Holocaust survivor visits Baruch during Mizrahi Heritage Month

Talia+Cantor

Talia Cantor

Mia Gindis, Opinions Editor

Holocaust survivor Rachel Hayun visited Baruch College on Nov. 10 to speak about her experiences in Libya during the Holocaust.

Upward of 120 students piled into room 4-125 in the Newman Vertical Campus to listen to the 83-year-old survivor recount harrowing stories of life in a Tunisian labor camp.

Hayun was born in Benghazi, the capital of Libya, in 1939. Her first language was Italian, the official language of Libya from the time of the Italian invasion in 1911 until Libya’s independence in 1951.

Hayun describes the Benghazi of her early childhood as a “beautiful” city where the Jewish and Arab populations coexisted peacefully.

In 1941, the Nazis arrived in Benghazi to take command of troops sent to reinforce Germany’s Italian allies.

Hayun said life for Libyan Jews quickly became intolerable. Most were forced to abandon their livelihoods — her own father was held at gunpoint and coerced into giving up their family business’ keys.

Hayun and her family were eventually transported to an unnamed Nazi labor camp in Tunisia, where they stayed until the end of the war. Death, Hayun recounted, felt ubiquitous.

“One day, there was a heavy bomb in the middle of the camp,” she said. “I was four years old. And I saw people dead outside.”

While Hayun was living in a labor camp in Tunisia, the situation for the Jewish population in Benghazi worsened.

All remaining Jews in Libya were eventually sent to the Jadu concentration camp in the Nafusa Mountains. They were forced to sleep in barracks and sustain themselves on little to no food.

Out of the 2600 Jews sent to Jadu, nearly five hundred perished within the first three months from hunger and disease, particularly from typhoid fever.

Hayun recounted horror stories of life in Jadu, told to her by fellow survivors.

She said at one point, a doctor was summoned to treat an infant that became ill. The German doctor administered a vaccine to the ailing child, who died moments later.

Libyan Jews endured such conditions until the end of World War II in 1945, when North African labor camps were liberated from Nazi occupation.

Hayun and her family sought refuge in Tunisian homes before emigrating to Israel.

The infrastructure in the then burgeoning nation was not equipped to house the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees arriving per day. Hayun described sharing a small tent with her family.

“We had no electricity, no real house. And yet we were so, so happy,” Hayun said.

Hayun’s visit fell on the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, when German Nazis launched a coordinated attack against Jewish persons and businesses.

November is also Mizrahi Heritage Month, a period of appreciation for Mizrahi Jews’ culture and contributions.

Mizrahim are Jewish persons that can trace their heritage back to the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

Only 1% of American Jews self-identify as Mizrahi, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, making them a small slice of an already minuscule population.

Thus, Mizrahi history rarely pervades the mainstream.

Hayun’s granddaughter, Hadas Hayun, sat beside her savta (Hebrew for grandmother) during the event.

Hadas Hayun serves as the Engagement Associate of Hillel at Baruch. She described being proud of her Mizrahi heritage.

“…it is difficult sometimes living in an ashkenormative world because we do not all identify with the mainstream Jewish stereotypes that society has created for us,” Hadas told @arieltidhar in an Instagram interview.

Hadas read questions to her grandmother for the event’s Q&A portion. She’d stop here and there to reiterate or translate a phrase into Hebrew.

“North African Jews experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust too,” Hadas said. “My savta is a survivor of the pogroms and labor camps in Libya and Tunisia. And only in the last 15 years were North African Jews recognized as survivors.”

Hayun closed the event by singing Am Yisrael Chai, a traditional Jewish hymn. She beckoned the audience to sing along with her and the room quickly erupted in chorus.

“We won, we survived,” Hayun said. “Everyone in this room. We are all survivors.”