Lily Noam, Memory in the Kitchen. Photography: Shani Brill
Lily Noam, Memory in the Kitchen. Photography: Shani Brill

Born into Hell: The Story of Lily Noam

Lily Noam was born in 1942 in Civitella del Tronto, a POW camp on the outskirts of Rome. Her family survived the Holocaust, returned to Tripoli, and emigrated to Israel after disturbances within their community

My name is Lily Noam. I was born in 1942 in Civitella del Tronto, a POW camp on the outskirts of Rome, in which British prisoners were held by the Italians.

My great grandfather on my father’s side, Yehuda Lavie, arrived in Tripoli in the 17th century. He was a descendant of deportees from Spain, he lived in Gibraltar and was a respected rabbi in the community who decided to emigrate to Palestine. The ship he sailed on docked for a stopover in Tripoli, and when he disembarked to walk around he found a battered Jewish community reeling after a series of riots – without synagogues or holy books. He decided to stay and help restore the community. Since Gibraltar was under British rule, my great-grandfather was considered a subject of the British Empire – and so were his descendants, including my father.

A 10 Year Forbidden Affair

My parents met when they were 16 years old, but my mother’s parents were against the marriage. My mother grew up in a very rich family – her mother was a jewelry merchant, and her uncle was a great patron of the Jewish community. My mother’s four older brothers died in infancy, and so the family raised her like a princess – she was educated at home, with private tutors, and was never required to work. Her parents thought that my father, who was a tailor, was not a suitable match for their daughter – and so the young couple kept their relationship a secret for 10 years until my mother’s mother passed away. 

They married in November 1941, and very shortly after they were married, Mussolini rose to power and banned British citizens from living in Italy and the Italian territories – including Libya – and held them as a bargaining chip against the British. Since my parents had British citizenship, they were taken to Napoli, and from there to Civitella del Tronto, to northeast of Rome, where there was an ancient fortress, and nearly 350 families were held. Life in the camp was relatively comfortable – the captives received food and supplies from the Red Cross, they could conduct community life and pray and even set up a makeshift school for children. They also had access to medical treatment; I was born in the camp on August 22, 1942, it was a long and very difficult birth any my mother lost so much blood that she lost consciousness. The women who were assisting the birth asked the guards for help, and my mother was transferred to a hospital where she stayed for one month while she recovered. My younger sister was also born there on April 2, 1944. 

The Lost Baby

In November 1943 Germany invaded Italy, and in April 1944 right after my sister was born, we were handed over to the Germans. We were sent to a transit camp where we stayed for 10 days, and in May 1944 we arrived at Bergen-Belsen. The women stayed with the children, and the men were taken to do forced labor for about three months. It turned out that the men had to dig holes and plant bombs on the front lines, and they returned to us thin and sick. Afterward, the men continued to do forced labor – I don’t know exactly what, but from the stories I heard from other family members I know that they worked removing bodies – and they were held separately, but they were allowed to see their families for an hour or two every evening.

“The food we received at Bergen-Belsen was sliced bread and soup, but because we kept kosher, many Jews from Libya didn’t eat the soup. Instead we traded it with other Jews, who were less observant, in exchange for more bread.”

My mother was a brave woman. One day a truck full of crying babies arrived, babies that they simply piled on top of one another. Without thinking, she took one of the children, cleaned him and soothed him. She planned to keep him and nurse my sister and him at the same time, but the other women were afraid that the Germans would find out and kill them all and she was pressured to return him to the truck. I don’t think that she would have been able to nurse two babies, but Mom never forgot that baby, and never stopped agonizing over putting him back in that truck. 

During all the years in the camps, my mother carried her jewelry on her. Before my parents were deported from Tripoli to Italy she managed to sew herself a sash – a wide cloth belt – with an inner pocket in which she hid all the jewelry that she received from her parents, it was worth a fortune because her mother knew what was good. She wore the sash the entire war and risked her life to save it – when the time came to leave Civitella del Tronto for the transit camp, my mother took off the sash when she was getting dressed and hung it on a partition in the room. She remembered it at the last minute when she boarded the truck to the transit camp. Seconds before we left, my mother jumped off and ran to save the sash, even though there were armed soldiers on the truck with us; years later, we would live on the money earned from the jewelry in this sash, it even saved my sister’s life. 

The conditions in Bergen-Belsen were very harsh – the men worked hard for whole days without food and water, to the point that they had to drink their own urine. People died like flies from typhus. The food we received at Bergen-Belsen was sliced bread and soup, but because we kept kosher, many Jews from Libya didn’t eat the soup, instead we traded it with other Jews, who were less observant, in exchange for more bread.

In November 1944, towards the end of the war, the British advanced into Germany and the Germans evacuated Bergen-Belsen. We were transferred together with the British prisoners to a camp called Biberach-Rees. The camp was used, apparently, as a convalescent home for Nazi officers and the conditions there were better – again we received packages from the Red Cross and had access to medical care. At the end of the war, the British liberated Biberach-Rees and turned the camp into a convalescent home for former prisoners. We stayed there for a few months to recover, after which they gave us the option to go to Palestine or return to Tripoli.

The Return to Tripoli

We chose to return to Tripoli – where our home and extended family were – and in November 1945 we returned and settled in the Italian Quarter, in a large house that belonged to my mother’s family. My father’s family was in the Jewish Quarter, and he returned there to live and work as a tailor. Three months later – we still hadn’t had time to unload our belongings – riots broke out amongst the Jews of Tripoli. My first memory is of these disturbances: my father was at work, in the Jewish Quarter. My mother was at home alone with me and my younger sister when there was a knock on the door. She grabbed me with one hand and my younger sister with the other, took us up to the roof, and from there managed to jump to the roof of our Italian neighbor and hide there. She managed to save a few other items, and rioters looted the rest. My mother’s Uncle was murdered in these riots- he was a great patron of the Jewish community, and in addition he had good relations with the local Arabs. He thought that he would be okay in light of these connections, and when the disturbances broke out, he got in a carriage and entered the Italian quarter to rescue prisoners. But even though he was a well-known and respected man, he was still brutally murdered.

“My first memory is of these disturbances: she grabbed me with one hand and my younger sister with the other, took us up to the roof, and from there managed to jump to the roof of our Italian neighbor and hide there.”

After the disturbances, we moved to the Jewish Quarter, which was considered safer, and lived with my father’s mother. It was a classic Spanish house, with a patio and a fireplace. I remember we would put the Shabbat stews in the fireplace, and inside the pots they would place empty Chianti bottles filled with coffee. The men that returned from synagogue would pour themselves a hot coffee, and then the whole family would sit down to eat the soup. I remember my father in this house – he was a sociable man and was always surrounded by people. He was good with his hands and at Purim he made us wooden noisemakers. 

My third sister was born in April 1946, and a few months afterwards, on Hanukkah of that year, my father died. He was an athletic man and went swimming in the sea. He fell ill, laid in bed and within three days his condition deteriorated and he died in the hospital. Ultimately, my parents never got to live as a normal married couple – they were transferred to a POW camp shortly after they married, and a few months after they returned the disturbances started and then my father died. My mother was shattered. She wore mourning clothes for three years. She was left alone, with three small girls, living with her mother-in-law – my father’s mother – who never forgave my mother’s parents’ opposition to the wedding and continually harassed her. My mother was forced to sell the jewelry she had hidden through the entire war and start to work for the first time in her life to support her family. She started working at a Jewish daycare run by the Joint (Jewish relief organization founded in 1914), where they agreed that she could bring my one year old sister to work with her. She wasn’t allowed to bring us, but she managed to convince the committee of the Jewish-Italian school to accept us.

“I learned to cook at age 9, from our neighbor. For years I worked in the morning, studied at school in the evenings, and at night – I would cook on the Primus in the courtyard and prepare lessons in its light, so as not to disturb my mother who was sleeping inside.”

After more riots, this time in the Jewish Quarter, we emigrated to Israel in 1949, with the large wave of immigration at that time. We sailed to the Haifa port on a ship called the “Theodore Herzl”, from there we moved to the immigration authority for three days, then to Beit Lid for three months, and from there to Mahane Israel – a port not far from Tel Aviv, where we stayed almost 10 years. In Israel I was immediately enrolled in the third grade, because I studied Hebrew and Italian. My mother worked in childcare and housekeeping, and I raised my sisters while she was at work. I learned how to cook at age 9 from our neighbor. I didn’t have any textbooks and in order to do my homework, I would use the other children’s books when they were at recess, or even start solving the exercises during class. At age 12 I went alone to the welfare office and asked them to take me out of the house and send me to a boarding school, because it was too hard at home and I couldn’t make time to study. I had verified which schools were best and I asked to go to the “Aliyah Institute” in Petach Tikva, but it seemed totally dilapidated in my opinion, so I switched to “Yimin Ord” in the Carmel. I had a great time there, but they didn’t teach English – and I knew that I needed to know English, and so after six months I returned home. I worked in the morning, I studied at school in the evening and at night – I would cook on the Primus in the courtyard and prepare lessons in its light, so as not to disturb my mother who was sleeping inside

Despite our obvious difficulties, we never lacked food. Our food was very healthy in terms of nutritional content, and Mom kept the house clean and orderly. When my sister came down with a severe case of pneumonia, in 1946, my mother was told that she needed penicillin, which was expensive and rare at that time. My mother sold more jewelry and gold to buy the medicine. 

I received a scholarship to nursing school at age 16 and I worked as a nurse my whole life. I was in charge of the Orthopedic department in a hospital, and after my four children were born I began working as a nurse within my own community – at Tipat Chalav, schools, health clinics – I worked there until even after retirement age, until the outbreak of the Corona epidemic.

Lily Noam’s story was documented as part of the Memory in the Kitchen project, a joint effort of Memory in the Living Room and FOODISH.

In lieu of our father or extended family to celebrate with, what connected us to the holidays was the food – each holiday and its special dish. We prepared the chraime for every Shabbat and holiday meal, and I continue to make it to this day.” For Lili Noam’s chraime recipe

*שמנו לב שחסרים כמה פרטים קטנים להשלמת הפרופיל שלך ב־FOODISH, אפשר להוסיף אותם בקלות בעמוד המשתמש שלך.