The theatrical adaptation of Israeli writer Yossi Sucary’s prize-winning novel grew out of a perverse reality.
In the foundational narrative of Israeli life, the Shoah is viewed as a European phenomenon. That is understandable, since the great majority of its victims were the Jews of Europe. Here is where Israel’s political and social divisions come in. Instead of feeling fortunate to have mostly escaped that terrible fate, Mizrahi Jews believe the Ashkenazi elite deliberately left them out of the nation’s essential story; that it is yet another example of the many ways Middle Eastern Jews were marginalized and disrespected when they arrived in Israel.
Loosely basing his novel on his Libyan grandparents’ evacuation first to Italy and then to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, Sucary brought to light the suffering of the Libyan Jewish community, which led to that group being included in Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance. The education ministry now has added the book to the Holocaust studies unit in the high school curriculum. The novel won the 2016 Brenner Prize awarded by the Hebrew Writers Association.
Now at La MaMa on East Fourth Street, “Benghazi Bergen-Belsen” presents the story of Silvana Hajaj, the daughter of a wealthy Libyan construction magnate, and her journey with her family from Benghazi, Libya, to a castle in Italy, and then to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. The story is framed by the loving friendship between Silvana and another prisoner, Rebecca. Nazi guards have locked the two young women in a shed after Rebecca was caught stealing water to give to Silvana. The women have one hour to decide which one will be shot for the infraction. Rebecca urges Silvana to tell her the story while they await their fate.
Simple in the extreme, Gian Marco Lo Forte’s set design effectively invokes the various scenes, ranging from the beach at Benghazi to the bitter cold boat to Italy, in the large brick-walled basement space at La MaMa. The lighting, the costumes, and the music also work well without being overly specific. The scenes move back and forth in time as Silvana tells her story, and while the expressionistic format works to convey emotion, it’s less efficient at presenting information to an audience unfamiliar with the history of World War II in North Africa. The play’s multiplicity of languages — English, German, Arabic, and Italian — adds somewhat to the confusion. Director/producer Michal Gamily provides translation for most of the foreign phrases while she also moves parts of the set and lights around.
Aside from the introduction of what happened to Libyan Jews — news to me — the most interesting aspect of “Benghazi Bergen-Belsen” is playwright Lahav Timor’s emphasis on sexuality. Sex is almost entirely missing from Holocaust memoirs and artistic narratives. I don’t mean sex in the romantic sense, but sex as a commodity, something that can be bartered or sold. We know that sex is always a commodity in desperate times; it’s often the only thing available of value to people trying to survive. That makes Timor’s lack of prudishness more striking. Silvana first falls for a British Jewish soldier in Benghazi, aiming for some sexual experience before heaven-knows-what happens, and then uses her seductiveness to get blankets from an Italian to keep her family warm on the journey. In Bergen-Belsen, it’s clear that Rebecca is in love with Silvana, and that Silvana responds to her warmth and affection.
The international cast seems somewhat constrained by all the movement on the floor, but manages to convey the play’s themes of displacement and terror. At 65 minutes, “Benghazi Bergen-Belsen” doesn’t have the time to dig into character, but it’s a valuable introduction to a historical event that is likely to be unknown to most people.