A neighbor yelled, “Julia,” from across the courtyard separating her apartment from Doris Keren-Gill’s. Julia was Doris’ mother’s name, it was June 5th 1967, the start of the Six-Day war. Doris was eight; her house was built on top of a synagogue, in a part of Tripoli only five minutes from the port and sea.
“Whenever something happened in Israel,” Doris says, “it would not even be five minutes and there would be Arabs out in the street rioting and looking for Jews.”
On that day almost twenty Jews would die and house after house would be burned. The population of Libyan Jews in 1948 is estimated at nearly 40,000. By the time of the Six Day War that number had dwindled to 7,000. Many had left after a series of pogroms in 1945 and 1949, and after Libya gained its independence in 1951. Today not a single Jew remains.
Her neighbor yelled for Doris’ mother to turn on the radio. The announcer said 60 Israeli planes had already been destroyed. Doris’ mother knew what this meant and yelled down to her husband who was in the synagogue praying. She told him to have all the other men leave and hide, and told him to lock the long hallway and come upstairs.
Doris’ father ran up the stairs to the attic. The family’s walls were high so they had to use a ladder to access the attic. From their attic he passed the family’s five younger children to his oldest son, 12, who was reaching across from the neighbor’s attic.
“Our home was the first target,” she says. She pauses and her words falter. “I may get emotional now... They were banging at the door. My mother knew that the doors were strong but not strong enough.”
Doris’ father passed all the children over and pulled the ladder up. “My mother told him to pull it up so they wouldn’t know we were home.” Doris’ father froze when he heard the mob break in through the door, and began praying.
Doris and her family hid in their neighbor’s attic with the neighbor’s family, below lived an Arab. Doris’ neighbors had begged him to protect them when the mob came through. When the rioters wanted to go up and tear through the house, he told them that it was his right to do so, and the mob turned their attentions elsewhere.
It was still early in the morning and Doris’ mother hadn’t had time to finish her routine; feeding and dressing the children before their father would take them to school. The children had nothing but their underwear on.
Doris was curious and peeked from the window. “It was horrible... horrible... horrible, the picture I saw. They were chanting, ‘kill the Jewish!’ and in my mind I thought there were a million but there was really more like a thousand. Across the street used to be a bank. So it had thick wooden doors, I think a foot, and high doors.”
Inside the bank building lived a prominent Jewish family, the grandmother worked in the palace for the Libyan King, Idris. While Doris says that most of Tripoli’s Jewish community was constantly bribing and showing deference to the Arabs, this woman did not.
“If someone got on her back she would get right back on theirs. So everyone wanted revenge. They had everything in their hands; fire, axes, knives, swords... everything. They were banging, trying to break the doors and they set the curtains on fire. They tried all day but it was a miracle they couldn’t get in.”
Next door the rioters destroyed the synagogue and Doris’ home. She remembers the smell of smoke as it burned. She doesn’t recall a feeling, more a total numbness.
At 11 o’clock that night the violence subsided. King Idris knew that he couldn’t protect the Jews in their home, but as Doris explains, he wanted to protect them because they were such a productive part of Libyan society. The King sent secret police in the night to round them up.
“I remember a big dark truck,” she says. “And it was night, but that’s not why the sky was black, it was because of the smoke.”
The police drove the family 45 minutes from the capital into the desert, according to Doris. Over 3,000 Jews were kept in an old British Military base, she says. The fences were re- enforced with sandbags so nobody could look in.
“We were lucky,” she says. “There was another family, the Luzon family, with a father and mother and seven boys.”
Men dressed like police and came to their door and told them that they would be taking the family to the camp where the rest of the Jews were. Instead the fake police killed them, and burned their bodies in the burners used to make the charcoal like pigment used in exterior paints.
While in the camp, Qaddafi gained power and King Idris offered temporary transfer to Italy where the Jewish refugees could be safe until he regained control. Doris’ family was flown to Rome.
On the way Doris’ mother begged the driver to stop by her house. When the mob was at her door she had taken money and some jewelry and thrown it in a sock. This she threw into the basement. Back at the rubble of their home, she found it.
In the line to get on the plane Doris remembers how brutally the guards were taking any property they found on the refugees. Doris’ mother had hid the money and Jewels in Halva candy cans, her hair and a piece of jewelry in Doris’ hand. The guards noticed how closely Doris’ mother kept her daughter. They asked to search her.
“She looked in the guards eyes,” Doris says, “and said, ‘Whatever you suspect I have is too little for you and if you take it I will have nothing left.’” The guards let her pass.
From Italy Doris and her family were moved to Israel. The Israeli government put them in a Sh-huna near Netanya, where her family has been ever since.
Doris moved to the States in 1989 and is currently a real estate agent
working all over the Silicon Valley. She is married and has two daughters.
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