Tag Archives: Germans

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.

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/remembrance/2016/labi.asp


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 Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Maurice-Labi/e/B00A9H4XEI

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandn

 

 

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Vikings, Germans, Italians in Galilee

31 Aug

The year: 1970

The place: Northview High School, Covina, California.

I’m seated on a green lawn under a tree.  It’s lunch time.  Students line up to get burgers and fries.  Originally from Israel, it’s my second year in California, more specifically, Covina, some 25 miles east of Hollywood, in smoggy San Gabriel Valley.

Doretta with her daughter Angela and her son-in-law, Stefan

Doretta with her daughter Angela and her son-in-law, Stefan

The school’s mascot, the Vikings, is painted on the school wall.  I bite into my tuna sandwich and watch the horns on the Viking’s helmet.  The Vikings crossed the Atlantic to America centuries ago.  As a 15 year-old, I’m in a new land as well. Behind me, I hear a lively conversation.  It’s not the content, but the heavy accent that catches my attention.  It’s foreign.  Foreign?  Could there be another “alien” on campus besides me?

Bride and Groom

Bride and Groom

I turn around.  A girl, blond, is seated cross-legged, hippie-style.  She’s talking to another girl. They giggle.   “Hello,” I offer.

The blond girl introduces herself: “I’m Doretta.”

I tell her and her friend my name.  I soon realize she’s not American. “Where are you from?”

“Roma, Italia,” she says.  She detects my accent, most likely.  “And you?”

“Israel.”

And so began a friendship that spans more than 40 years.

I later learned she was an exchange-student for the year.  Her friend Beverly was her American host.  Doretta was a Junior then; I a sophomore.  During the school year we hung out together, spoke of our “Mediterranean” background, marveled at how Americans were strange yet wonderful.  We spent some weekends together playing tennis, eating fast food, lounging by the swimming pool in my apartment complex.  1970: Funny bathing suits.  Chlorine.  Weird hairstyles.  Rock and Roll.  Big cars.  Smog.

Bride and Groom in traditional Moroccan costume

Bride and Groom in traditional Moroccan costume

And then it was over.  She returned to Italy at end of the school year.  A year later, in 1971, I returned to Israel.

For the next three years we became the best of pen pals; she in Rome, I near Tel Aviv.  We sent each other long letters, colorful postcards from our travels, gifts, record albums.

“Surprise! I’m coming to Israel,” she announced in one of her postcards.

Doretta arrived in the summer of 1974 with her friend, Claudia.  I had them over my house, took them to the beach, to the south, to the north, to Jerusalem.  They then decided to tour the Dead Sea on their own.  Doretta sat at a bus stop, saw an Israeli soldier in uniform, fell in love.  Must be something about uniforms and guns that make women swoon.

She went back to Rome only to pack her things, and returned to Israel, to her man, David.  Doretta, a Christian, converted to Judaism, studied the Torah inside out.  She’d become Jewish.

Who was have guessed?

In 1982 I attended her birthday party in Israel.

I did not see her again until some 13 years later, in 1995.  My wife Pnina and I vacationed in Rome.  I told her about my childhood friend.  I reached for the hotel phone book and looked up Doretta’s maiden name, thinking I’d call her mother and tell her to say hello to Doretta in Israel.

Bride and Groom, Prince and Princess for the Night

Bride and Groom, Prince and Princess for the Night

“She’s in Rome,” her mother told me.  “David and Doretta have been in Rome for many years.  They have a daughter, her name’s Angela.”

We rushed out of the hotel and met up with them, spoke about old times.

Three years later, they came to visit us in Los Angeles.

Fast forward to 2013.  Doretta’s on the phone with me.  “Angela got married in Germany last month, to a German, but we’re throwing a wedding party in Israel in August.  You must come!”

And here the story came full circle.  Again I attended a wedding, this time her daughter’s, not half a mile away from where Doretta had wed 30 years earlier.

David, a Moroccan Jew, held the wedding party at Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant.  Most of the guests were his extended family and friends.  The groom, Stefan, and all his brothers and family came from Dortmund, Germany.

Doretta watches belly dancer move

Doretta watches belly dancer move

It was the most unusual party starting with Doretta, an Italian who’d become Jewish; David, an Israeli of Moroccan extraction, and a bunch of jolly Germans drinking and dancing to the sounds of Moroccan love songs, shrill cries to welcome the bride and the groom, drum beats, an alluring belly dancer, gold-laced costumes and fez hats from Casablanca.

I looked about the room.

No Vikings.

Moroccan Belly Dancer

Moroccan Belly Dancer

What started out as a casual talk in California by a timid Israeli boy with a good-looking Italian led decades later to a multinational, transcontinental fiesta only writers come dream up.

So, what do you think?  Was it all a random, chance encounter or was it destiny?

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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 Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi