Tribute to Old Man and the Sea

7 May

My father, Joseph Labi, 88, always loved the sea.  As a child in Benghazi, Libya, he frequented the seaport and watched boats sail in and out of the Italian, Fascist-controlled harbor.

Joseph Labi today

Joseph Labi today

Many years later, in Israel, I recall my father taking me to the sea in Bat-Yam, our hometown outside Tel-Aviv.  We waded into the blue water until our toes could no longer touch the sand below. Then we floated and awaited for the waves to roll in from the deep.  We body-surfed the waves, our arms swinging like windmills to catch the cresting wave, carried to shore, and back again, and back again.

Joseph and wife Yvonne today

Joseph and wife Yvonne today

It is fitting, then, that last week the Holocaust Memorial documentarian chose to film my father with the sea behind him as a backdrop.  I look at my father and I can’t believe his age, nor mine — time did fly.

Joseph Labi at 15 in Italian village

Joseph Labi at 15 in Italian village

It was not until 1968, shortly after my Bar Mitzvah that I fully learned of my father’s horrific experience at the hands of the Nazis.  I was in the Israeli-equivalent of the Boy Scouts and I was asked to volunteer my father to speak of his ordeal in front of the “troops.”  It was a hot summer evening.  My father, dressed fashionably as he always did, fanned his face with a folded handkerchief.  I sat speechless long after he’d finished talking.  The images didn’t add up.  How was this stong, muscular, handsome man who stood before me was tortured to near nothingness by the Nazi machine?

Two years before, in 1966, and some twenty years after the end of WWII, my father, mother, sister and I visited a remote village in the Italian mountain range near Reggio Emilia.  “This is where I spent my childhood as an orphan,” he said.  Here in the village, Castelnovo Ne Monti, my father was interned by the Fascists and Nazis for two years.  Walking with him then in the picturesque cobblestone streets shrouded by mountain mist, I couldn’t imagine what he’d endured as a 15 year-old boy before the Nazis put him on a train to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

Joseph with Isael's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Joseph with Isael’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

That same night he and I sat at the Italian village outdoor cafe and watched on a grainy black-and-white TV the 1966 soccer World Cup final game between England and Germany.  While the Italian crowd rooted for their Germans war-allies, my father and I jumped for joy when England won the game and took the cup. That night my father couldn’t be happier, a small revenge of sorts.

Years passed.  He sometimes spoke of his experience at Bergen-Belsen, of his hunger, of his loneliness, of his humiliation, and his desire to live.  After liberation by the Americans, alone, he wandered the bombed-out cities

Joseph, at far left, with Special Combat Forces

Joseph, at far left, honored by Special Combat Forces

of Europe, finally returning to his port city of Benghazi, and the sea.  But it was no longer his home.  Almost everyone he’d known had scattered. He made it to Egypt with a childhood buddy, and from there, dressed as a British Jewish Brigade soldier he was smuggled into British-controlled Palestine.  For two years at a kibbutz he learned to tend to crops, milk the cows; learned to shoot a rifle, learned to read and write Hebrew before being drafted as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence.

Joseph honored by his family at Holocaust Memorial Stage

Joseph honored by his family at Holocaust Memorial Stage

The rest is history.  The number of Holocaust survivors is diminishing worldwide.  Soon there will be no one left to give first-hand testimony.  This week my father was honored as one of six survivors to light the torch at the Holocaust Memorial Services in Jerusalem.  He met with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, finally awarded a stage on which to tell his story.  He owes thanks to his son-in-law Israel who’d campaigned for him for years, and to his grandson Daniel.  My younger daughters, Maya and Romy, 17, honored their grandfather by heading an Israeli delegation to Bergen-Belsen.  There they found his name recorded in the Nazi archives, including the date the train arrived at the camp.

Playing with the latest addition, his great-granddaughter

Playing with the latest addition, his great-granddaughter

My older daughters in America, Michelle and Vanessa, are proud of him, sharing his story with many of their friends of their generation.

The ceremony at Yad Va’Shem is over.  The cameras stopped.  The phone calls to my father from reporters and news crews stopped.  But my father hasn’t.  He will soon put on his soft walking shoes and head to the sea.  There he will stand on the cliff and look into the water, watch the waves roll in.  An old man and his sea.


Below there’s a link to my father’s video testimony.

Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at




13 Responses to “Tribute to Old Man and the Sea”

  1. Mark Bernhard May 7, 2016 at 4:40 pm #

    We don’t know the meaning of bravery and hardship as your father endured during the most horrible war in world history. We must continue to remember, honor people like him, and carry that memory to the next generation the meaning of his existence.

  2. Sandra Galfas May 7, 2016 at 6:25 pm #

    Touching account, Maurice. We are fortunate to have survivors like your father whose stories make the WWII Nazi obscenity more real because the specific recollections of one victim have more impact than the statement “six million Jews were tortured and killed.” The vast number of people who suffered under Adolf Hitler is terrible and something for which the west, including the United States, should be ashamed, but that horrific event becomes far more real when we learn of the terrible sufferings of one of those six million. Thank you for sharing this. Sandy

    • Maurice Labi May 7, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

      Yes, one is a lonely number but also a powerful “one.”

  3. Rachel Canon May 7, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

    Your dad is an inspiration on so many levels.

  4. Avi May 7, 2016 at 11:50 pm #

    Maurice thanks for sharing this beautiful story about your brave dad, about his survival and about his fighting for the Jewish State. Consider yourself lucky that your dad has been able to live to tell his story, which will continue to live in the hearts of his grand daughters. Many of us have not been so lucky; my dad Z”L kept it shut deep in his heart and his story is now buried with him. What a generation it was.

    • Maurice Labi May 8, 2016 at 5:13 pm #

      Too bad your father didn’t share his story, Avi

  5. Rafi Reisfeld May 8, 2016 at 5:03 pm #

    Great article. About 2 years ago I read the book from Bengazi to Bergen Belsen that tells a similar story about the Jews in Lybia at the same time. Fascinating book. Rafi Reisfeld

  6. Adi Harari May 10, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

    Touching to tears Maurice,

    • Maurice Labi May 11, 2016 at 4:58 am #

      Thanks, Adi. Every family has a story: sad, touching, funny

  7. Meg May 12, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    Fathers & their war experiences should NEVER be forgotten. Thank you for sharing this touching episode – I’m glad this marvelous man can enjoy life w/his family.

    He doesn’t know me, but I’m sending a zen-hug to him.

Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: