“A man tall sixteen feet showed him the house of my uncle,” reads the intriguing translation error of an Italian sentence in the notebooks of Ida Labi, a young Jewish refugee from Tripoli, Libya. She has charmingly mistranslated “sixteen” for “six.”
Ida had an unusual instructor, Simon Kort, a Berlin-born former employee of an Italian electrical company in Milan. He was working hard and resourcefully to teach Ida and his other students English. The year was 1941, the school was improvised inside a hospital, and while there were no armed guards in the classroom—Simon Kort’s married friends could even be visited by their wives—neither teacher nor pupils had freedom. For they were all prisoners of the Italian Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. They were being interned in a small town, Civitella del Tronto, in south central Italy.
Having come to Italy via Germany from Czechoslovakia with his father in 1935 seeking economic opportunity, Kort, at age twenty-five, decided to stay on in Milan when his father returned to Czechoslovakia. Compared to the increasingly violent antisemitism practiced by the Nazis in Germany and in the countries they had already invaded in the late 1930s, life in Italy was tolerable for Emigranten, political refugees, such as Simon. As late as 1936, Mussolini was still engaged in a balancing act, on the one hand currying Hitler’s favor and on the other hand meeting with Zionist leaders, calling for the establishment of a Jewish state, and tolerating Jewish refugees.
All this changed, however, with the German-Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War as allies of Franco. In 1938, Italy promulgated Nuremberg-style racial laws. However, they were applied with a pronounced lack of enthusiasm: Italy and Italian-occupied territories, such as Libya, became havens for persecuted Jews.
Simon Kort was among the thousands of Jews with foreign nationality in Italy who, lacking any official status, were ordered to leave in 1938. For those, like Kort, who evaded the expulsion order, there were razzias, or roundups, and many foreign Jews were arrested and deported. For two years, the police issued individual fogli di via, orders to leave Italy at once, but where was Simon Kort to go? With his resourcefulness, linguistic abilities, and network of friends, he managed for months to continue to avoid arrest. When Italy entered the war in June 1940, the situation deteriorated badly. There were mass arrests, apartments were raided frequently, and there were early morning roundups.
Kort was apprehended with others in August 1940. A month later, humiliatingly manacled in pairs, the arrested were driven in police vans to the Milan railroad station. From there they were transported to an internment camp in Tossicia, an isolated mountain village in the province of Teramo. In January 1941, Kort was transferred to Civitella del Trento, also in Teramo, where he was interned in an abandoned hospital. Kort and other German and Polish Jews—business people, mechanics, artists, musicians, and even an Orthodox rabbi who had run a kosher restaurant in Venice— received matzoh from Italian Jews and managed to celebrate Passover that year.
At the end of 1941, Kort and the European Jews were fascinated to see the arrival of a group of Sephardic Jews from Libya. There were sixty of them—men, women, and children in families. Under pressure from the Nazis, harsh anti-Jewish measures were being instituted against them. They had been transported from Tripoli, an Italian colony in North Africa, and other places in Libya.
The German and Polish Jews affectionately called them their “Tripolini.”The Libyan Jews spoke Arabic, although some spoke Italian, and everyone was dressed—to the Europeans’ eyes—in exotic Arab clothing. Originally from Malta and Gibraltar, and considered British subjects, they had been accused by the Italians of collaborating with the Allies during the summer of 1940, when the British army had successfully advanced against the Italians. When German general Rommel drove the British out in early 1941, the returning Italians deported these Jewish families to Civitclla del Tronto in central Italy, and into the classroom of Simon Kort.
The Libyans struggled to keep kosher and to advance their children’s education, which is where Simon Kort came in. He improvised a school in the hospital and taught the Libyan children English. There were other subjects as well, including Italian, mathematics, and Hebrew. Although life was difficult and dangerous, concentration camp conditions did not prevail here for either the Libyan or the European Jews. Red Cross packages arrived, and new internees, if they had money, were even being permitted to live in the village itself.
All this changed dramatically with the Allied invasions, first of Sicily and then of the mainland of Italy at Anzio, north of Naples. The Fascist regime surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, and the country divided in two: the south in the hands of the Allies and in the north a satellite state set up and controlled by the Germans. While Mussolini had been in charge, Italian Fascists had, for their own political reasons, thwarted Nazi pressure for mass deportations of ltalian Jews and foreign Jewish nationals. However, as German soldiers moved, for the first time, into Civitella del Tronto, Simon Kort and about twenty of the internees escaped into the countryside.
German regular army units eventually rounded up Kort and the other foreign Jewish men, including the male Libyan Jews, and trucked them south to Pescara. There they were forced to labor at a brickyard to prepare antitank defenses against the approaching British and American forces. Kort and the European Jews translated for the Libyans as various groups of prisoners traded food rations. The situation deteriorated further in April 1944, when the German military police arrived to arrest all Jews who had entered Italy as German nationals. Kort knew time had run out if he was to escape deportation. Saying good-bye to his “Tripolini,” he climbed up to the mountains above Civitella del Tronto.There he worked with the partisans as an interpreter and led escaped British prisoners through the German lines between Teramo and Ascoli .
After the war, many of the Libyan Jews, who were protected because they were British subjects, survived and returned home. There they were aided by Jewish soldiers in the Jewish brigade of the British army. However, in the wake of pogroms and riots that broke out after World War II , most Libyan Jews, including those Simon Kort had taught, immigrated to Italy or Israel. In 1947, Simon Kort immigrated to the United States.