant memories!

Translated from Hebrew by Avi Woolf

“You can recover from this”: When Past Captives Told Their Stories

When they finally returned home, the Israeli POWs of the War of Attrition decided to do something unusual for their time – they shared their experiences. The decision to put things down in writing did not dull the pain, but it did allow them to connect to their own inner strength, to a sense of enduring hope and to the shared experience in captivity that helped them survive. For their relatives, it offered a glimpse of what could rarely be discussed face to face

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24-year-old Giora Romm, arriving home after four months in Egyptian captivity, December 1969, source: family album

By Yael Ingel

In 1973, Lieutenant Dan Avidan returned home after three and a half months in Egyptian captivity. On the outside, he looked physically fine, but the years in captivity had forever left their mark on his health: the injuries and torture he suffered damaged his legs and diabetes spread through his body due to his emotional state. Like many of those released from captivity, he tried to go back to a normal life with his family and his daily work routine at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, but the shadows of his haunting experience followed him everywhere.

Young Dan Avidan and his father Shimon, who was commander of the Givati Brigade during the War of Independence. Some feared that Dan was treated particularly cruelly because of his father’s past and the Egyptians’ hatred for him. Photo courtesy of the Kibbutz Ein Hashofet Archive

Years afterward, there was one thing Avidan took with him everywhere and with which he refused to part – a book. A signed copy he always carried with him – to the point that when he was rescued from a serious car accident and all his personal items were destroyed, the first thing he tried to do was to get a new signed copy.

The book is called Chutz Mitziporim (lit. “Aside From Birds”, later translated into English as Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWs). It is a faithful recounting of the long stretch of time he spent with nine other Israeli soldiers in Egyptian captivity. The book is based on interviews with the ten former prisoners of war. The author, Professor Amia Lieblich, still clearly remembers Avidan’s appeal to her for a new copy: “He treated it like a lucky charm,” she recalled. “It was a source of pride for him, his source of strength, and this is why he always kept it close wherever he went. Always.”

What did the book contain to make it so meaningful for Dan Avidan, the former captive, as well as all those mentioned in it?

Did they gain strength from reliving the descriptions of how they fell into captivity? From reading about the interrogations, the torture, and the isolation they endured? The book in fact reveals something far greater: the incredible mental strength these ten soldiers already possessed at the time, the internal world of those who endured three unbearable years, and perhaps most importantly – their social organization, which included a weekly assembly where decisions were made on a democratic basis, joint study sessions, board games, and even schedules for dishwashing and making food – all the ways in which the captives tried to restore a sense of routine and normality in an utterly abnormal situation.

Chutz Mitziporim(lit. “Aside From Birds”) by Amia Lieblich [Hebrew]. Cover: Ofer Echo. The Hebrew title is taken from a quote of Menachem Eini, one of the captives: “It was the first time we came out of the courtyard without our eyes covered – I discovered the horizon. All those years, I didn’t see anything beyond the 18 meters of the room and the courtyard. Aside from birds that flew in the sky”

In an era when the concept of psychological trauma (or PTSD) was not yet widely recognized – indeed, it doesn’t even appear in the book – the idea of writing and publishing a book about the experience of captivity was groundbreaking. The internal feelings which helped the prisoners survive in Egyptian captivity for so long likely also helped them understand that sharing their story and experiences would be of value, to themselves and to others. The book includes their own insights from their period in captivity and interviews with the spouses of some of the captives, effectively seeking to encompass this difficult experience from all angles.

They were not the only ones who did this. More than a few former hostages and prisoners of war have felt the need to document their own history. For some, exposing and working out the story was no less important an experience than the captivity itself. I set out on a journey to learn the story behind these revelations, and discovered them to be an incredible source of strength and even comfort.

A Book is Born

The year was 1986. Amia Lieblich was then a particularly busy scholar and author, when she got a phone call from Col. (res.) Rami Harpaz. He, like Avidan, was among the ten soldiers who were in Egyptian captivity together and who were released 13 years earlier. Since that time, an idea had been brewing in his mind, and he now felt the time had come to realize his vision.

Harpaz had read some of Lieblich’s books and understood that she was the woman he was looking for: a scholar and social psychologist, who knew how to weave together the stories of a number of individuals who have something in common, into one fascinating tome.

He thought there was value in a joint investigation of what happened during those years in captivity, and was hoping that she would acquiesce and write about it. Lieblich knew of Rami and his comrades from the well-publicized story of Israeli pilots translating JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit while in Egyptian captivity, but she was up to her neck in prior obligations at the time. When he asked, she responded: “Get back to me in a year.”

As befits a person raised on a kibbutz established by German Jews, punctuality was a must for Harpaz. Therefore, exactly one year later, Harpaz appealed once again to Lieblich: “Are you free, now?” Surprised at his diligence, she read one of the journals he left her, a document from the joint assemblies in captivity managed by each of the prisoners in turn, and immediately understood that she had to write their story.

She had only one condition: Harpaz had to speak to all his other comrades from the period of captivity and ensure they were all interested in taking part in the book. The sense of pride that Harpaz and his friends shared concerning how they spent their time in captivity and the desire to talk about what they went through emotionally, got them to agree. They felt they had a story to tell the world and Israeli society in particular.

Another 48 Captives Returned From Egypt, Including the 9 Long-Term CaptivesAl Hamishmar, November 18, 1973

“It’s perhaps worthwhile to have been taken captive just for that”

Among those ten IDF prisoners of war who were held in the notorious Abbasiya prison were both senior pilots and civilian IDF employees who operated mobile canteens. Many testified that the interrogations and torture were not the worst part of the experience. The uncertainty and isolation, not knowing whether people in Israel were even aware they were alive – this is what burdened them in their first months in captivity, which they spent isolated from one another. When they were finally transferred to a shared cell and began receiving letters and Red Cross visits, the improvement in their state of mind was enormous.

When the ten released POWs summarize what their experience in captivity gave them in the book, they mention the education they acquired and the social skills they learned in finding ways to all get along. They made particular note of Rami Harpaz’s critical role in organizing their shared life in the cramped, difficult conditions in which they were living.

One of them, Motti C., recalled: “…[Rami] was our teacher. He he built us all in the proper way. I have never said it to him, but living with a man like him in one room for three years proved to be an experience for a lifetime. It’s perhaps worthwhile to have been taken captive just for that” (Seasons of Captivity, p. 261). Motti did not suffice with what he told Lieblich in the interview for the book, but also took care to repeatedly tell it to Harpaz himself when they would meet to mark the anniversary of their release from captivity, Lieblich told us.

But not everyone managed to go back to normal life. Another released POW, Motti Bablar, described the heavy burden he carried with him, sometimes too heavy. In an interview he gave many years after the book was published, he described the trauma he dealt with, a concept that didn’t exist in Israeli society at the time: “It was easier in Egyptian prison, at least there I only had to worry about myself! At home, I had a wife and three children I had to care for.”

“Egyptians Denied Medical Care From Captive Pilots; Left Their Fractures Open to Break Their Spirit.” Maariv, December 7, 1969

“These are the boundaries of the field – act!”

Rami Harpaz’s name comes up again and again and his exceptional stature among the captives comes through across the pages of the book. His strong personality, the quiet leadership he displayed, his decision-making abilities, his charisma and humanity are all mentioned over and over. Even after he was released, Harpaz continued to rise through the ranks of the Air Force and moved up in the management structure of a successful factory in his kibbutz, Hazorea.

How did he do it? What are the tools he used to successfully deal with being held captive for three years? Harpaz developed an existential philosophy during his time in the Egyptian prison, influenced in part by books sent to him, such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He concluded from these that it is in the power of any person to determine how they feel in regards to whatever circumstances they find themselves in. During captivity, he formed a deep understanding that he had no control over what was happening – but that he was the only one who could determine how he would respond to it all. It would seem this approach positively affected everything around him. When asked to explain the approach that kept him optimistic and active throughout this period, he said:

“You have no control over the facts, naturally, but you have control over your attitude toward them. This principle worked for me in jail and seems to be working for people everywhere […] I told myself, this is your field, go play the game. That was the difference between me and the others […] Feelings like rage, frustration or helplessness, questions like ‘Why me?’ don’t exist for me.” (Seasons of Captivity, p. 261-262)

Rami Harpaz welcomed by the members of Kibbutz Hazorea. Photo from Hashavui Ve’Eshet Hashavui: Nurit Ve-Rami Harpaz (translated as Letters From Captivity: The Israeli Pilot and his Wife)

Not only was this the most successful of the dozens of books Lieblich wrote – it was even translated into English – she claims this was the book that most deeply affected her personally, and she attributes much of it to Harpaz’s life philosophy. This can be seen in Lieblich’s decision to establish a discourse group that meets annually to discuss the topic of death, and her book Café Mavet (“Café Death”), which came out in 2019. This group conducts itself much like the group in captivity, with a different member leading the discussion every time on a rotational basis.

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Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWs, by Amia Lieblich, the English translation of Chutz Mitziporim

After the terrible events of October 7, when many people were taken hostage by Hamas and held in captivity in Gaza, journalists turned to Lieblich, asking to interview her on the psychological state of the hostages – both those that were eventually freed, as well as those still being held hostage by Hamas. She refused.

Amia agreed to speak with us about past cases involving former captives and made it very clear that “there is no similarity at all between captivity then and captivity now: those were soldiers and these are civilians, then it was a sovereign state subject to international law and now it is not, then the Red Cross was involved and here they are not. And these are just a few examples.”

Still, when asked what she would say if she encountered someone released from Hamas captivity, and what she could offer them from her own experience of speaking to those freed after the War of Attrition, she gave a very clear response:

“Those who underwent terrible things and returned – they should tell their story. Let someone write it up. Letting experiences out, not necessarily in therapy, perhaps alongside it, is meaningful, it helps. I saw it with the captives of the War of Attrition.”

Yair Dori, a paratrooper who was seriously wounded and taken prisoner in 1970. He spent some ten months in Egyptian captivity, some of which was with the ten captives Lieblich interviewed for her book. Right: “hospitalized, wounded and dying, in a military hospital in Cairo.” Left: “with his mother upon returning, hospitalized in Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer.” From: Yair Dori – Sipuro Shel Tzanchan Yisra’eli Bashevi Hamitzri (“Yair Dori – The Story of an Israeli Paratrooper in Egyptian Captivity”, Aharon Dolev and Yair Dori, published a year after his return in 1972)]

The Children Waiting at Home

In difficult situations, sometimes a very human and understandable need arises for a third, outside person, who isn’t family, to intervene and help someone open up and tell their story. Sometimes it takes this type of external figure to help unload and overcome feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt, as well as any sense of distance that can form between those who have returned from captivity and their relatives, due to the lengthy period of separation.

Yitzhak (Jeff) Peer is another former pilot. He was also among the group of ten captives interviewed by Lieblich. He was one of those who used Lieblich’s work as an aid that helped him tell his family what he went through in captivity. Jeff was born in the United States and made Aliyah at age 14. He played a significant role in putting together the famous translation of The Hobbit into Hebrew. After returning from captivity, he moved back to to the United States and became a test pilot. Lieblich flew to meet him there:

“He asked me if his 17-year-old daughter could join the interviews I conducted with him. I said of course, and then I realized that this was the first time she was hearing from him about his experiences in captivity. Before this, he simply couldn’t tell her. It was precisely this framework of an interview for a book that helped them become closer. It was a rare opportunity for both of them.”

The children of these captives did not find it easy to overcome the absence of a missing father during the period of captivity. Dalia Harpaz was one of the twins born to Rami while he was being held in Egypt. They only first met each other when she was three and a half years old. In conversation with her, she said that because her father was absent during the critical early childhood phase of bonding between parents and children, she never really managed to truly believe and internalize that Rami was indeed her father.

Over the years and after growing up, their connection strengthened, but something fundamental was always missing. As an adult, Dalia stresses that she never lacked for anything. She describes her father as an incredible person, a good-hearted man who was a source of inspiration for her in how he faced adversity.

Newspaper report on the birth of twins Dalia and Deganit Harpaz, whose mother Nurit was eight months pregnant when her husband Rami was taken captive. Haaretz, August 8, 1970

Towards the end of his life, while struggling with Parkinson’s, Rami wrote a book with his wife entitled Letters From Captivity: The Israeli Pilot and his Wife. The book is a dialogue between the two of them about the long stretch of captivity, in which they describe the difficulties and small victories along the way.

Dalia tells of how the books on her father’s time in captivity sparked a conversation between the two of them on the subject, which was hardly discussed beforehand at home:

“Until I read Chutz Mitziporim [Seasons of Captivity], I didn’t know what my father went through! And until I read the drafts for the book he wrote with my mother – I didn’t know what she went through, these were really new revelations for me – her heroism, the pressures she experienced, the difficulty in raising girls alone and maintaining hope, the dreams she had that were shattered.”

“Captivity doesn’t pass”

Giora Romm, a pilot who fell captive in 1969 and returned home before Rami Harpaz and his comrades were taken captive, eventually published his book, Solitary: The Crash, Captivity and Comeback of an Ace Fighter Pilot. He only got around to writing it when he was in his sixties, after having served in a number of public roles.

In the book, Romm wrote about the four months he spent in captivity. Getting back to normal life was not simple, but he was determined – he wanted to live. The book also describes these challenges – the difficulties of life after captivity.

A year after he returned from Egypt, Romm was back flying a fighter jet. When he flew over the Nile Delta, the region where he’d been shot down two years previously, he experienced uncontrollable shaking, extreme dryness in the mouth, and a rapid heart rate.

Rom passed away in August 2023, after years of service in both the Air Force, which he left with the rank of Major General, and the public sector. Neta Gurevitch, his daughter, was born some two years after he returned from captivity. When we spoke with her, she stressed that although her father lived a full and fruitful life after returning from captivity, and would invest in and be present for her, traces of that time in captivity remained with him: “captivity doesn’t pass. The captive spends their whole life trying to integrate that experience into the rest of their life.”

“Air Force pilot Giora Yaakov Rom, whose plane was shot down on the 11th of the month in Egyptian territory, was photographed in a hospital in Cairo, where he is recovering from his wounds”. Haaretz, September 21, 1969

When she says “Literature is dear to my heart because it is a tool which allows one to undergo the experience of another and internalize it,” it seems to me that she is mostly talking about the life story of her beloved father.

As far as Neta is concerned, the book her father wrote can help us during these difficult days, when we pray for the safe return of all the hostages:

“This book is testament to the fact that you can recover from this thing. There is life afterwards. There is life with meaning afterwards, with all the difficulties along the way. Maybe if people read it, they will connect with that place of hope.”

Giora Romm (left) with his family. Second from right: his daughter, Neta Gurevitch. Photo: Ran Mendelson. From a family album

 

What Happened to Libyan Jews in the Holocaust?

The horrors of the Holocaust did not pass over the Jews of North Africa, but theirs is a story that is rarely told. This is the story of those who were called “schwarze Juden” (“black Jews”) by the Nazis. Some were sent to concentration camps erected in the desert, and others shipped off to Europe as prisoners of war…

زوجان يهوديان من ليبيا، ناجيان من معسكر بيرغن بيلسن، يضعان الشارة الصفراء، من كتاب "صور من الذاكرة"، "أور شالوم"

A Jewish couple from Libya, survivors of Bergen Belsen, wearing yellow stars. From the book "Temunot Zikaron" (Pictures of Memory, Hebrew), the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage

Today there is a growing understanding that it was not only the Jews of Europe who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, yet most people are still unaware of what happened to North African Jewry during the great catastrophe that befell the Jewish people during the Second World War

North African Jewry is not a monolith. Just as Algerian Jewry is different from Moroccan Jewry, the Jews of Libya are not the same as the Jews of Tunisia. The same is true of how each of these communities experienced the Holocaust.

There is no doubt that the North African Jewish community which most directly experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and in the most brutal fashion, was the Libyan Jewish community. The Nazis, with the help of their allies the Italians, who controlled Libya from 1911 to 1943, conquered Libya from the British and established three concentration camps there. The largest and most well-known of these was Giado, and the others were Gharyan and Sidi Azaz. The Germans herded as many Jews as they could get their hands on into these camps, including women and children.

Giado concentration camp. Over 2600 Jews were imprisoned here, and about 600 died of hunger, exhaustion and disease. Courtesy of the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage

The Jews of the region of Cyrenaica, with its Mediterranean capital of Benghazi, made up the majority of Libyan Jews who were sent to the camps at this stage. Yet many Jews from the city of Tripoli, the capital of the Tripolitania region and of Libya itself, were also placed in the concentration camps established in the heart of the Sahara Desert.

This, however, was not enough for the Nazis.

They also took a large group of upper-class Libyan Jews and sent them to concentration camps in Europe, to ensure that they would eventually be murdered alongside their Ashkenazi brethren. These Jews were forced to take part in a grueling, lengthy trek that took them from the searing heat of the African continent to the freezing European cold – to camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen.

Clearing bodies in Bergen-Belsen near booth 210, where Libyan prisoners were held. Courtesy of the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage

Unfortunately, my family members were among the Jews placed in these camps, and some of them ultimately perished in the Holocaust. When I wrote the book Benghazi Bergen-Belsen (cover below), I traced the history of my family and their community in the Holocaust. For the three years I wrote the book, I actually lived in the terrible places they passed through in Africa and Europe. I clung to the mind of Silvana Haggiag, who despite her young age, was able to lead my family and the entire Libyan-Jewish community, despite unimaginable degrees of suffering.

The character of Silvana is, if you wish, the image of my grandmother, who survived Bergen-Belsen. She and many members of the Libyan Jewish community who managed to survive the camps in Europe, provided me with firsthand accounts of their experiences. Through them and others, I became aware of the murderous machine that took North African Jews from the heart of the Sahara Desert into Europe, not sufficing with simply murdering them in Libya. They did this since these Jews had British passports, which they took to Europe as prisoners of war. But the Nazis did not treat them as such, and they were taken in cargo ships to Italy, where they endured an unsettling and arduous journey to the concentration camps in Europe.

When I wrote the book, I did it not only for my own family or community but for the sake of humanity. I wanted to bring back into public discourse, that which has been erased, perhaps unknowingly, by Israeli history. To my joy, the novel I wrote about my family and what they experienced in the camps has helped the Holocaust of Libyan Jewry to enter into the Israeli collective consciousness.

Left – Rachel Messika, murdered at Giado concentration camp at the age of 50. From the Yad Vashem Photo and Film Archives

But now I understand that along with the primary goal of writing this book, there was another purpose: my personal desire to reach a state where it would be easier for me to forget. I wanted to forget the Holocaust which my family and my people experienced, for a time. I didn’t want to allow the Holocaust to intervene in my day-to-day life, to influence my stance towards life – or my belief in the human race.

I wanted a break from the Holocaust, and I thought that if I wrote about it, I could meet the condition that might allow me to enjoy such a break. But it turned out this condition was necessary yet not sufficient. In order to take a break from the Holocaust, I had to avoid Israeli society, which is saturated with it.

The Holocaust is present everywhere in Israeli society, in every nook and cranny. The Holocaust is regularly used by everyone around us – leaders, politicians, media figures, and even ordinary citizens use it unnecessarily, bending it to their own needs, to the point that one day it will be flattened beyond recognition.

Libyan Jews, survivors of Bergen-Belsen, return to Libya. The train car says “To Tripoli” with a Union Jack drawn below

In our society, the Holocaust isn’t just above the surface. It can very often be found behind the scenes as well, guiding the behaviors of groups, communities, and individuals in a covert manner, to the point that it’s hard to even see its effects. There’s no break from it.

But what will become of us, those who don’t wish to live anywhere else, for whom Israel is the only place to be, and for whom Israeli life, with all its flaws, is the center of their world? Are we doomed to walk forever under the shadow of the Holocaust? Will we have to feel the ramifications of one of the most terrible events in the history of civilization so long as we live? Not necessarily.

This need not be. We must speak of the Holocaust sparingly, gently, with awe, turning our backs on those who make crude use of it for their own purposes. The moment that happens, the treatment of the Holocaust itself will change. Then will I also be able to put it aside, and take leave of my bloody family history. But until that day, I am doomed to live under the constant bombardment of those who speak in the name of the Holocaust, and I myself will continue to bleed.

Benghazi Bergen-Belsen, by Yossi Sucary, translated by Yardenne Greenspan, 2016