Pnina Meghnagi Soloman was born in 1949 in Tripoli, Libya. Her name, Pnina, means “precious stone” in Hebrew.
Pnina has happy memories of being a young girl in Tripoli, Libya where she spent her childhood soaking the city’s warmth nearby the ocean, always surrounded by friends and family. Some of her earliest memories include guests coming in and out of her house talking around two long tables with a white tablecloth, eventually cementing her values of family and being welcoming.
The Jewish neighborhood was known as “Hara,” which was located behind a castle that oversaw the walled city of Tripoli. Pnina’s house was near a white church, and her synagogue was just down the block from her house. The importance of the Jewish religion was instilled deeply within Pnina, as her mother comes from a long line of rabbis and religious court judges known as diyanim from the Island of Djerba (in Tunisia).
The family’s Shabbat custom was to eat couscous with either chicken soup, along with spicy fish called hairame and special meatballs called mafrum, containing slices of potatoes with meat inside, fried and cooked in sauce. Dessert was always cakes and fruits.
The residents in Pnina’s neighborhood generally lived among each other in harmony, no matter which religion they practiced. Her neighborhood included Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Italians, Egyptians, Libyans, and Maltese. Libya’s diversity at the time nurtured Pnina’s friendship with her Italian, Egyptian and American neighbors, as well as the children of the Sheikh from her neighborhood. In her city of Tripoli, Pnina was exposed to the whole world.
Despite the blend of differing religions and ethnicities, Pnina says that there was always a worry in the back of her mind that she or her family may be harassed or attacked for being Jewish. In November 1945, during the infamous anti-Jewish Tripoli pogrom, Pnina''s Uncle Gabriel Menaghi had had been slaughtered at his doorstep. He was one of an estimated 140 Jews who were killed during the violent pogrom.
There was also a fearful mindset within the Jewish community as a whole. Jews thus refrained from wearing Maghen David jewelry, they also refrained from displaying the Star of David or the Israeli flag in any form. Jews were considered second-class citizens.
“The true Muslims who really knew the religion of Islam always had respect for the other,” she recalls. “But, as Jews we had a fear that there was a certain boundary we could never cross. We were called dhimmis, we were degraded and we were always a step down from the Muslims.”
While Zionist organizations were officially prohibited, some Jews, including Pnina, participated in the underground B’nei Akiva Zionist youth movement. She remembers learning the famous Hebrew Tu’bishvat Higiyah song in Tripoli despite the fact that the movement was prohibited from displaying any flags.
The most devastating problems, which led to the end of the Jewish community in Libya, started in 1967 with the break out of Israel’s Six-Day War with its Arab neighbors. At the time Pnina was working part-time and going to school. One day she was suddenly instructed to go home; the radio had announced that there was a war in Israel. Mobs of Libyans turned their rage towards Israel against their fellow Jewish Libyan citizens. They pillaged, burned and destroyed the neighborhoods and killed innocent Jewish people.
Pnina had to go into hiding and she counted on her neighbors to bring her family kosher food. One day, a crowd armed with machetes descended on her neighborhood looking for the Jews. Her local Sheikh came out on the street and told the crowd “mafich Yehud, no Jews here.” The Sheikh’s lie caused the mob to leave, saving the lives of the Jews still hiding throughout the neighborhood.
None of the Jews knew what they were going do and Pnina’s mother, a widow with four children, began to panic. Pnina remembers an official from a local government office had already once indicated to her mother that the day was coming where her throat would be cut.
Eventually Jeeps from the government came to offer the local Jews a choice: either the Jews thereafter live in a camp run by the police where the government would “provide protection,” the Jews could stay in their homes at their own risk, or they could leave the country and relinquish their Libyan citizenship. Without question, Pnina’s mother believed that the safest choice for her family was to leave Libya.
Unlike many other Libyan Jews, Pnina’s mother had a Tunisian passport, as she predicted that if the Jews needed to one day flee Libya, it would be easier to do so with a foreign passport. On June 30th, 1967 at 4:30am a government Jeep came and took the family to the airport. Pnina remembers that it felt strange to her as she underwent a full body search. The Jews were only allowed to take one suitcase and 20 Libyan Sterling.
Since Libya had been an Italian colony, her family spoke Italian. The organized Jewish community in Rome welcomed her family in Italy.
At the time, there was an international refugee camp. Communism was prevalent and refugees from Poland, Hungary, Romania and other communist nations would flee to refugee camps in Italy. The two most famous ones were known as Latina and Cerata. Her family moved to Latina where they received extra clothing and assistance in finding mediocre jobs to get back on their feet. Pnina had been taking an English class in Tripoli and she was able to continue it in the same school in Latina. Her family was able to slowly rebuild their life in Rome.
Back in Tripoli, Pnina’s mother washed the dishes and made the bed before their departure to Italy, though she knew that they would never return to Libya. They had left behind a home with furniture, toys, and everything that was their old life. Pnina’s Arabic teacher was also a close friend of her mother’s. As the family was preparing to leave, Pnina’s teacher visited and offered to do anything she could do to help them. Pnina’s mother gave Pnina’s Arabic teacher her silverware for safekeeping, hoping that they would meet again. Just one year later the Arabic teacher’s son visited Italy, which is when he returned the silver to Pnina’s family. Even now, Pnina remembers it as a most caring gesture during a time of great darkness.
Despite the Arabic teacher’s kindness, Pnina still laments on the loss of her family’s belongings and the memories they represented. As the Libyan government froze the bank accounts of all departing Jews, they had little with which to start their new lives elsewhere. Their departure to Italy meant that they would have to rebuild their lives from scratch.
While the memory of starting her life over is difficult, most painful to Pnina is the destruction of Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery. Pnina muses that if the Jewish cemetery still existed, she would go back to Tripoli to visit the graves of her father, grandparents and hundreds of other Jewish Libyan ancestors. With the Jewish cemetery destroyed, Pnina says, it symbolizes that even the dead Jews are prevented from resting in peace in Libya.
Leaving Libya also shattered the dynamic in Pnina’s family. Pnina was the oldest in a family of five children, and served as a second caretaker to her siblings after her grandmother had moved to Israel in 1951. Pnina’s mother decided it would be better for the older children to get out of the refugee camp and settle into a normal life. The younger children, however, were moved to Israel to live with their grandmother after the first year in Italy when the family was altogether. The older children then learned to speak Italian but not Hebrew, while the younger children learned to speak Hebrew but not Italian. With a new language gap to overcome, the family began to communicate with one another in Judeo-Arabic.
JIMENA’s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA’s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.