The Holocaust in Libya (1938-43)

Figure 1.--.

Italy occupied Libya in 1911. After World War I, Mussolini oversaw a vicious military action using poison gas to quell an Arab revolt. Jews in Italy had full civil rights and the small Jewish community prospered under Italian colonial rule. This changed as Mussolini aftter the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935) moved closer to Hitler and NAZI Germany. Mussoliniís anti-Jewish regulations imposed in 1938 theoretically applied to Libyan Jews. They were unevenly applied, but gradually severly affected Libyan Jews. Italy after the Germans had essentially defefeated France, declared war on Britain and France (June 1940). A massive Italian Army invaded Egypt from Italy (September 1940). The British smashed the Italians and drove into Libya (December 1940). The Germans arrived in Libya to bolster the Italias (March 1941). Rommel's Afrika Korps waged a sea-saw campaign with the British 8th Army until defeat at El Alemaine (October 1942). Eventually about 5,000 Jews in Libya were interned. Conditions in these camps was very harsh. [Arbitol] Some Libyan Jews were deported to the death camps. [Ward] Defeat of the Axis and British occupation saved the bulk of the Libyan Jewish community.

Libyan Jews

Libya's Jewish community traces its origins back to Ptolemetic Egypt (3rd century BC). The Jewish community in Libya was closely associated with the Jews in Jerusalem and thus were targetted by thecRonans in the Jewish Revolts (73 AD and 115 AD). Rome while supressing the Jewish Revols provided the environment for Jews and other to freely travel and settle throughout the Empire. The surviving Jews seem to have vecome isolated. The Libyan Jews seem to have prospered under Arab rule. Few Iberian Jews, however settled in Libya after the Soanush and POortugese expulsuons (!5th century). They were attacked during a brief period of Christian control (16th century). Libyan Jews were again isolated during the Ottomabn era. When the Italians seized Libya before World Wae I (1911), there was a small Jewish population of 21,000 people. It was an almost exclusively urban population. More than half lived in Tripoli. The rise of Italian Fascism did not at first affect Italian Jews, but as Mussolini increasingly became dependent on Hitler, his Axis partner, Italian anti-Semetic laws were passed (1939). And it was Tripoli where Rommel and the Afrika Korps landed to rescue the retreating Italian Army (1941). Many Jews from Tripoli were also sent to forced labor camps. Conditions did not greatly improve following the liberation. During the British occupation, there was a series of Arab pogroms aimed at the Jews, the worst of which resulted in the deaths of more than 100 Jews in Tripoli and other towns and the destruction of five synagogues (1945). With the outbreak of fighting between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, the position of Libyan Jews eventually became untenable.

Italian Colony (1911-42)

Italy seized Libya after a brief war with the Ottomans (1912). The Libyans resisted. Fighting broke out, but the British brokered a truce after Italy joined the Allies in World War I (1915). After the War, fighting broke out again leading to a prolonged colonial war. Italy continued efforts to colonize Libya. Mussolini with his dreams of reconstituting the Roman Empire would wage a merciless campaign to end Libyan resistance to Italian rule. The Italians seized control of the coast cities, but have great difficulty maintaining control of the interior. The Italians unified Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as the colony of Libya (1929). Mussolini employing brutal tactics, including poison gas, finally suceeded in crushing Libyan resistance. Mussolini saw Libya as offering the possibility of colonization by Italy's burgoning population. The Sanusis finally surrender to the Italians (1931). One of the goals of Italian colonism was the concern with over population. Italy called Libya "The Fourt Shore" and promoted Italian settlement there. Several projects with Italian colonists were launched.

Jews in Colonial Libya

Jews in Italy had full civil rights and the small Jewish community at first prospered under Italian colonial rule. Colonial officls saw the Jews as useful in developing the Libyan economy. Officials also gave the Libyan Jewish community the opportunity to develop a modern education system and reform its rabbinate.

Italian Invasion of Ethiopia

The Itlalians invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and again employed poison gas. They were condemned by the League of Nations, a major factor in turning Mussolini away from the Allies into a closer relationship with Hitler. Mussolini after seizing the independent kingdom ofEthiopia, annexed it to Italy (May 9, 1936). Italy proclaimed Ethiopia to be part of Italian East Africa Africa Orientale Italiana ), a federation which also included Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (June 13, 1936). Italian authorities proclaimed King Victor Emmanuel III, emperor. ÖThe Italians attempted to consolidate their colonial information of their East African colonies. A variety of development projects includred road building, found industries, and establish agricultural plantations. There was resistance to Italian rule, especially in Ethiopia.

Protector of Islam (1935)

Mussolini declared himself to be "Protector of Islam" (1935). This no doubt came as suprise to the Libyan Muslims which had been brutally supressed by Graziani and who received no the benefits from the development of their country. Mussolini's statement was of course a fireign policy statement. Libya was only the first step toward Italian domination of the Mediterreanan. The rest of North Africa and the Middle East was dominated by the French and British. Thus further Italian expansion would have to come at the expense of the British or French and Mussolini had decided to appeal to Aran nationalism to weaken the British and french control over their colonies. This had implications for Libya's Jews. The Grand Mufti in Palestine had already begun promoting anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Mussolini could obviously not present Libya as a show case for enlightened dealings with Arabs. He could, however, take actions against Jews that would appeal to some Arabs. It is at this time that the attitude of Italian authorities toward Libyan Jews began to change. Italian authotities began to take actions against Jewish schools and organizations. These actions begame more organized and signicant as the Axis was formulated and Mussolini began moving closer to Hitler and NAI Germany.


Hitler and Mussolini agreed to cooperate diplomatically and signed a treaty of frienship (October 25, 1936). Initially Mussolini had been concerned with the rise of the NAZIs and backed Austrian independence. Allied (British and French) opposition to his invasion of Ethiopia apparently had a major impact on reorienting his stratehic thinking. Mussolini first used the term "axis" (November 1). Speaking at Milan's cathedral. he referred to the evolving relationship as an "axis". This appears to be a strange term for an alliance. Apparently the concept was that Europe would revolve around their regimes. Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact September 27, 1940. The agreement allied Germany and Italy (which were at war with Britain) and Japan (which was at war with China). Germany and Italy has since 1939-40 been at war with Britain. Japan since 1937 had been at war with China. The alliance did not require the partners to join these wars, but it did require them to come to each other's aid if attacked by any country. The alliance became known as the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis alliance, or commonly the Axis. The three Axis partners recognized German hegemony over most of Europe; Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean, and Japanese hegemony in East Asia. After the Axis agreement was signed, several German allies joined the Axis, notably Vichy France and Fascist Spain refused to do so. Japan had no Asian allies, except for the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Italian Anti-Semitic Campaign

Presured by the NAZIs, Italy issued racial laws aimed at the Jews. They applied to Jews in Italy and Italian colonies. Fascist racial laws as in German were very extensive and constantly expanded with new provisions. Jews were expelled from secondary schools and universities and institutes of higher education. Jews were dismissed from the civil service as well as banks and municipal councils. Business parnerships between Jews and Italians were disolved.Jewish soldiers were demoted. Identity documents and other officials papers carried by Jews were stamped with "Jew" so they could be easily identified. Foreign Jews were denied residency rights in Italy, Libya, and the Aegean Islands. Eventually Jews were expelled from all public schools. Italian newspaoers began using racial slurs.

Application of Racial Laws to Libyan Jews

Mussoliniís anti-Jewish regulations imposed in 1938 theoretically applied to Libyan Jews. They were unevenly applied, but gradually severly affected Libyan Jews. Application was in part delayed by the importance of Jews in the Libyan economy and in part because some Italian officials did not agree with the German enginered racist laws. Governor Italo Balbo thought the laws reflected poorly on Otaly and wrote to Mussolini about it. [De Felice, p. 197.] Many of the regulations were designed to limit the economic oportunities open to Jews. Authorities excluded Jews from export-import licenses. Jews were not excluded from public bids for army, prisons, or police contracts. This was an important part of the Libyan economy especially as Mussolini ordered a military buildup. Jewish merchants were ordered not to close their shops on Saturday (the Jewish hold day). Whem merchants failed to comply their were public floggings and eventualy two executions. Eventually Jew hired Arabs to operate their shops on Saturday. Jews were often singled out for minor infractions.

Italy Declares War (June 1940)

y was defeated, Mussolini decided to join Hitler and declared war on France and Britain (June 10, 1940). This was personal decession by Mussolini without any significant consultation with military and other officials. Mussolini was afraid that if he did not get in on the War before it was over that Italy could not clain a share of the loot. Even though German armies were pouring through France, Mussolini's attack in the south was unsuccessful.

World War II

Most of the Middle East was dominated by Britain and France thus the rise of European Fascist in Italy and Germany appealed to many Arab nationalists. Libya was an exception because the colonial power was Italy. As Europe moved toward war, Libyan nationalists began to see that Italian defeat in a war would create an opportunity for independence. After Germany invaded Poland and launched Wotld war II (Seprember 1939), Italian nationalists mets in Alexandria, Egypt (October 1939). Sayid Idris emerged as the most prominent leader, but the nationalist movement was badly divided. The early victories of Italian ally NAZI Germany were, however, not incouraging for the Libyan nationalists. Italy entered the War once the German victory over France was assured (June 1940). At first it seemed that the massive Italian army in Libya would easily overwealm the British in Egypt. Nationalist forces were divided on how they should react. Some (the Cyrenaicans and Idris) supported the British. Others (the Tripolitanians) were more hesitant, fearing that the Axis might win the War. Formal meetings in Cairo with Idris and some of the nationalists resulted in a formal afreement by the nationalists would support the British and the British would support a move toward independence after the WAr (August 1940).

Western Desert (1940-42)

A massive Italian Army invaded Egypt from Italy (September 1940). The Italian objective was the Suez Canal. The Italians, however, stopped after advancing only a few miles. The heavilu out numbered British smashed the Italians and drove into Libya (December 9, 1940). The British moved toward Benghazi with a series of victories. The Italians were near collapse. Hitler in order to prevent the fall of Libya orders a small armoured force to Libya to support the Italians. The force under Erwin Rommel begins to arrive March 22, 1941. Rommel and his Africa Korps stop the British and even though he has only a small force launches a counter-attack (March 30, 1941). Rommel drives the British back into Egypt. Rommel's Afrika Korps waged a sea-saw campaign with the British 8th Army.

Actions Against Jews

Mussolini anxious to share in the spoils with France lkargely defeated declared war on the Allies (June 10, 1940). Italian authorties in Libya began enforcing the racial laws with vigor. Jews were affected in many ways by the war. Libyan Jews were a mostly urban population. The British began bombing the important port of Tripoli which was in range of air bases in Malta. A principal British tactic in the Desert War was to interdict Axis supply lines. The Jewish quarter in Tripoli was hard hit, in part becauuse the Italians placedd anti-aicraft batteries there. At the time about a quater of the population of Tripoli was Jewish. There were 44 synagogues. The racial laws affected both food and gasoline rationing. Authorities closed Jewish schools, cultural and social clubs. The Italians arrested British (870) and French (1,600) Jews and interened in hastily erected camps (September 1941). The Italians reached an agreement with Vichy authorities to transfer French subjects to Tunisia (January-March 1942). The Italians transported 300 of the British Jews to Italy. They were interned at various locations. [De Felice, p. 174.] Some were used by German military units near Sangro. The NAZIs after the fall of Mussolini began moving forces into Italy. After the Italians declared an Armistice, the NAZIs seized control of Italy. The Germans transported about 100 British Jews to a concentration camp in Insbrook, Austria. Most were eventually liberated by British forces moving into Austria from Italy (May 1945). A few had been sent to Bergen Belsen and Biberach, near Munich (April 1944). Although conditions there were horendous, most managed to survive until they were liberated by the Americans (April 1945). The fact that they were British subjects probably saved them. Other Libyan Jews also suffered, especially when they demonsrated support for the British. Mussolini ordered that Cyrenaica be "cleared out" [De Felice, p. 179.] Authorities arrested 591 Jews in Benghazi. We are not sure if they were foreign or Libyan Jews, but eventually both foreign and Libyan Jews were arrested. The Jews were interned at Giado further west. When that camp filled up, authorities sent some Jews to another camp set up for foreigners in Gharian near Tripoli. The Italians eventually arrested and transported more than 2,500 Jews from Cyrenaica including whole families. Conditions at Giado were verybbad. The food was inadequate. There were outbreaks of typhus. About 500 people died, mostly children and the elderly. The Italians set up another camp at Sidi Azaz, close to Tripoli which eventually held 1,000 people, mostly Jews. The Italians used them for slave labor. A group of 350 were used by the military in Tobruk. Later after El Alemain (October 1942) they were abandoned in the desert, but evebtually got back to Tripoli. Overall the Italians interned about 5,000 Jews. The conditions in these camps were very bad [Arbitol] They were not NAZI-styled death camps. Many children died in the camps, but unlike the NAZI camps thry were not selected for death. Some Libyan Jews were deported to the death camps. [Ward] We do not know the specifics here, besides the British Jews described above. In the end, most Libyan Jews survived. Defeat of the Axis and British occupation of Libya saved the bulk of the Libyan Jewish community.


Hitler and the NAZIs played a major role in the enactment of the Italian Fascist racial laws. We know that an SS Einsatzgruppn attempted to oversee the murder of Tunisian Jews when Germany seized control of Tunisia (November 1942). The role of the Germans in the actions against Libyan Jews is unclear. The Germans never seized control of the Libyan civil administration. They had to act through Italian functionaries. we do not fully understand at this time the full extent of their involvement. We do know that the Germans occupied the Jewish quarter of Benghazi (1942). Bebgazi was involved in the bck and firth fighting while Tripoli was nore of a rear area. We do not know the reason for this or to what extent Rommel himself was involved in this decesion. They reportedly plundered shops. About 2,000 Jews were deported further west away from the area in which the battles were bring fought. About 500 of those deported perished, we think mostly because of the condtions at the camps. Our understanding is that it was the Italians who deported the Jews. We do not know to what extent the Germans were involved. There were no SS units attached to the Afrika Korps in Libya, although this appears to have only been a matter of timeas the agreements were signed to facilitate it. There must have been SS involved in the security forces. We do not know if they were directly involved with the Italian decessions to arrest and intern the Libyan Jews. As far as we can determine, it was an Italian operatioin.

El Alemain (October 1942)

It looked after the fall of Tobruk (June 1942) that Rommel's Afrika Korps might reach Suez in 1942, but the British stopped him at El Alemain (July 1942). This was the last railway junction before Alexandria. A second attempt by Rommel to break through failed. This force him to go over tothecdefensive. The two armies prepared for a massive battle. The Africa Corps supply lines crossed the Mediterranan where with the help of Ultra, the British destroyed large quantities of supplies. The British in turn had longer, but more secure supply lines. Their new American allies delivered vast quantities of weapons and supplies. This enabled Montgomery's 8th Army to launch a massive assault which smashed the Africa Korps (October 1942). The 8th Army then proceeded to drive the Italians and Germans out of Libya. I am not sure when the the British liberated the Italian internment camps,but as they were ocated in the west it was probanly around December 1942..

End of Libya's Jewish Community

Libyan Jews continued to encounter difficulties after liberation. Arabs began attacking Jews. Often these attacks occurred as a result of mob actions. In one such riot over 100 Jews were killed by Arabs, most in Tripoli (1945). The Arab mobs also destroyed five synagogues. This and other violence caused Jews to leave Libya. The creation of Israel fueld Arab vilence against Libyan Jews. The British attempted to prevent emigration, about 3,000 Jews managed to leave, many went to Israel. The British eventually legalized emigration (1949). More than 30,000 Jews subsequently fled Libya (1949-51). Colonel Qaddafi's led a coup against the monarchy (1969) By that time only 500 Jews were still in Libya. Qaddafi confiscated all Jewish property and cancelled debts owed to Jews. There are no known Jews still in Libya.


Abitbol, Michel. History of the Jews of Arab Lands (In Hebrew, Merkaz Shazar).

De Felice, Renzo. Jews in an Arab Land, Libya, 1835-1970 (Austin: University of Texas, 1985).

Ward, Seth. "The Holocaust in North Africa," May 10, 1999.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to Main Holocaust country page]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main Libyan history page]
[Allies] [Biographies] [Children] [Concentration camps] [Countries] [Decision] [Denyers/Apologists] [Displaced persons]
[Economics] [Eisatzgruppen] [German Jews] [Ghettoes] [Impact] [Justice] [Literature]
[Movies] [NAZIs] [Occupied Poland] [Process] [Propagada] [Resistance] [Restitution] [Questions] [SS] [Special situations] [Targets] [Wansee Conference] [World War II]
[Main mass killing page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: May 7, 2004
Last updated: 10:05 PM 4/5/2014