Tag Archives: Nazis

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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Kissed by a Fascist Dictator

16 Jan

The Arabs put the final touches of whitewash paint on the walls of their beloved city, Benghazi. Trash was removed from the streets.  Boardwalk cafes and shops glimmered under the Mediterranean sun of this North African nation of Libya.  Flags blew in the breeze.

Benito Mussolini in Benghazi

Benito Mussolini in Benghazi

Schools let out their children and had them stand in a single file from the airport to the town center.

Shopkeepers wiped clean their storefront windows in anticipation.  The year is 1937, and it’s not every day that IL DUCE (The Leader)  comes from Italy to witness his Fascist empire.  Upon landing, Benito Mussolini was escorted with fanfare through the streets of Benghazi.  My grandfather, Joseph Duani, much like other Jews in Benghazi, welcomed the dictator.  Wasn’t Italy and its Roman past the cradle of civilization?  Wasn’t Italy the nation that fostered music, art and commerce with flair? Joseph looked up to the Italians; they represented all that was noble and enlightened, or so he believed then.

My mother (with my father) in London, 1954

My mother (with my father) in London, 1954 (Click on Photo for a larger view)

He and his fellow business friends took pride in learning Italian, in sending their children years later to Italian-run schools in Benghazi.  Joseph wore the latest Italian suits and neckties and ordered Italian-made shoes using his Italian-made Olivetti typewriter.  Joseph Duani in his youth, the ultimate bad boy, tooled around town with his Italian-made 1935 Benelli motorcycle.  He had learned to correspond with Italian merchants in Napoli and Rome, to import fabrics and shoes for his Benghazi shop near the seaport.  Learning of Mussolini’s state visit, he put on his best suit, held his firstborn daughter Yvonne (my mother) in his arms, and rushed to the growing-by-the-minute procession to greet The Leader.

Mussolini entered Benghazi in a motorcade to the cheers of the crowds.  Arabs rode their camels. Young men displayed their riding

Benelli Italian-made motorcycle my grandfather owned

Benelli Italian-made motorcycle my grandfather owned

skills on horseback.  And like any politician, Mussolini mixed with the crowd, nodded his approval, waved, then stopped in front of my grandfather.  My mother, two months old, squirmed in her father’s arms.

Benito Mussolini stood on his toes–he was short and my grandfather was tall–and kissed my mother on the cheek.  The kiss is something my grandfather would recall years later.  It did not do him or his Jewish friends any favors.  In time the Fascists rolled into town and burned all their shops to the ground.  Collaborating with the Nazis, they sent 2500 Jews into labor camps in the Libyan desert, 600 died.  Years later Mussolini met his violent end, lynched by an angry Italian mob at the end of WWII.

Benito Mussolini's "sweetheart" today, near 80

My mother Yvonne Labi, today, near 80

As a child growing up, my father and mother spoke Italian to keep things from me.  I owe Mussolini

nothing other than introducing my family to all-things-beautiful that in later years would be termed La Dolce Vita: a sense of style, and a passion for living.  My mother celebrates her birthday this week, almost 80.  What the heck, Mom, I’ll kiss you on the cheek.  The other cheek.

Happy Birthday!

Below is a rare film footage of Benito Mussolini’s visit to Libya in 1937.

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