Tag Archives: old man and the sea

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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The (young) Old Man and the Sea

8 Nov

Israel.  1978.  Winter.  Tel Aviv municipal airport.  I’m sitting inside a 4-seater Cessna airplane on a wet runway.  The propeller spins.  My boss, Shimon Wilner, owner of Mediterranean Tours, is next to me.  In the front, the “business man” takes the passenger seat.  The pilot puts away the maps and eases the plane for a take off.

Cessna airplane

Cessna airplane

Minutes later I’m in the clouds.  We’re off to the Island of Rhodes, Greece.  The “business man” is from Kibbutz Ga’ash near Tel Aviv.  The kibbutz manufacturers outdoor lighting fixtures.  He wants to sell them to the beach hotels on the island.  Shimon, the money man, arranged for the airplane, the pilot, and for me.  My role?  To translate the three mens’ Hebrew into English, in the hope the Greek men in Rhodes will understand.

A storm hits.  Lighting.  Thunder.  Water hits the windows.  Visibility: Zero.  The plane sinks and rises in air pockets, as does my stomach.  My toes are frozen.  We all want to pee.  The pilot unzips his pants and pisses into a plastic tube.  He then passes it to the back like an Indian peace pipe.  My boss refuses.  I refuse.

Synangogue in Rhodes, Greece

synagogue in Rhodes, Greece

What is normally a 70 minute flight for a jet plane takes 4 hours on this noisy bumblebee.  Finally, we see land in the distance.  The pilot lowers the Cessna, approaches the runway.  A sudden gust of wind smacks the wing and tilts it sideways.  My face hits the glass.  Shimon, a 250 pound mass-of-a-man, leans into me.  The engine screams.  So do we.  The pilot barely is able to right the plane and we come in for a hard landing.  The doors fly open.  We take in the air.  We exhale steam.  We survived.

To celebrate our good fortune we stand on the wings of the Cessna and piss on the runway in a beautiful arc.

Police.  Sirens.

The Greek border patrol surrounds us with Jeeps.  They yell in Greek, visibly disturbed on how we, primitive Israelis, had desecrated their land with our urine.  We jump off the wings and apologize.  Ten times.

We’re escorted to the terminal, our passports are stamped with a loud thud and we’re shown to the door.  Outside, it rains.  In the hotel lobby later that night I help the “businessman” with his outdoor lights presentation.

Two days later we’re on the runway again.  It’s sunny.  The pilot starts the engine.  The propeller spins.  Shimon hears something suspicious.  “Stop,” he tells the pilot.  The pilot steps out, then waves to us to do the same.  It turns out, the blade of the propeller had hit the purple emergency light on the runway.  The propeller is bent like a banana.  The pilot says: “We’re lucky as hell.  Had we taken off, we would have crashed into the ground.”

Young Jews in Rhodes before World War II

Young Jews in Rhodes before World War II

Back to the terminal we go…

Those were the heydays of the seventies.  In the summer I escorted a number of groups to tour the Greek island; I tanned in the sun, frolicked in the clear blue water, feasted my stomach on Moussaka and Feta cheese, and feasted my eyes on topless Swedish girls.

Roll tape, please.  To October, 2014.

I’m on board EL-AL Airlines to Rhodes with my wife Pnina for a 4 day vacation. Once we settle at our hotel, we venture to the Old City, the Medieval City of Rhodes, the city walls dating back to the Crusaders.  This time, I’m in search of history.  Down the cobbled-stone alleys we walk until we reach the one remaining synagogue on the island.  It’s now a museum.  The Jews had come to Rhodes by way of Spain, then to North Africa, then Italy.  They lived on the island for generations, spoke Ladino, a Judaeo-Spanish language.  Whenever they sensed trouble was brewing, they reverted from Greek to Ladino, “Lashon de tu padre” – the language of your father.  They dealt in commerce; many of them worked at the fish market.

Surviving Rhodes Jews in Seattle, Washington

Surviving Rhodes Jews in Seattle, Washington

Then the Germans came.  During World War II they rounded up almost 1500 Jews and sent them to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the same camp my father was sent to.  Few survived.  After the war, their property was confiscated.  Inside the synagogue we meet one of the survivor’s children.  “Do you live here?” I ask.  “No,” he says.  “My family immigrated to the Belgian Congo.  Years later we moved to South Africa.”

An old(er) me in Rhodes, Greece

An old(er) me in Rhodes, Greece

Other survivors made to America.  Five years ago, I travelled to Seattle, Washington.  In the famous Pike Market I came across Jewish fish mongers.  The “Lost Greeks” stand over the beds of ice and arrange the crabs, the shrimp, the fish.

They’re a long way from Rhodes.

I leave the synagogue, remembering my days as a young man in Rhodes.  My wife and I go near the water and see the fishing boats.

The waves come and go, come and go.

—————————————————————————————————–

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