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Remembering the North African Holocaust in an Age of Technology

“They didn’t understand. They said, ‘What do you mean your grandmother was in the Holocaust? It was only in Holland, Germany, Poland.’ I said, excuse me?” - Sari Damati

A teacher from Eretz, Israel, at the Hebrew School of Benghazi. Courtesy of the Museum of the History of the Libyan Jewish Community, Ohr Yehuda

The testimony above was given by Sari Damati; her grandmother was a survivor of the North African Holocaust. Damati’s tone conveys perplexity and disturbance when she and her mother relate the doubtful comments they have heard concerning the existence of the North African Holocaust. They, along with others, talk about their experience in the two- part documentary, A Matter of Time: From Tripoli to Bergen-Belsen, that presents the accounts of survivors and their families’ memories of the North African Holocaust.

After enduring harsh treatment by Western European powers during World War II, many Jewish people who lived in North Africa during the 1940s are fighting to preserve their experience, so younger generations, like mine, can learn about the impact of the Holocaust in North Africa and remember that the scope of the Holocaust extended beyond Europe’s borders. However, the creation of a universal memory or truth is difficult, because there is no single memory. This is becoming more and more true, with how younger generations, like mine, remember the past. The introduction of the internet can create a platform for the emergence of blurred memory, in that it isn’t solely our individual backgrounds or experiences that shape what we think, but also which sources of information we choose to learn from. When remembering the North African Holocaust, it is important to keep in mind the vital role that the internet plays in the formation of memory.

One of the many reasons the general public is able to remember the Holocaust which occurred in Europe is through the diffusion of photographs, documents, and other artefacts that were not burned or lost in the war and its aftermath. However, this is not the case for North Africa. The granddaughter of a North African Holocaust survivor, Eness Elias, explains in her article “Why North African Jews Are Missing From the Holocaust Narrative”, that there were barely any photographs or videos collected that captured the experience of North African Jews during the Holocaust and whatever was collected was destroyed (Haaretz, 2017). Yvonne Kozlovsky Golan, a Professor at the University of Haifa, suggests that the Holocaust that occurred in Europe is very different from the scene painted in North Africa. She adds that there were “no fences” surrounding the camps and that Jewish people were “ kept in horse stables… [and] spoke Arabic.” This image is not one that the general public is used to seeing when they watch movies such as La Vita è Bella and read books like Night which depict the horrors endured in Europe. Nonetheless, it is important not to allow common narratives and stereotypes to close our minds from being receptive to other possibilities regarding complicated subjects.

In addition to looking to artefacts as a way to remember this period of time, the internet has become a powerful tool that is extremely influential, especially in its ability to make information about tragedies such as the North African Holocaust and the Holocaust in general available to the wider public, including scholarship and first hand accounts from those who lived through these historic events. To take one example, if one only consulted one of the most widely used internet sources for information, the Merriam Webster Dictionary, one’s understanding of the Holocaust would be limited. The Merriam Webster website identifies “Holocaust” in four separate ways, two in particular caught my attention. The first definition was, “a sacrifice consumed by fire.” This meaning originally came from the Greek word , holokaustas, and it was used for ceremonial sacrifices executed by fire. In the second meaning the definition refers to the specific phenomenon in Europe: “usually the Holocaust: the mass slaughter of European civilians and especially Jews by the Nazis during World War II.” Both of these definitions don’t offer a complete and, in some cases, accurate representation of the Holocaust. The keywords here being “sacrifice” and “European” raise different issues when it comes to remembering what happened in World War II.

Perhaps it isn’t the word Holocaust that is so negative, but the way it is used. It is prominent in the United States and in many other countries throughout the world, especially Israel, to define this period of mass genocide and antisemitism as the Holocaust. However, this isn’t the only word used to define this period of mass genocide. My Italian professor, Davide Lombardo PhD, told my class that he was taught, like many others in Europe, to refer to this period as the Shoah, which is Hebrew for “lost.” He said that when you take a train in mainland Europe, some of the tracks that trains run on are the same ones that carried millions of victims to their deaths. Now, of course, when I or other Americans say Holocaust, we probably aren’t referring to its original Greek meaning, but it is important to be aware of the implications it carries. A sacrifice implies something voluntary, but this tragedy was forced upon victims. It is important to be mindful of the historical context that words such as Holocaust carry, so that the survivor’s memory can be preserved in an accurate manner. There is also something to be kept in mind with the second definition, “usually the Holocaust: the mass slaughter of European civilians and especially Jews by the Nazis during World War II.” This definition limits the scope of those who were impacted to Europeans. And through what we have learned about the experience of North African Jews, we know this is not entirely the case.

These examples raise a question of how the internet impacts our perspective on memory. Twitter, Google, and Snapchat, are some of the many digital platforms where people, especially younger generations, turn to for news, entertainment, and above all information. These platforms can be helpful when accessing various sources of information, but as always, not every source is reliable. Victor Magair, an Italian author who writes about the North African experience in World War II, talks about this in the articles "Memoriale, gran finale di Jews in the city con Gariwo" and "Spegnere l’odio e accendere la speranza". He expresses his discontent with the internet and exclaims how the rise of digitalization is being used as a justification for hurting others. He states how in “a fast and stupid age like computers today being a foreigner is a negative and dangerous fact.” He even warns that among this digital movement, it is important to “explain the truth well.” Coming from a generation that grew up around the internet and technology, this is an interesting and informative point to understand. I have experience with what Magair was talking about through researching the topic of the North African Holocaust. There were a few instances in which my peers and I had to fact check each other on the sources we used, because some of the sources produced incorrect data about the number of people involved during that time. However, despite these inconsistencies, it is with the internet that my peers and I were able to uncover the first hand accounts of North African Holocaust survivors’ experiences. I found the personal accounts especially critical to the research on this topic, because as years go on, more and more survivors are dying, so oral testimonies like those we found, are essential to preserving the victims’ memory. Through this encounter, I found that the internet can be an incredibly resourceful tool in finding information, however it is critical to take into account the possibility of unreliable sources.

Now with that being said, how should my generation and future ones come to remember the North African Holocaust? One way is to commend writers, activists, and scholars, such as Professor Dario Miccoli, for their tireless effort in educating the general public on this topic. However, in this era of volumounus information, it is important that we should take it upon ourselves to utilize the positive aspects of the internet in educating ourselves as well.