From Tripoli to Rome

rome | One year ago, Rina Debach landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport after a flight across the Mediterranean from the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

On the plane traveling with her were two officials from the Libyan Foreign Ministry.

In the arrivals hall to greet Debach were the Italian consul general in Tripoli, as well as her family members who had believed for years that she was dead. Five days after Debach’s arrival, Rome’s mayor officially welcomed her to the Eternal City at a ceremony at city hall.

Why such honors for an ordinary, elderly woman?

Because Debach, 81, born and raised in Tripoli, was the last Jew in Libya, the only Jew still found living there 35 years after virtually the entire Jewish population fled in the wake of widespread anti-Jewish violence.

Debach’s arrival in Rome was the symbolic finale of an exodus that signaled the end of a 2,000-year Jewish presence in that part of North Africa — and also dramatically changed the face of Italian, and especially Roman, Jewry.

A Jewish presence in what today is Libya dates back to at least 300 BCE. About 36,000 Jews lived in Libya in 1945. The vast majority moved to Israel after the birth of the Jewish state in 1948.

By 1967, only 6,000 Jews lived in the country, most of them in Tripoli. Many of them had Italian passports, as Libya had been an Italian colony before World War II. Many non-Jewish Italians also lived in the country.

After the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, anti-Jewish riots erupted in Tripoli. Jewish shops and homes were ravaged, and some Jews who ventured into the street to look for food were killed.

Jewish community leaders asked King Idris’ government to allow the entire Jewish population to leave the country “temporarily,” and the government agreed — even urging Jews to depart.

“For King Idris, this was considered the best solution,” wrote Stefano Tironi, who interviewed Libyan Jews in Rome for a university thesis on the exodus. “On the one hand, it would avoid a repetition of violence and incidents against the Jews, which would have discredited him in the eyes of the West. On the other hand, eliminating the principal object of popular hatred lowered the probability of further riots, satisfying in this way the most uncontrolled and nationalist sector of the public.”

Thanks to an airlift and with the aid of Italian naval ships, all but a handful of Libya’s 6,000 Jews were transferred to Rome in the space of a month, leaving behind their homes, their businesses and most of their possessions.

“I was 13 when we arrived in Italy, and I was so happy to be out of Libya that nothing else mattered,” one man told Tironi decades later. “Back then, I did not understand the human and economic hardship that was hitting my family and everyone else. I was just happy to get out.”

Another man recalled: “We suffered a lot. We didn’t have any money; we didn’t have anything. A lot of people left Libya with only the clothes on their backs.”

Of the 6,000 who left, 4,000 soon moved on to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. But the 2,000 who remained in Rome began rebuilding their lives in a community that was quite different from the one they had known in Libya.

“We got to Rome and rolled up our sleeves,” another man in Tironi’s study said. “My mother, who in Libya had three maids, had to go sell books door to door. There wasn’t any choice: We had to begin again from the beginning.’

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Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.