A Personal Exodus Story
By Israel Bonan
Prelude: It was in early June, I was in my last year of college; actually last month of it. All I needed to graduate was the senior project and completing the oral defense. My sister was already married and in the US; my brother had already left for the US as well.
All I needed was to finish college, take a summer vacation tramping around the country visiting Luxor and Aswan with my friends and any antiquities I had not seen before I permanently departed with my parents to join my brother and sister; all in good time (may be September of 1967).
* * *
June 5th 1967: I had to be at college, for a prelim discussions with advisor etc..., I arrive around 9 am and soon after we hear that war broke out with Israel. While at college, you have to understand that higher education was free with the proviso that students after graduation will be contractually obligated to serve 4 or 5 years in the government employ in whatever capacity they can provide the recent graduates with; to the exclusion of Jewish students. So I could see the glee in other student eyes as they began to congratulate each other about their assignments which will undoubtedly be in Tel Aviv, and in very short order. I kept my composure, something we had to learn so we don't betray our emotional tendencies and allegiances. Since no educational business could be transacted because of the new developments, all appointments were canceled and I faced going back home. It was impossible to get a bus to come back home, since the Egyptian government started re-deploying them for army purpose, and you could see the rioting and public clamoring starting to shape up in the streets.
I did the best thing I could, I started walking, mostly running, from Cairo University at Guiza to Bab El Look in Cairo, a good 4 to 6 miles at least. Exhausted I reached home, and started to listen to the radio.
Since early in the war, the radio blaring was all about the good fight and the dominance of Egyptian artillery in safeguarding the Egyptian skies over Cairo. Tens and then hundreds of planes every hour were reported shot down in total victory over the invading Zionists.
We had a dear friend and neighbor that lived upstairs from us, we were kind of inseparable who stopped by, as usual, and saw our anxieties and tried to keep us optimistic and cheerful, and not to worry about what is happening (he knew we had relatives in Israel, I am sure of that). Yet with every radio announcement and the tally of planes shot down over 300 by mid afternoon, I could see his hard to suppress glee, while at the same time he was trying to calm us down.
I wish to add that this type of divided loyalties, not only of his, but of Jews in the Diaspora was and is not uncommon. I repeated that episode because it struck me as a two way street and that I should understand it from not only our perspective but his as well. I still respect him, alas he passed away recently.
Sunset came, my father arrived home by then as well; the house lights were off , due to the imposed air raids protocol; and my father and I were standing in the balcony around 9 p.m. talking. My father shared his anxieties with me, when he started remembering what happened during the prior war of 1956, when they began rounding up the Jews shortly after the war started and was pondering what we will have to do for this war.
Around 10 p.m. a knock on the door and a couple of policemen ask if ESRAEEL BOONAN was at home.
* * *
We start at the knock on the door, and me leaving at 10 p.m. with a couple of policemen who requested the pleasure of my company.
I left with them, apprehensive to say the least, in the dark of night made inkier with the air raid imposed extra blackness. I was escorted to a car, and we drove to another location where they picked up another soul mate, a young kid, that I did not know, who could not be older than 18 years of age; and I was 22 at the time. After we drove for a while we were escorted to the Mosqui precinct.
... My mother later on told me that my father ran after the car for a long while after he tried unsuccessfully to inquire as to where I was being taken, with no answers forthcoming to calm him down or ease their anxieties. He came home dried mouthed and frantic... the situations we put our parents through for just being nice Jewish boys.
... We found out later on that on the first night they started rounding up all Jewish males from 18 to 55 years old, my father was spared the indignities of it by being 57 at the time, his cousin was not so lucky, and he ended up in jail with his own son at the same time until released a few month later.
We walked into a large precinct hall, with the desk officer sitting further to our right, and a lot of uniformed and plain clothes policemen circling around, and we both faced "Captain Hosni" who started his introduction with a reddening slap across our faces. In my case that act of kindness ejected my glasses off my face which came tumbling down shattered to my feet. I bend down to pick them up, to his snickering and his voice saying that he really "meant was to break them into pieces", so I handed the glasses back to him and he completely mangled them and handed the glasses back to me; the glasses were gold rimmed, and more to come on that.
The next few minutes of interrogation, if we can call it that, had to do more with using his cane on our backs and continuing his savagery while goading us for being Jews and that they will annihilate us etc... During that time the shirt and undershirt were torn off our backs; and all I can remember beyond that was, that the kid next to me, behaved exactly as I did, not a whimper, not a cry just stood ramrod in a tragic acceptance of physical abuse pretending no impact physical or otherwise; which succeeded only in infuriating him.
Finally, he stopped, may be he got tired, or may be he was reserving his strength and the night was still young; and we were escorted to the seated officer for processing. The first thing he asked us was if we had any gold in our possession; so guess what, I handed him my mangled glasses in response. You can well imagine that it did not sit too well with the other onlookers and that it cost me the wrath of a policeman's unruffled feathers on the way out of the precinct hall while heading into the holding cell for the night.
* * *
While we were being escorted out from the main police station hall, I was stopped by a non uniformed policeman, who needed to vent some more of his anger, may be at Jews, may be at his wife or his boss, who knows; and he became slap happy on my leathery face, for a while longer.
We were then escorted to the holding cell; we need to try to remember that I was already without my glasses, which added a measure of disorientation to my state of mind, and with a torn shirt on my back together with my youthful companion. The room was pitched black, but after our eyes adjusted a bit, we could already notice shapes and forms moving about or sitting on the few benches strewn in the room while other found a crouching position on the floor, where they were visited throughout the night with the creepy crawlers the big fat bed bugs, I know.
The mood was subdued, a few people whispered, and all through the night we could hear the next batch of Jews that were escorted into the station, where shouts and loud cries were the norm throughout the night, and some of my fellow Jews started snickering with every new batch, that they were getting the royal treatment, especially if the cries were unusually loud, much to my further discomfort and distress.
One individual stuck in my mind, and that was a young man who was a 'stutterer' which must have provided a bit more of an extra diversion to our jailers, because he came into the cell in an extremely sad state having compounded his miseries with his own unfortunate handicap, in the hands of his non empathic tormentors.
And the room kept filling up all through the night. A little after midnight, while a new batch of fellow Jews were escorted in; we heard a voice from the cell, a Jew "taunting" captain Hosni! He was telling him, '... you know the Israelis can drop a couple of bombs on the Aswan dam and you have a real problem on your hands...', paraphrasing what was said, and meant. Captain Hosni, of course did not miss his cue; he lunged at the prisoner, this hapless Jew, the offender and with ferocity started to pound on him savagely anew. He stopped only when another voice in the Jewish crowd exhorted him with words to the effect '... Kefaya baka ya Hosni...' (i.e. enough already Hosni). Captain Hosni, turned to the voice unexpectedly wincing and with a measure of pain in his face pondered aloud..' is that you Mr. Simon, you're here too... I'm sorry'. Mr. Simon will have his own story later on, suffices to say he was related by marriage to my family. Captain Hosni stopped the beating and retreated after asking Mr. Simon if he needed anything, and Simon requested a change of cloth and some towels and a few other personal items.
As an aside, we found out that this hapless Jew, was known to the police intimately, since he was alleged to be a communist, and that he had previously visited the premises on other occasions.
Finally the sun broke through the dreary night, and a new dawn of eventful activities laid ahead.
* * *
The first rays of the sun trickled into the holding cell; the shifting shadows started to crystallize into recognizable human forms, a friend here, a relative there all bound by one common denominator, their jewishness.
We started to mingle, and reach out to one another, we asked about our experiences, what just happened and speculated on the future and what it would hold. There were 40 to 50 of us milling about in the early morning hours of the new day.
We could distinctly differentiate between, what I'll refer to as pre and post Captain Hosni. The disheveled and out of sorts were the privileged ones to have been personally introduced to the captain during his shift; the others looked only frantic and no more.
Once again, one person stood out among us, and not by choice, in the holding cell. It was a middle aged, slightly pudgy man with half his scalp shorn off, while the other half still replete with his own hair. Was it a change of heart on the part of his tonsorial helper? Or was it the omen of what would happen next? I will refer to this man in future narration as Mr. Mohawk, and why pray tell am I heaping my early scorn on him? It is because I have the privilege of knowing the end of this narrative, and while my opinion of him started on the right footing, it became progressively obvious that it was not his striped appearance that affected my perception of him but rather his striped nature that remains in my memory to this day.
After the early hours of the day wore off, a few policemen and their higher ups flung open the cell doors, and stated that they will require all the people whose names will be mentioned aloud to form a line on one side so they can be transported and moved to another location.
After the procession of people left the cell, it was clinked shut again; a dozen or so of us left behind began to regroup and assess our situation and that of the ones that just vacated the cell.
It became quickly apparent to us that we shared yet another common denominator, we were all foreign nationals (even though we were born, raised and lived all our lives in Egypt; that is another story onto itself) in possession of passports and answer to a foreign country. Some were French, other Italians, Iranians, I was Tunisian? Thanks to my grandfather and father after him that kept and renewed such an identity, which also saved us from being expelled earlier from Egypt during the 1956 war. Mr. Mohawk was left behind as well, they had started to shave his head when they realized that he was of Italian nationality, so they stopped mid way and left him in his case as a half Italian I suppose, but then half Italian in this case was definitely better that none.
We found out later that the ones removed from the cell were all 'apatride', identified as without any nationality. Some of them where my closest friends growing up, which I knew from the synagogue and at school. A good number of them remained incarcerated for more than 3 years, until indirectly through the auspices of the United States government and directly through the Spanish embassy they were presented with Spanish passports by tracing their ancestries to Spain, an ironic twist to the inquisition story some 400 years later.
As for the rest of us, our story will take a distinctly different turn.
* * *
The tension had not subsided, even though we surmised that we will be treated differently than the ones that had already left early that morning for places unknown.
We need to remember while I was a single person; there were among us the family men that had wives and children they left behind. The worry level for all us had not significantly subsided, and we lethargically awaited what will happen next.
Around early afternoon we were called upon to file out of the cell, we were processed through the desk officer; prior to which I had noticed that I was wearing a gold bar mitzvah ring on my finger. It had totally escaped me to give it to them on my way in, and thought better of keeping it on my finger while shipping out. I removed the ring and put it in my pocket instead.
We were led then to an open bed truck, and the truck navigated the streets of Cairo, from one precinct to another collecting more Jewish and other foreign nationals. I recognized a few more friends and acquaintances, some old and some young.
We came to stop at one precinct, next to the Opera house, and we had to wait a while to allow them to bring this man who looked more like a 'butter ball' turkey when he was piled up in the truck with us. He was curled up in a ball like shape, black and blue bruises on his rounded and humped back, and his face was flushed. The description is not meant to be unkind to him, it is what I remember vividly and the closest honest description of his condition.
While we were waiting for him in the truck, a few of the locals passing by, started to gather around the truck, milling about trying to figure out who, and what we were. Suddenly it must have clicked in some ones mind to shout 'Jews'; next thing soda bottles began to fly around us for all sides. While I am still nostalgic about the slim Coke bottle of yore, it was made of glass and plastic soda containers were not in vogue yet; that day its heft and its lethal trajectory was not welcome to say the least.
The truck thankfully pulled out shortly there after, trailing behind us was a mob that continued to pelt us with whatever came into their hands. We continued traveling in the truck and gathering more people and finally we left for the outskirts of Cairo and we drove on a highway leading away from the city.
We did not know it at the time, but we were headed for 'Kanater' (water falls) prison, somewhere in the outskirts of Cairo, it was a prison that was partially used to house incarcerated foreigners awaiting their fate. While on the way, the sun had set, and I remember that one of policeman on the truck tried to shake us down. He asked for money so he can guarantee we will be treated well when we arrive there; he knew where we were going and tried to be enterprising about it. I remember five piasters exchanging hands, all 'we' could muster having left in a hurry from our respective domiciles; of course that transaction did not fair us any better once we reached our destination.
We knew when we reached this dark and foreboding structure that we were coming to the end of this particular journey and embarking on a brand new experience, because we were received with a loud shout from an inmate that still rings in my ears. It was a blasphemous uttering about G_d, words I will not repeat but only want to record.
* * *
It was early in the night of June 6th when we arrived at the Kanater prison. We stepped off the truck and filed into the prison administration building, one at a time. On my way in, I crossed path with a good friend of mine on his way out, an Italian nationality who was being transported out of prison; he was in good shape and good spirit, a slight contrast to the way I must have looked to him coming into the prison.
The desk officer took whatever information that was needed to keep his records straight, and we were branded with a number, not tattooed; I still remember the shape of it, a triangle with a number in it, washable and not permanent on the skin yet indelible in our memories.
Then we were grouped in threes to share a dorm room, so to speak. I was teamed up with two other individuals, my cell mates.
Like anything else I wanted to remember everything, I started to count the number of holes in the grid of the cell door, the number of bars in the external elevated window, the dimensions in steps of the concrete floor; why I ask myself now? Was it that important? Obviously the memory of all this information was lost in the context of the events themselves, soon after, anyway.
The cell was small, lined up in each of 3 corners with a metal bed, with a very thin mattress-like accouterment, and a blanket for cover. We all went in, introduced ourselves and started a cell mate friendship that I am sure they will still be able to recall as much as I do. After all do we ever forget our 'summer camp' buddies!
It might come as a surprise to the readers that none of my cell mates were Jewish! One, the eldest among us was Moslem, and the second one was Christian!
We started to arrange our belongings and our sleeping arrangements; I had the easiest job of all since I had only the torn shirt on my back, and the pants I was wearing and nothing else; they were a bit more prepared I suppose, but not by much.
The first order of business for me and one of the other two was to take care and fuss over our third cell mate. He was the 'butter ball' gentleman I depicted earlier in my narration. He was in pain, his body was blotched in deep black and blue discoloration, and he could hardly straighten up or move, we laid him down on his bed and we took turn to massage his body and his sores to alleviate his pain, for which he was grateful and thankful for this act of kindness on our part.
Like any camp mates, we started to recount our ordeals and what circumstances brought us to this place; scary stuff without the benefit of a camp fire.
The eldest, the Moslem among us, was probably in his late forties gave us a lot more information than we would have had he not been an ex-con himself; since he had at prior occasions visited the premises. He was a refined gentleman, in every sense of the word, an intellectual of excellent breeding, so what was he doing here? He had the misfortune to be the Times correspondent in Egypt, and 'by choice' was married to a Christian British national, a bad combination that earned him a prior visit to this prison during the 1956 war as well.
He was sure that when this war started that the same thing, jailed for an extended period of time, will happen to him again this time. So he took his precautions while at home to pack for his expected stay, he was packing his underwear and a copy of the Koran and the Bible in his bag when the police knocked on his door. He let them in, an officer and a retinue of policemen, and they asked him to come with them to the precinct. He stalled a bit and asked them to wait until he finishes packing; at which point the officer slapped him on the face, in front of his wife, and pushed him around to expedite his departure. He turned around and, in kind, slapped the officer back and told him '... you have no rights to slap me around in my own home...'. The officer kept his peace, allowed him to pack and say his good byes, and off they went to the precinct where we ended up picking him from. At the precinct, what you'd expect happened; officers and policemen ganged up on him, and punched him into the shape and state we found him in.
He explained to us about the prison, that it was for not only foreign nationals, but for political prisoners as well. There was a big contingent of 'Moslem Brothers' , a fanatic Islamic group, that was in and out of favor with the government (at one point they had staged an assassination attempt on president Nasser at the time and currently were out of favor). He told us that they were held without due process, and are released once in a while only to be brought back again when they got rounded up for this or that reason.
He also shared some prison rumors, as they say you get plugged into the rumor mill once 'inside'; about the fifth floor residents of the prison, being the long timers, and that they have lepers among them, and how they get rid of their mattresses when they die.... but then I digress.
Because we were kind and compassionate towards him, at the first occasion, he offered to share with us his most valuable possession/commodity that he brought with him, 'toilet papers'. In his long stays in prison, it is understandably painful to be without it. To which we promptly declined his offer, and thanked him for his consideration, we began to sense that his stay will be a bit longer than ours and wanted to leave him well stocked, just in case.
Next came the story, of the Christian among us. His first name was Joseph an actual British national who owned and ran a factory in or around Cairo, the capital of Egypt. He was with his family when they knocked on his door and asked him if he was Joseph 'X', he told them no, and that his name was Joseph 'Y'; the officer retorted '...close enough, come with us...'. He was dragged to a precinct and like the rest of us was brought into this prison.
Lastly, I recounted to them the story of the Jew among them and the circumstances that brought me there as well.
I got to admit that all this 'bonding' happened either the first night or on the next day June 7th, which was uneventful except for establishing the prison routine for us.
We were staying on the first floor, not the fifth! A large courtyard surrounded by cells all around. We were let out for an hour in the morning, allowed to shower and walk around the courtyard, at a time not shared by other inmates. Food was simplistic, dark pita style bread with something fried (egg plant, falafel...). We had to also clean our cells a chore that could be relegated, if we wished to, to another inmate by trading for instance cigarettes that we were entitled to but did not smoke, or food we did not eat or wished to eat.
At night, the prison radio was piped to a loud speaker, and that was our only contact to the outside world, were news of the war was coming in, fast and furious, about the decimation of Israel and the heavy fighting and the Egyptian troops winning battle after battle in 'El Arish and Gaza'; which prompted the correspondent among us, later in the week, to reflect ... 'how could we be winning if we are fighting at Cairo's door step?' Giving us an educated guess as to what was really happening in the war.
* * *
Thursday the 8th of June was another bright day, we had the whole day planned by the prison's authorities. It was a day to be spent outside of the prison, considered a real treat for the other inmates, as well.
All inmates who had a court appearance, or a legal matter to tend to, were scheduled to leave for the city courts and government departments as necessary. Our contingent needed to get exit approval from the 'Mogama'a' which is the closest thing to the State department's INS and the visa office combined.
A truck, this time covered with tarp on all sides, was densely packed, some were seated on benches on three sides of the trucks, I and a few others were standing up in the middle of it. Among the prisoners sitting were a few policemen, to maintain the peace; the officer in charge sat in the front cab with the driver.
While standing in the middle of the truck, I had sitting on my right an inmate in a gallabieh (Arab dress), and abutted to him was a policeman threateningly holding his riffle; and maintaining the peace!. All of a sudden the inmate assumed a crouching position on the bench, lifted his dress over his haunches and started to strain, he had the palm of his hand positioned below his 'sphincter' in expectation of catching something. After a few moments of straining he palmed off a balloon like item (a prophylactic of sorts) wrapped around a few of his personal belongings. One of the things he took out of the balloon was something he took great pains in handling, he rolled it into cigarette papers, lit it and started smoking it and passing it around, first and foremost to the policeman sitting at his side, maintaining the peace!.
He started unwrapping other items, among them a letter to give to his wife who'll be waiting in court for him, he also started to talk to the inmate on his right telling him that his cell mate was still a virgin, he never had to carry anything so intimately before on his body; the whole scene and conversation was surreal and to me, hilarious! I could not stop internalizing my laughter any more until something even funnier occurred.
I was also standing next to another Jew, that throughout the trip was incessantly fretting loudly about the business he left behind, and his old mother; and that all he wanted was just to go back, as if we had any choice in the matter. We continued to listen to him with a mixture of empathy and annoyance at his droning repetitious diatribe and at his open display of anxiety; until all of a sudden he started screaming at the top of his lungs '... thief, thief, he stole my watch, he stole my watch, thief....' The officer stopped the truck, I looked on my left and noticed another inmate holding a pin in his hand, he pricked his scalp just above his left eye, and a stream of red blood started oozing out on his face, he in turn started screaming '... he hit effendi, he hurt me, I am losing all my blood....'.
The officer emptied the truck, took a look at the screaming bloodied inmate, frisked him, found the watch, handed it to the Jewish inmate with these words '... if we had waited a couple of more minutes he would have hid it in a place we would not be able to get to...'. The watch at face value could not have been worth much, but it was 'his' watch and 'he' got it back.
Back to back events that provided a lighter moment in an otherwise few days of strained existence.
We finally arrived at the intended government building we were let out and had to wait our turn to talk to the officials about what, we did not know yet?
My turn came; I was asked if I had my passport on me? Since I usually did not carry my passport on me let alone in my condition, it was suggested that I'll be escorted by a policeman to my home to pick it up, especially since my home was less than a couple of miles from the place.
While we were waiting for the ride to fetch my passport, I remember meeting another person, he was a strapping very well dressed black man. I struck up a conversation with him only to find out he was an American, a medical student studying in Cairo. I mentioned to him my intentions of going to the US and that I was a Jew, his comment was that it will be much easier for me as a Jew in America than in Egypt, that the Jews have a stronger influence in America. He was also being deported as an undesirable, or may be for fear of his safety as a foreigner.
The policeman and I were driven to my home, I apologize having to reiterate the condition I was in, because that's what my mother opening the door will see, I was wearing a torn shirt, without my glasses, and manacled; "a real evil doer, in other words a Jew in Egypt".
My mother opened the door, and if you knew my mother, or any mother for that matter, you can readily guess how she reacted seeing me in the shape I was in. I was all business, I asked her for the passport, and she suggested and asked permission to gather some cloth to give me. While she was packing another pair of pants and a clean shirt and retrieving my passport, I started telling her about whom I saw in the precinct's holding cell the first night, and that they were in good condition and she should call and tell their mothers that they were all right when they left the precinct.
A few minutes later, my neighbor friend came down, wanted to hug me, saw my manacles and the state I was in and I could see his face flush, his eyes tearing and he was besides himself; we ended up signaling our hellos with the policeman's presence always felt. Finally my mother handed me the passport, a small bag (actually an old attaché case) with a few articles of clothing, assembled in haste; we kissed and I was escorted back to the foreboding government building.
... Later on my mother told me, the superintendent of the building, a distinguished Nubian man and his son, teared when they saw me manacled coming in and later on leaving the building, and came to commensurate with my mother. My neighbor friend openly cried, that he could not communicate with me, and talk to me and about the condition I was in. Another one of our neighbors, living on the same floor, was heard commenting that 'I must have done something wrong' or else why would I be in manacles, a neighbor that knew me for more than 11 years and now thinks of me as "a real evil doer, in other words a Jew in Egypt".
We remained in the building, until late at night, they had a lot of processing to do, the building was kept dimly lit because of air raids still being sounded; we were sitting in the corridors, on the floor. The night was chilly, and a draft of wind caused me to shiver; one of the Jewish men present asked Mr. Simon (he was introduced in an earlier chapter) if he could "lend" me one of the blankets he was schlepping around, just until we leave, because I was shivering. Needless to say, he did not respond, he did not even turn around but sat there holding on to his blankets. I still shiver at his callousness.
Finally the eventful day came to an end and we were escorted back to the prison late at night.
* * *
Friday June 9th was spent mostly in the cell, where my cell mates and I shared our experiences of the previous day.
It was then that I found out that Joseph will be allowed to go home, and will be granted a 48 hours deadline to sort out his affairs and leave the country with his family.
It is ironic that destroying things usually takes a lot less time than building them. Here was a businessman that must have sweated to build something of value, to have it disappear in the span of 48 hours because he was ... fill in the reason, does it matter?
When I heard he would be allowed back home, I experienced a level of angst that I had never experienced before. Will I also be allowed back home? On one hand, should I not rejoice? I will be allowed to help my older parents who were left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment. On the other hand, I will have to face walking in the streets again, looking over my shoulders, dreading every minute of it. My heightened paranoia and my filial duties and responsibilities clashed relentlessly in my head that day. Should I pray to be let out, to go home and help my parents pack up and leave; or should I just pray to leave? I emotionally came apart, to my disgust.
I cannot describe my feelings or emotions any better, except to sum it up by saying that I felt ashamed of myself, of my thoughts and emotions that day. I only wish that I could have been stronger, since I decided not to pray at all; and in a way the decision was made for me. If I am allowed one last prayer now, it would be that my sons (and all children) never ever have to face these choices during their lifetime, because no one should have to.
The radio that night brought the final news of the real story of the war. The Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, took to the airwaves and solemnly declared that the army sustained heavy losses and that he can only blame himself for it, and with that he tendered his resignation effective immediately. Marshall Music replaced the original propaganda machine that spewed for more than five days declaring the exact opposite of what was happening all along, during the war.
I found out later the fate of the effusive propagandist and radio announcer, that so inflated non existent successes that even the generals in the field decided to believe him and not to venture out to fight, since they had already won, and were caught off guard and surrendered when the Israeli army surrounded them. He was accused of hyping the propaganda that could have been a reason for their defeat, he was severely beaten and incarcerated! Can you imagine if he had gone to the airwaves with a message like '... we are losing the war, they are fighting at our door steps ...' what would have happened to him then? It was the true personification of the axiom of '... being between a rock and a hard place...'.
Early on Saturday June 10th we were awakened, and I was asked to get ready to depart, we said our good byes and I remember taking Joseph's address in England to correspond with him. As an aside I found out later that he left for England with his family and shortly upon his arrival his father passed away, it was not to be an easy June for any of us.
There were 15 of us, we climbed an uncovered truck and we started rolling. Even though it was barely dawn when we left, we could feel the excitement in the streets. The government machinery was preparing for huge orchestrated street demonstrations. President Nasser needed to be brought back to power by public acclamation, no less. The context of an orchestrated demonstration was nothing new to us; as school children on a moment's notice, even in the private Brothers school we attended, they would pull us out to the streets with a lunch box to stand in a designated area along a major avenue, to applaud a visiting head of state, or to cheer for the 'idee du jour'; as a well oiled controlled state machinery would tend to its business.
We were taken to another concrete building into yet another holding cell, this time the guards were all army paratroopers armed with machine guns, who whisked us very quickly and inconspicuously into this temporary enclosure.
There were no benches; we sat on the concrete flooring. We could hear by now the riots, demonstrations, call it what you may, building in strength. Noises, shouts, cry for Nasser to come back to his beloved people and country. How can any man or woman, resist the temptations of really believing in that self orchestrated aggrandizement, it's real heady stuff. Some 15 million people shouting and crying out their love for you, how can you not believe it; even though you set it in motion, mere details ... details. Well, Nasser obviously succumbed to this outpouring of love and decided to remain in office to which he had initially been elected with a 99.9% of the popular vote.
By then we were all lethargic in the room; one man with a trembling hand lit up a cigarette and started smoking; that sinful act on Sabbath drew the ire of Mr. Mohawk who immediately pointed to him and with a holier than thou attitude proclaimed '... it is because of people like you that the Jews suffer ...'. The man nervously looked at me with pleading eyes and said '... see Bonan what he's saying...' (last name usage is a common form of address). All I could muster was to ask Mr. Mohawk to leave him alone.
I wish I was stronger then also, but I was not; I wish I were able, at the time, to comfort them and try and help them cope with what we were going through, but I did not. I completely closed on myself, cocooned as we all did into our own coping mechanisms to emotionally survive our ordeal.
A few hours later we were called upon to board the truck again, the demonstrations by then were going full bore. They asked us this time, for our own safety, to lay bellies down on the floor of the truck on top of each other, so we do not stick our heads up above the truck confining sides, lest the mob figures it out that we were Jews and cause us harm. From the corner of our eyes, we could see people in their balconies waving and cheering as well, and our ears were deafened by the noisy demonstrators, both our senses of sight and hearing did not serve us well that day. It also was very decent and practical of them to think of our well being at a time like that; what would they think of next, for the Jews with passports?
Once we were at the outskirts of Cairo and out of harm's way, we were asked to readjust our seating arrangement and we traveled for a couple of hours, destination the port city of Alexandria. We knew by then that we will be thankfully deported out of the country. It is a truly ironic twist of words to use both 'thankfully' and 'deported' in the same sentence!
Once we reached our destination, we lined up once again to talk to the officer in charge. While in line, at the check point they searched us, they actually asked for my shoes to check their soles and see if I was spiriting something of value out of the country; like a house, a factory, gold, diamonds, you name it they'll look for it. This nit of an event opened the flood gate of emotions in me, and coupled with the events of the last 6 days came crashing down on me. My eyes welled with tears and I uncontrollably began to weep, silently. Mr. Mohawk approached me and said words to the effect '... Bonan you held up until now, we are almost out of here, why now ...', coming from a clod like him it was still the right thing to say. So I finally composed myself and filed in to see the officer in charge.
First thing the officer asked me was if I had any money, I wanted to do a pirouette for him, so he can see me from all sides and judge for himself the state I was in, but I did not, and answered him perfunctorily that I did not have any money. So he had the gall to tell me that I should remember that the Egyptian government is paying for me to be 'deported'; to which I gratefully thanked him, accepted the exit ticket from him and was escorted with the others once rounded up to a ship for our exit voyage, the 'Ankara' of German registration.
* * *
The Ankara was a cargo ship, with a sizable hold, and a large upper deck. The dozen or so of us Jews were rounded up and we were to be confined to the hold with an armed policeman keeping watch from the deck above looking down on us.
It was a ridiculous picture, 15 men sitting on the floor in the hold of a ship with an armed guard. What harm had we done and what harm can we now do, to deserve the humiliation, while others of various nationalities, Greeks, English, French, men and women were milling about on the deck above; free to roam as they see fit. Those people were also expelled 'undesirables' that the Egyptian government saw fit to deport at the time.
It had been a long day, by then, I had not been able to visit the bathroom for over 12 hours and I was in dire need to relieve myself. I requested to go, and an armed policeman escorted me to the ship's makeshift latrine on the main deck, and waited for me outside. As hard as I tried to urinate, I could not; I spent close to 30 minutes, and finally worried that the policeman will at any minute break to door or ask me to get going; decided to forgo urination for a while longer (with foreboding images of people getting hospitalized for similar symptoms a story I remembered my father recounting) and went back to the well secured hold.
Finally, it was departure time and the ship eased off the pier towards the open Mediterranean sea. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was setting in the horizon. I remember standing with others from our group at the ship's stern looking at the receding shore line wanting to etch the picture of receding from Egypt in our memories. I remember then, that I spit in the sea, it was at the time an apt and fitting reaction to my bottled up emotions and the capping off of 22 years of my existence in Egypt; but then it was only a mere spit in an otherwise large sea.
Somehow I remember that we had better accommodations than the rest of the other passengers, who slept on the deck in makeshift arrangements, while on the other hand we slept on beds in actual 'tiny' rooms. We asked the captain to grant us permission to take a shower after recounting our ordeal to him, there were a few hundred other passengers yet he did grant us the showering privileges, but not to the others.
During this time, Mr. Mohawk was having a field day, he was ecstatic and full of mirth and pep; he kept repeating how good we will be treated, he saw himself being fitted by a private tailor with the best fineries, after all we were now officially "refugees". His half shaved head and his spouting off made for a caricaturic moment. I don't know where he ever got his frame of reference, but there was no understanding him anymore. He also took it upon himself to speak for us Jews, and after securing a couple of empty coffee cans, he started collecting donations for the Jewish refugees on board the ship. A lot of people actually gave him whatever coins and moneys they could part with, which was liberally, judging from their own circumstances at the time and how full the cans where at the end of the exercise.
Mr. Mohawk called me at the end of the day to his room, inebriated after imbibing whatever was handed to him that day, dropped the cans on the bed, a few coins landed on the cover; I remember some Italian Liras among them, worth a few cents, and he pushed a few Liras towards me '... here Bonan, I knew your father back home, take some ...'. I thanked him, but did not accept any; especially that he never even offered any of it to the group on whose behest he undertook the collection. Holier than thou indeed!.
The trip was uneventful, except that we felt clean, were properly fed and felt safe. Our destination was Crete.
We landed in Crete a couple of days later towards dusk, and we were escorted to a motel on the island; with clean accommodations. I believe from this point on that we were wards of the Red Cross who took care of all our needs.
The next morning, we awoke and I remember one of our meals, which ended up with a plate full of 'grapes'. Mind you without glasses, they looked big and dark, juicy and with funny stems, until I bit on one and the pit inside it told me this could not be grapes. A 'sheheyanu' (the experiencing of something new, in Hebrew) moment, I was eating for the first time in my life Bing Cherries, and they tasted good.
Some more of my recollections, that bear mentioning; the hotel clerk that escorted us and talked to us on occasion, asked us not to talk politics because they did not have the free and open society we thought everyone else but the Egyptians had.
The next day arrangements were made to fly us to Koln, Germany, on a US military transport stationed on the island. I remember my naiveté when I asked the American officer if the plane was a Mig, a Russian plane; because of a similar tail design. The officer, a young man corrected me with a smile and gave me the plane's designation which I do not remember (possibly A C3 transport plane, if there was such a thing).
We departed Crete late morning, the plane was not fitted for passenger accommodations, and we sat on long benches, strapped in our seat belts; with the noisy drone of the engines magnified by the lack of any sound insulation inside the cabin. Some of us drowsed into an uncomfortable sleep.
Around 2 or 3 am in the morning we landed and taxied somewhere in Germany for a rest and refueling stop. We came out of the plane and descended the stairs that were rolled up to the plane exit door, which were made of unusually large steps with ample spaces between them. The reason for these minutiae is that one of the older passengers, slightly over 50 at the time, landed his foot between two rungs, fell and broke his arm. He was sent to the infirmary, and his arm put in a sling cast, the cast was very professionally done and he was asked to remove it and possibly replace it in a couple of weeks when he reached his destination, but which destination?!
A couple of hours later we boarded the plane again, and flew some more until we landed in Koln. Once in Koln, we were escorted in busses to the main Red Cross tall steel and glass building. We first, if memory serves me, were physically checked by a doctor, we also had clean accommodations to sleep in, and good food. I remember one in particular, a side dish, with string beans and onions that I could not get anywhere else later on to my dismay. At one point we were asked if we needed clothes, and we were offered the option to select what we wanted or needed from a pile of clothes, heaped with all sorts of pants, jackets and suits. Since all I had with me was, what my mother could stuff in the attaché case, I decided to pick a suit, which I still remember and which unfortunately did not fit and was never worn.
A nice young man was our guide while we were there, and he went to great length to assist us in anyway possible. We were given postcards to write to our families, if we wished, and we did. My parents later told me that they received the card which was sparsely written and to the point '.... I am safe , I am with the Red Cross, don't worry about me, hope to see you soon...' was all it intended to communicate; being worried about the Egyptian censors and what further elaboration might cause, as harm to my parents.
The officials of the Red Cross asked us what we wanted to do and where we may wish to go next. One Iranian among us, decided on Iran; Mr. Mohawk decided on Italy; and that is the end of his cameo appearance in my narration. The rest of us chose for one reason or another to go to Paris, France; my reason being I had relatives there, and besides, that would have been my destination anyway, had I left Egypt on my own accord a few months later.
They gave us each 30 Deutsche Marks and a train ticket to Paris, while the train was to leave in the afternoon; the guide took us out shopping. In a fruit and vegetable market I was introduced for the first time (another sheheyanu moment) to pears the size of a fist, so juicy and tasty by comparison to the ones we ate back home, in Egypt. By then, I was furiously assaulted by all the changes and new experiences, all at once, which made for quite a transition in my life.
We finally boarded the train, headed for Paris, all 13 of us that were left for this leg of the adventure.
* * *
The train departed the station on its way to Paris, France. I like to take a moment to explain that of the 13 of us left for this leg of the journey, only myself and an elderly man in his late forties early fifties had any linguistic abilities beside speaking Arabic; I spoke French and English, and my new friend spoke French fluently; all the others knew only Arabic.
The train whistled its way through various countries on the way to Paris. The train stopped at the French border, and a French border agent knocked on the door of our compartment to verify and stamp our passports to accord us entry to France. We woke up from our slumbers to produce the requested papers.
When my turn came, I handed him my passport, he opened it and sifted through it page by page until in frustration he asked me to get up, get my bags and leave the train, because he cannot and will not grant me entry to France!
He started mouthing off that my passport was written all in Arabic and not a single word in French or English; which of course was true. This passport was produced by the Tunisian embassy in Cairo, to serve as ID papers for the Egyptian government and was not intended for travel.
A quick thinking, from my French speaking friend, and with some of what you may call quiet diplomacy, he succeeded in convincing the agent to let me go through to Paris. He very nicely and softly reminded him of our ordeal and that the Greeks, the Germans as well as the Americans have all helped us so far, so will it be a Frenchman that will block our progress in joining our families, after what we've been through as it was. In the mean time, while I was listening to my friend coaxing the agent to let us through, I was in utter desperation with this new unexpected wrinkle; finding a Tunisian consulate to internationalize my passport was not a likely option to consider; neither was going to Tunisia, not knowing what will come next!.
The agent finally shrugged the whole episode off, muttered that he will let me through, except that he will not officially stamp my passport. So I was grudgingly allowed entry to France, albeit illegally.
The train proceeded into France and we arrived in Paris, if I remember correctly at 'La Guare De L'Est', sometimes in the early morning hour of 9, 10 a.m. local time. Somehow, I remembered the day to be a Sunday, and that it was the day for celebrating the end of Shavuouth (the Festival of weeks, in the Jewish calendar).
We, my French speaking friend and I, gathered the group at the end of the concourse, we exchanged our Marks into Francs, we helped them buy breakfast and we asked them to remain put, until we go out scout what to do and come and get them.
The streets outside the station were almost deserted, no one to talk to or ask for directions. Whomever we encountered and asked about a synagogue or a Jewish center could not help us until we came across a young woman who vaguely remembered a Jewish organization near by; she gave us the directions to reach it, and we thanked her and went on our way.
We found the place, but as you might except its offices were deserted, being a Sunday and a holiday, we waited patiently until a middle aged man showed up with his newspaper and his tallit (prayer shawl) bag who came to observe the holiday at the center and he was not sure himself why no one was there. We repeated our story to him, a story that will be repeated often enough in the next couple of weeks, he wished us well and gave us a direction to go to 'Rue Poissoniere' where there is an Algerian Jewish synagogue where we might find help.
We went back to the station, informed our colleagues and again reminded them to stay put until we came back. My friend and I took the metro (the subway) and somehow we managed to locate the station and the synagogue.
The service was nearing completion, the Gabbai (an official at the synagogue) heard what we had to say, he requested a couple of members from the synagogue to hear us repeat our story; after we were done they asked us to go back to the station and bring the rest of the contingent to the synagogue as well.
We doubled back, brought the rest of our group with whatever belongings we were carrying and joined the congregation which was gathering around us to rehear our story after the services ended. The synagogue had an adjoining functions area, fitted with tables and the congregation was assembling to partake in a prepared lunch; to which we were invited.
During lunch, we could notice the excitement in the assembled congregation; they started to prepare for how to deal with us as a group. The next day was the last day of the Shavuoth holiday, and all Jewish agencies will still be closed and they had to make arrangements for us until they reopen the following day.
In Paris the main Jewish center, was entrusted and prepared, to accept Jewish refugees coming from the Middle East, and communist Europe. They arranged to lodge them, to give them a living stipend and provide for their needs during the transition period required until they decided where they wished to resettle. In case of Jewish families that wished to emigrate to United States, there was a period of roughly six month of stay required, which was the time needed to acquire the necessary entry visas and abide by the refugee quotas for admission. Such would be my case, especially after I reunited with my parents.
They decided to find room for us in one of the Jewish orphanages until the following day when the COJASOR (cannot recall what the acronym stood for) Jewish agency accepted responsibility for us.
Car pools were immediately arranged, each one of us was handed some 50 extra Francs from a quick collection; no more tin cans, and a half shaved head man to front for us this time. Need I say that it was uplifting, well may be I should; it was a downright emotional experience to see Jews come to assist other Jews in their time of need; not to take any credit away from the international Red Cross that also fulfilled that humane need when it was most needed; the difference being the community handled it on the spot, with no prior preparation just people helping people.
* * *
We were all delivered safely to the awaiting accommodations where we spent the night. That night we were led to attend the last day of the holiday in an orthodox synagogue. At the end of the service we repeated our story to a new batch of interested listeners; some of them extended a holiday dinner offer at their homes, which some of us accepted.
For myself I accepted a gentleman's offer to join him and his family that night. It was held in a small apartment where the whole family was gathered, the older parents, the brother, wife, sister. It was a nice table set up, and a friendly atmosphere. I found out about how they handled the Sabbath and Holidays protocol in dealing with lights for instance, not having access to the Sabbath 'goy' (a non Jew that helped Jews during Sabbath to turn on/off lights etc...), they had electronic 'Timers' instead.
The discussion evolved around a lot of topics, until I asked the person, a brother that was unescorted at the table, on my left whether he was married? Innocuous question, but it turned out to be an emotionally charged one; the poor fellow was married, his wife had skipped out on him, and he broke down to the point of incoherence afterwards. I could see the pain in the man's face when I asked him the question, and he started literally rattling and mumbling incoherently. His brother tenderly tried to calm him down, and the gathering explained to me what had happened to him and why.
I was to sleep at their place for the night, and I remember how uncomfortable I felt and must have made others feel. Morning came and I was taken back to the original Jewish orphanage school.
After the holiday was over an agent from the COJASOR came to see us, and escorted us to their offices. We met a few social workers which explained to us what will happen next and any arrangement that will ensue. I remember asking if anything could be done for the fellow that broke his arm, he was asking me to translate for them on his behalf that he will need to fix his cast; I also took the chance to ask them about getting a new pair of glasses for myself, if possible, while relating our individual stories to them.
They started to line up 'pensions' rooms (small hotel accommodations) for us to stay in, and to tell us what they will do for us, how much of a stipend etc..., the details of living as refugees. They also suggested, the when and the where, to go to attend to the broken arm and the glasses and that I was to act as the guide for the broken armed man, in a week's time when they completed the necessary arrangements.
The Algerian congregation did not abandon us either, they extended an open invitation for us to attend their Sabbath services and join them for the luncheons afterwards for as long as we were in Paris. And if that was not enough, they saw the conditions we were in when they first met us, and recognized our needs for clothing, underwear, shirts etc... which they also planned to provide us once they got our sizes pegged, something again unexpected but welcomed by all.
A few days later, while milling about in our pension hallways, curious community members of all sorts came to inquire about our stories. This area of Paris was the main center for people in transition to other destinations as mentioned earlier. So not only the ones in transit but any of their relatives as well that came to visit, would stop by to learn about our stories.
One of such folks was there that day, and I ventured to ask him if he knew so and so, an aunt, a cousin an uncle anyone, I knew lived in France at the time. Lo and behold he was the next door neighbor to one of my aunts who lived in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris. I asked him to relay the message, that I am in Paris, that I was OK and to say hello to them for me.
A couple of hours later, one of the congregants from the Algerian synagogue came to the pension carrying a heavy load of new clothes as I had mentioned earlier; he started to dole it out to each of us and for which he was thanked profusely by all. I have to take the time to explain what it must have felt to accept charity, for someone who was not accustomed to being on the receiving end of such kindness, from total strangers. It was not easy, but that will be an understatement. It accentuated our total nakedness, not being able to support ourselves; the utter helplessness at being displaced to the point when even the cloth we are to wear are being provided through handouts.
During this emotional moment I heard my name being called, by a voice I recognized very well. From the bottom of the stairs I heard my cousin calling me with his endearing exhortation '... Ezzayak ya wesekh ...' (transliterated: how are you bum!). I remember him charging the stairs a few steps at a time, we hugged, the both of us crying.
Suddenly my world became whole again, I never would have thought that seeing a cousin, or any next of kin, after the experiences we went through will have the effect it had on me that day. I need to say this, and need to say it now, that I am still tearing up as I am writing this sentence.
Regardless of who helped us up until now, it was still the familiar face, the familiar voice, the familiar smile that made me whole again and made all the difference in the world for me. Suddenly, being naked, being clothed did not matter anymore; the whole gamut of emotions was drowned in the simple reunion between two family members. THAT MOMENT, I WILL NEVER FORGET, TO THE DAY I DIE.
Things came together quickly then, my cousin came to pick me up to join his brother and my aunt and others for dinner that night. The air never smelled fresher, the food never tasted better, the company never felt warmer than that night with my family.
I spent the time recounting my experience, laughing mostly while recounting it because I was already leaving it behind me, I was and I most importantly 'felt' safe then; how corny of me, all because I was with family again. But there is nothing corny about it, I don't know if my cousins and aunts knew of how I felt then; and I am sorry for not having shared how I felt about this emotional moment, before now with them, and ask for their forgiveness.
* * *
I had to wait for little over a month before I finally was reunited with my parents and until then our core group settled into the routine of waiting.
During that time, I helped the man with the broken arm visit a doctor, but his nurses were not able to do as good a job as he was originally outfitted by their German counterparts. He wished he never had to undo the original work, but it was too late, and in time his arms healed as expected. During that trip to the doctor, I also had a side trip to an optometrist, and since I knew my prescription I readily volunteered the specifications while she was setting up her equipment to test my vision; upon which the optometrist reminded me of her purpose, so I apologized and let 'her' do her job. I was then fitted with a new frame and a new pair of glasses. I could see, and hear better again!.
Another incident had to do with one of the sessions I had with the social worker in charge of my case. She was a pleasant middle aged woman, kind and friendly. In one of our conversations I intimated that I was a student, with a month left to graduate and would I be able to get to complete my studies when I reached the states?
... I was up till now a true dependent, my father did all the working and providing, my mother all the nurturing, raising and loving and our, mine and my brother's before me, mission in life was to be as good a student as we could be. The concept being, graduate, and then get your chance at helping, until then even if we wanted to work who would have let us earn any money and for what type of labor. As an aside, by the time the 1967 war had started, no public jobs had Jewish postings, most of the private businesses were sequestrated and nationalized, and Jews were being displaced from their jobs regularly and discriminately. So any possibility of earning money intended to supplement my father's was outside the realm of possibility.
Now I return to my social worker earlier unfinished response to my query. She reflected a bit before announcing that with over 200 Million people in the US why anyone would care about Israel Bonan, or his education; and that what is expected of me was to start building my own future and shape it in any way I desire relying totally on my own industry. She was sitting across from me, and watched me holding back my tears, knowing fully well that her message came across loud and clear. I was a 22 years old man, and it's all up to me to rebuild my life. While the message was harsh and direct, when I reflected on it later on, it was perfectly on target and even though we found a lot of people who would later help us stand on our two feet once in the US, it was the right message to give, a positive surprise will always be preferable to a negative one, and I was eternally grateful for the way she did it. It was one more turning point in my life, which sooner or later I had to face, and which could not be postponed any longer.
While visiting my social worker we also had the occasion to interview with a representative of the Jewish Agency, from Israel, to discuss the possible immigration to Israel. During several of our conversations I was offered a full scholarship to the Technion Institute in Haifa as an inducement to accept. When the proposal was made, forcefully, what are you crazy, not to accept, in an '...are you out of your mind' kind of tone. I had to slow him down a bit by explaining that I was important to my parents and their quest to reunite with my brother and sister in the US; and that I will need them to share in the decision making, because it is a family issue and not a personal one. My personal desire at that juncture, mostly shaped by my recent experience, was to go to Israel, yet I have not even once visited Israel to this day?
Finally, the day came and my parents joined me in Paris. At that point the social worker relocated us in a different pension and the motions were set afoot to acquire the necessary visas to immigrate to the US, through the auspices of the HIAS organization.
Now for my parents turn, and their story.
* * *
I remember the drive from the airport; we used the official 'cousin's car service', official because it included the official Paris street guide and tour guide extraordinaire; one of my cousins, the other one drove the car.
This actually made for a lighthearted reunion, describing the sights to my parents in my cousin's unique and endearing way brought a smile to my parent's faces after a traumatic month spent agonizing about my fate, and after having to shut down their lives hastily in one country to reunite and restart a new one, in a different country, in their old age.
The COJASOR relocated us as a family in another pension and life was kick started for us as a family again. I will not dwell on the minutiae of living or experiences or further family stories, because this narrative is and was not about me, but more about any refugee or dislocated families having to go through the hardships entailed in their personal exodus and recounting what they had to go through to reach their safe haven beyond which their life, if lucky, eventually reached the normalcy we all crave as human beings.
Over time we mutually recounted our stories, and since you know mine by now I will relate what my parents recounted to me surrounding this eventful episode in their lives.
After the fateful night when I was wrenched out of our home at night, my father the next day went to inquire about my fate, in several precincts and could get no one to account for my whereabouts. My parents left messages to a dear friend of mine from school and college (Ali) who had helped me before, to see if he could help them again. I will insert that story, as a relevant one to the overall account, shortly as an aside, Ali's brother in law was with the 'Mukhabarat' the internal security apparatus of the regime.
First I want to contrast this initial reaction of my father and parents in general, to those of others whom I had their individual accounts related to me by other friends who went through similar experiences. This individual's, a friend of mine at college, father was seen, not too long after the hostilities in '67 started and his son incarcerated (the son remained in jail for over 3 years) and later on, lunching alone, without a care in the world and having made no inquiries on his son's behalf or lifted a finger to see him out of his predicament. May be he was too good at hiding his feelings.
A brief relief came over my parents when I visited my mother to pick up my passport, at least to know that I was alive at the time. It was then that the stories about the hostile neighbor, the superintendent of the building and that of my friendly neighbor were recounted to me.
After I was deported out of the country, my friend Ali came to visit my parents at home, took them aside, as far away from the telephone handset, locked the door behind them and explained that even with the phone "on the hook" (i.e. disengaged), they should be very careful talking near it. He told them that I had already left the country and that they should not worry about my safety any more and that no harm had come to me.
... It was Ali also, who in my first year in college, saved me from expulsion from Cairo University. During the first term at the college and one month before the mid term finals, I went to inquire about my exam entrance ID card only to be told I did not have one and that I was expelled from school!! No confirmation letters, no nothing, expelled and no rhyme or reason given. Through his brother in law, Ali found out that someone reported me as having made a 'political' joke and had reported me to the 'Mukhabarat', they in turn contacted the school and had me summarily expelled. To make this long story short, it took me the whole month to undo this damage and to have me reinstated the Thursday (Friday all offices take the day off) before the Saturday final; by having a clerk walk my papers by hand from office to office until the registrar of the college finally stamped the final readmission around 4 p.m. that afternoon and I got reinstated. Police state, denial of free speech, intrusions in personal daily lives, lack of basic human freedoms are only part and parcel of what the country was like or came to be before the 1967 exodus account.
Back to the original narrative, after Ali told them of my fate, they hugged and kissed and he wished them a safe departure. My parents at least had the peace of mind to know I was safe and started in earnest to dispose of their life long belongings. They could not take more than a few pounds each in money, no gold or watches or the like worth more than a few pounds more; so their mission was actually that of liquidation and getting all sort of clothes that they can take out of the country with them.
It was the wrapping up of their life in Egypt which ended with leaving behind all their most precious possessions. They started selling off their furniture, their jewelry; to people they knew all their lives and some of them did take advantage of the situation to secure better prices, I guess you can get blood from a stone after all; this must have left a sour taste in my mother's mouth and was fresh in her mind, because she punctuatedly related it in her discourse as, can you believe it?
My parents also got in touch with another one of my friends, George who helped them secure my college transcripts, had them translated and officially stamped to at least show prospective colleges my official credentials when the time came. He also helped them buy clothes for me and helped them in packing.
Next was the story of Saad, he was another neighbor living for a while across the street from us; we made the introduction some years back by waving from balcony to balcony. We introduced ourselves and vice versa and we struck a deep friendship that lasted until we left the country. Our differences, religious or otherwise never mattered; he was a young man of character who understood neighborly friendships and commitments. While we were still in Egypt he invited us, my brother and I, to his father's farm where we were introduced to his expanded family (some may be 10 siblings). We also attended his wedding later on, and he told us that once he tried adopting my father's flirting and joking techniques with my mother on his own wife only to have it backfire on him, call it clash of cultures, may be!. Whenever Saad visited his father's farm he would come back loaded with gifts for my parents, farm raised pigeons, bags of rice etc. that his father sensing the bond we had developed with his son insisted on gifting us with.
The introduction of this friend was also intended to reflect on how they, Saad and his father and family, treated my parents after they heard the news of my departure and since the war started. Saad extended his father's invitation for my parents to come and stay with them in the farm and away from harm's way. We also found out, later on, that Saad was earlier being recruited to join the 'Mukhabarat' which he declined, while we were still in the country, when he found out that he'll have to report about us while working for them; he did not wish to compromise his integrity when it came to his friends. May be if we all of us, in this crazy world, are friends we'll pause before we bring harm to each other, and the world will be better for it. To Friendship!!
* * *
Before I complete the exodus narrative itself and delve into its possible effects on me and my life afterwards, I'll complete the discourse by relating a few more eye witness accounts that transpired during and after the war to wrap up the account of these events.
From friends I met later on in the United States, I learned that life was not safe in Cairo during these events for anyone that looked different or acted different. Case in point, an uncle to my friend, a Christian by birth, was assaulted in the streets and beaten for being created with blond hair; in the masses mind, indicative of being a foreigner, an American for sure. Regardless of his exhortations that he was Egyptian, and not a Jew or a foreigner, being blonde was enough reason for punishment.
When my aunt living in Egypt at the time came to Europe later on, she related the story of a Jewess who was known to us, who was married to a native Egyptian. Her husband was known to be a mild mannered man who used to fast with wife in celebration of Yom Kippur displaying his keen tolerance of the differences between his and his wife's religion. This man was so totally devastated after the war, to see the Egyptians routed so badly, his morale and psyche was so traumatized he could not escape his feelings and openly demonstrating them.
If anything, that was to me a predictable harbinger of what to come. It was no different to me in analyzing the situation and contrasting it to World War I; that there was no doubt that the seeds for WW II were planted before the last shot of WWI was fired. Redressing this shameful accounting of the Egyptian army during the six day's war would be of paramount import if any peace is to be reached with its enemies. The Yom Kippur war was the culmination of such events that set the momentum for peace between Egypt and Israel. But alas, peace is not an inert concept that nations reach and sustain indefinitely without nurturing and fostering over time, much to my chagrin that momentum has not progressed beyond cessation of war, a cold peace, between these two countries and an active peace has not truly materialized since.
Peace like freedom is not earned just once; it is to be earned every day of every year of every century. It is a continuous quest that does not "end" with the signing of a declaration or a treaty, but indeed the opposite; it "starts" with it.
A few years after we settled in the US, I met some of our college colleagues in NY and over dinner they related to us that there were a good many of them that felt angry about our treatment during and after the war of '67, and they offered a sincere apology, and I found no reasons not to accept it.
Reflections on physical pain and humiliation:
I will spend a few words in my accounts to describe my thoughts on being traumatized during the first night of my ordeal. Was physical pain an issue? As far as I can recall after the first sting it did not really matter much. I often asked myself how far they could have gone before the physical pain became an issue. A somber reflection, borne out of my having read a Holocaust account early on in my life, I was at the time 10 years old; well I am sure it would have eventually mattered, since cruelty knows no bounds. Yet in the case of what transpired that night it was still of tolerable proportions.
Did I feel humiliated then? I don't believe so either. Upon reflection, to be humiliated is to have the act witnessed by people you care for or people towards whom you feel respect. The scene was so totally devoid of such an audience that humiliation was not to be a factor.
What I felt most at the time was the utter helplessness that comes with facing the unknown physically and reacting to the emotional sting, having to do with the added scars of the loss of emotional control, be it anger or desolation. The “why me”, the “Jew” in me, the oppressive nature of the episode, a jumble of helplessness overcoming and enveloping me; raw emotions borne out fear for life and deep despair.
I often and still ask myself, if that episode affected my sense of justice, of tolerance of rooting for the underdog? I believe the roots of the answer lied originally in my upbringing and who I was and still am mostly; yet that episode served to underscore and magnify it.
I did describe though, when it was that I felt humiliated in my earlier narrative, it was when we, the soon to be expatriated Jews, were rounded up in the hold of the Ankara being guarded by a policeman while the other non Jews, in contrast, were free to roam about. The sense of humiliation came about from their, the others, the soon to be shipmates, witnessing our arbitrary difference and how it was being addressed by our country of birth.
I need to add a twist to summing up, in an intentionally dispassionate way, about what transpired to the Jews in Egypt during that period. The event I am about to recount happened when I went to apply for College, in the US, to complete my degree, since Cairo University had denied me my diploma.
The dean of the school of Engineering at the time during my personal interview with him, asked about what happened to me and after I recounted an un-embellished version of my exodus story to him; he shrugged and answered matter of factly that it was no different than when we 'Americans' had to 'temporarily' incarcerate the Japanese American during world war II, for national security reasons. Needless to say, if anything, he succeeded in deflating my recently acquired rancor for Egypt and Egyptians, in view of the treatment of its Jews, and put it more in perspective for me. They, the Egyptians, were right in punishing me for being Jewish much in the same way the 'just' Americans did in WWII to its Japanese American population, it was after all national security considerations. Or did he? I could not help myself, at the time, to think that he was a callous oaf of a dean.
It took the better part of 45 years after the end of WWII for America to see that event, as an unconscionable act; to have indiscriminately jailed innocent people without any judicial due process and purely on the basis of their ancestral lineage. But such is the nature of civilization; it is a continuous 'work in progress', a long and unending quest to improve upon our perceptions of ourselves, our actions, our rationalizations and about what we perceive as ethical or unethical and how we accordingly justify our actions. If not so, who would have believed a holocaust was possible in the middle of the twentieth century.
* * *
On Staying in touch with friends and of Hating Egypt:
I am often asked about whether I stayed in touch with my Egyptians friends and whether I still hate Egypt?
I'll start by answering the second and more direct question. Aside from the fact that once in a while I blow up emotionally, when I see the effects on television, of terrorism and I display a high note of disgust at the acts and its perpetrators; my answer is unequivocally no, I do not hate them or hate Arabs in general, for that matter.
To acknowledge and feel hate as part of your character is to succumb to the very notion you attribute to your antagonists, and that is something that I will not hand my tormentors. And yes, in doing so, I do put myself on a higher ethical and moral grounds than they were, at the time. If all I acquired from my exodus experience is hate, albeit understandably, it would have been nothing more than a cheap commodity that is easily acquired.
Who will I have me hate, Ali, George, Saad or their families? Will I make them the exceptions and hate the rest of the Egyptians and Arabs? I have, at this point, to spend a few words in describing and articulating my attitudes and point of view on this particular subject.
... I can't help but recognize a parallel in what I am about to ascribe to myself, as being portrayed in a biblical story in Genesis. It was the patriarch Abraham that bargained down with the angels of G_d the fate of Sodom and Gomorra when he pleaded his case to save the two cities if they only found fifty good citizens down to only ten. Well, I found my ten and I dare add that I found a hundred more that is my basic premise. And it is for the sake of these people that I learned and constantly teach myself the discipline of not hating; and because "hate begets hate" and it can only get worse.
From my own experience living in Egypt while growing up, I recognize that people who know you, as to who you are, how you behave as a human being, how strong your relationships are and develop a sense of your character will not only befriend you but they will also defend you to other who might not know you as well or at all. I have been in situations, while in school and in college, where a hostile attitude towards me as a Jew, was deflected by one friend or another in more than one occasion, much to my gratitude.
To trace how badly, as Jews, we fared in the late 60's is to acknowledge the mere fact, and here I am not talking about statistics, but more about a qualitative view of the situation we found ourselves in. In the early forties there was a striving Jewish community in Egypt, for expressing the point let's assume we were 100,000 strong, if each one had a circle of people that knew them of 10 or more we measure minority not only by the original number but by trebling it with the number of people who knew you, now it's a million strong in a 15 to 20 million people living in Egypt at the time, makes it a sizable minority. They knew who we were, dealt with us as people, as friends, as neighbors as business partners, and if asked will still remember us fondly.
A successive outflow, starting in '52, with the coming of the Egyptian revolution, and in '56 first Arab/Israeli war reduced the numbers significantly. We found ourselves as a true minority. May be less than ten thousand, trebled to even a 100 thousand in a hostile sea of over 30 million will not constitute a measurable minority. So the majority knew us only through the hatred of their president Nasser and his speeches. Will it come as a surprised to the readers, that we, the Jews in Egypt listened to Nasser's speeches and laughed at his denigration of the Jews, because the SOB was 'funny'. It was not the laugh of appreciation, it was as if we was describing some other people or some other minority, but laugh we did. So what do we expect from the other 30 million people listening mesmerized to his speeches and that have no contact with any Jews except through his venom.
Two points to ponder, the one about the Palestinians vis a vis the Jews and Israelis, where all they know is what their math book suggests, where killings Jews is one number added to another or all they recognize is the muzzle of an Uzi and the barrel of tank. And vice versa, the Israelis vis a vis the Palestinians where all they experience is violence and all they see is bombs in the shape of human beings.
The second point, the peace with Egypt and Jordan was supposed to bridge these countries with Israel; so how many cultural exchanges or businesses were started and how many more Jews are now known better by their Arab counterparts and vice versa. The question is only rhetorical, and helps only to describe the state of affairs we find ourselves in, Israelis (and Jews) vis a vis Arabs; and on a grander scale Americans vis a vis Arabs (especially after the terrorist act of 9/11).
Now I get back to the original question of whether I still hate Egypt and Egyptians. When I left Egypt I considered the situation hopeless, in a state controlled country, the free flow of knowledge and of freedom are suppressed so how can a different spin on hatred of the Jews can occur and how can they ever reconcile with the Israelis, first without another war and second really do a 180 degrees turnabout to reach a peace with Israel.
It was, to me inconceivable. I was still going through my own rationalizations and forcefully expressing that there will be no way in my lifetime that it will happen; when Nasser proved himself human, not by erring, since he had continuously done that before, but by dying. His replacement Anwar Sadat had a reputation of a yes man, and flirted with communism and Nazism during his revolutionary days; I am not quoting these as facts, but rather as rumors, and I have no way of validating or substantiating them.
It was not until the '73 war had come and gone, and '78 peace overture came around that culminated in the signing of a peace accord between Egypt and Israel that I saw what one man can do to stem a tide; the little boy's finger in the dyke ceased to be a story and to me became a reality. I then and still am now in awe of Sadat's courage in turning the tide in such a dramatic way which brought Egypt back into the international fold and by finding the proper threads to pull to achieve the peace with Israel.
Needless to say Sadat set an example, to me a positive one, to some Egyptians a negative one, judging from his calamitous ending a few years later. At the time this was happening I found the little voice in me, and I used it to express what the symbolism of Sadat's traveling to Israel at the time meant.
... A little detour at this juncture will help explain the previous paragraph. I had at the time asked to make a presentation to the men's club of the synagogue I belonged to, to try and express the points that surely would have otherwise been missed by other congregants.
In the Egyptian country side, blood feud was not unknown. In expressing it during my presentation, I used the Hatfield and McCoy as examples of family feuding, the feuding was very structured, it was like each family had access to the family tree of the other side, and the killing and avenging went on dictated by the next in line on a given tree branch. In a sense the next to be killed, was known to both parties before the act itself would take place.
Folklore suggested that, the blood feud was stemmed only by having the next in line to be killed, to have the courage to gather his death shroud in his arms and walk directly to the one who would exact vengeance on him and present himself as the sacrificial lamb to be either slaughtered, as his fate would have dictated, or have his life spared through the benevolence and chivalry of the avenger. It was viewed as an act of total cowardice or total courage in this context, and nothing in between.
In my view Sadat did symbolically just that, he held his death shroud in his arms and reached out to his enemies, in their own land; and to sum up my views of it, it was not an act of a coward but that of a statesman. Needless to say in my audience some saw it as I stated it, others did not see peace as an alternative but only strength and military power as the effective tools against the Arabs, while others yet were anxious to start noshing on the bagels and lox in front of them. Such was, as expected, the gamut of reactions during the presentation.
I do wish to mention, that by signing the peace treaty, Prime Minister Begin also rose to the occasion and had to shed his prior image of a warrior and rose in my eyes as an equal statesman to Sadat.
Of note, the torah reading for the week after the signing of the peace treaty in Camp David, had to do with Moses second discourse to the Jewish people, reminding them " ... not to abhor the 'Egyptian', because you were a stranger in his land ..." (Deut. 23:8). Speaking of ironic.
So now that I have had the luxury of having lived my life and reflecting on my own views, with a measure of hindsight, I can reiterate my belief that a single person can and more often than not, does change the tide of events whether they are motivated by hate or by reason. My only hope for the intractable situation in the Middle East is that we find more of the latter because G_D only knows how many of the former there are, on both sides.
* * *
Now I'll try to address the earlier question of whether I kept in touch with my friends in Egypt since I'd left.
Aside from a few that emigrated from Egypt I was not able to maintain contact with the others. Of the few that did, we visited each others homes and maintained a healthy contact since they had ventured out of Egypt. I recently mourned the parting of my dear neighbor, he was a dear childhood friend in the true sense of the word friend.
There is though one event that I need to cover that left me unsettled to say the least and that I wish to share with you.
Since the early 70's I had been trying to reach Ali, it was important for me to thank him personally for what he had done to help my parents. I knew at one time that he was present in Canada for his doctorate studies, and though I tried I was not able to reach him.
With the ease of communications these past couple of years, e-mail became a way of connecting to close and distant parties, and it bridged so many of the communication hurdles that existed before and it re-ignited old friendships anew.
One day recently, I got a request from one of my friends that I stayed in touch with to ask me whether or not I wished to correspond with a high school and college colleague his name is Mohammed. Mohammed was from a nice and well to do family and though he was not an intimate friend, he was nonetheless a close friend. I jumped on the request and started an e-mail correspondence, first to reminisce about the good old days, him remembering my mother's cooking and I reciprocating with tidbits of events that time could not wash out from memory.
At one point, I asked him to connect me with a few more friends, some of them were also dear to me and I did correspond with them. The one I dearly wanted to connect with was Ali, Mohammed promised to get me his e-mail and I waited.
A few weeks later I received an e-mail from Mohammed with a Power Point attachment. I opened the attachment and it depicted a set of peaceful and serene scenes, of ocean waters, waterfalls, mountains and imbedded in between these scenes the picture of the crouching Palestinian boy that was caught in the cross fire and was killed in Palestine during that period of time. It was at the heights of the second Intifada when both the Israelis and Palestinians were at it in every respect.
I can only now reflect on my reactions when I received this e-mail. A jumble of emotions ran through me like wildfire. I felt that all what I stood for, whether it be connecting with people, building deep friendships, knowing and befriending each other was after all utter nonsense. At the end of the day, I was still reduced to only one common denominator, my jewishness.
I felt the searing sensation of being thrown out of Egypt for the second time, and having to relive my exodus anew. I became once again, not Isi, not the human being that broke bread with them when in Egypt and most certainly not someone they once knew. I became only a Jew, and a Jew like all other Jews; thinking the same thoughts, arguing the same points feeling the same way i.e. a 'cookie cutter' Jew made from an ancient mold that the anti-Semites of old have forged a long long time ago, and nothing else. So much for goodwill among men.
My natural reaction then was to reciprocate, by sending them some scenes of bloodied Israelis, or of planes flying into the world trade center. Anything to point out to 'them' that the pot should not call the kettle black. In a sense, dehumanize them and highlight their common denominator, they are after all Arabs and Muslims who must think alike, must behave alike, must share the same allegiances as other Arabs. Nonsense vile emotions, I did not follow through with my vile outburst of anger and vengeful spirit, and I am glad I did not.
Since that e-mail, I stopped writing, yet Mohammed as if nothing had happened sent me later an e-mail of good wishes for the New Year which I promptly replied to, perfunctorily wishing him and his family the same.
I do not wish to paint the event solely on Mohammed as its instigator, I believe he did what he did as a response, in my estimation, to Ali's snubbing most likely any of my advances to touch base with him. Yet, I do not wish to exonerate Mohammed completely, because as they say in Arabic ' shatamak elli allak ', transliterated to mean,' the one who insults you is the one who relays someone else's insult to you '.
In my next chapter I'll draft an open letter to the Ali I once knew, a letter of forgiveness because after all I still cherish knowing him as a friend, acknowledge gratefully that he helped my parents, confident in the knowledge that his anger as was mine not endemic but skin deep.
* * *
An open letter to my friend of old Ali...
I forgive you,
For forgetting who I was, a friend.
And I pray to you Lord,
To never let me forget I once befriended you and called you my brother.
I forgive you,
For thinking of me only as a Jew.
And I pray to you Lord,
To renew my faith and my resolve to be the Jew I always was and always will be. For that is who I am, much the same as you are a Muslim.
I forgive you,
For believing that Jews are all alike.
And I pray to you Lord,
To enrich the world with diversity of thoughts and open our minds to avoid the conformity of the 'one' thought, of the 'one' mind and of the 'one' opinion; for there lies the strength of any people or any culture.
I forgive you,
For assessing different values for human life.
And I pray to you Lord,
To never let me accept the tragic death of the innocent in terms of numbers we weigh in the balance and scales of vengeance; but to let me value each lost life as if it was my own.
I forgive you,
For not wanting to communicate with me.
And I pray to you Lord,
To grant me the wisdom to still hear what you are not saying to me.
Ali, I do again wish to thank you for helping my parents during their difficult times, and long for the day when your heart will reason with your mind and you'll find it easy again to address me as your friend.
Follow up: A couple of years after writing my Exodus Story, I found out through a friend that Mohammed was taken aback when I did not subsequently pursue any correspondence with him.
I later wrote to Mohammed about the Power Point incident and sent him a copy of it. He replied that he never intended to convey any subliminal messages to me, and that he was not even aware these slides were in the presentation.
I suggested to him to read my Exodus Story, which he did, and he appreciated how I could have easily misinterpreted his intentions. He asked my permission to circulate my Exodus story to other friends, because it was an important event in Egyptian history that needed to be disseminated. He also realized the special relationship I had with Ali and promised to get me in touch with him; which he did.
He confirmed to me that he had not originally contacted Ali, and that Ali
was altogether totally unaware of the incident in question, which came as
a great relief to me. Since then, I continue to correspond with both of them
and will always cherish their friendship.
Brief thoughts on the roadblocks to peace in the Middle east:
'.... I come in one day, in our Paris' pension, and I see and hear my mother crying. Big tears, heavy hearted tears, the ones that are gushed remembering where you've been and where you find yourself ...'
I asked her “what's the matter?”, and she started telling me that she could not find a cloth pin to hang dry the cloth she just washed; when back in Egypt she had everything she needed.
After our harrowing collective experience just to get to this safe haven, my mother was crying over not finding and missing a cloth pin. Now that last reflection was left intentionally without a question or exclamation mark to end it.
I am not going to deny that my first reaction was to display my total callousness then, I could not and would not allow myself to see her point of view. It took me the better part of thirty years to ponder what she could have meant saying what she said, and empathizing with the tears she shed that day and the few more that followed.
In a nutshell my mother left behind, in Egypt, her cloth pins. We were not the richest folks while in Egypt, we were a middle class family of modest means; so I will not speak of riches of wealth or any such things, I'll only stress that she left behind her 'cloth pins', and that she cried her heart out that day remembering and missing them.
How many other Jews in all the Arab countries combined that also had to leave their cloth pins behind?
How many of the Jews that left all their real wealth behind are today clamoring for its return from the Arab countries? How many of us are asking for their 'cloth pins' back? So because we don't ask for what's ours, we end up losing our rights of 'return' of what is truly ours?
It was a saddening circumstance, when after a majority of Israelis, influenced their government and its leaders to push the formula of peace and advance it with their Palestinians neighbors only to have their hopes dashed when the Chairman decided not to accept the Israeli prime minister's give all proposal, because the Chairman wanted his people 'cloth pins' back.
Mr. Chairman, do you really want a peace negotiation, where accountants sit down to arbitrate your losses as well as ours, because you could rest assured we will clamor for restitution of our losses now, it's only fair, so we can reach an equitable solution. Do you Mr. Chairman, want to take that chance in allowing the counting of wealth left behind on both sides to take place, in front of the whole world to see and judge.
That being said, I not only can understand what my mother was crying about then, but I can also appreciate what any Palestinian must be longing for; because to understand one event is to understand both.
If this was the only road block to peace, I'll say the day will come when leaders from both sides and not accountants will move the cause of peace forward.
I did not mean in the section above to articulate any of my political opinions or advance one position over another; I merely attempted to reflect on the incident with my mother and however jumbled my methods to link it to current day events and sensibilities. I hope I might be able to elaborate on my views in a different context.
Now back to my mother; I described above the bout with my own initial callousness with regards to her emotionally agonizing moment and I wish now to contrast it with my mother's nurturing side, in another episode that happened after a few years of living in the United States.
I had, since June 5th 1967, taken to commemorate the events by fasting on the anniversary date for a few years hence. I had also kept the attaché case that my mother gave me in Egypt when I came to pick up my passport, and in it I had stored the torn shirt and tee shirt as well as a few other memorabilia of my experience; allowing myself a constant reminder of what occurred to me during that time.
We can well imagine, after a couple of years how the cloth must have yellowed out from storage and inattention, and how dusty the case must have become. So one day, after a few years had passed, and around the yearly anniversary of the events, I went looking for the attaché case in the closet, to my consternation it was gone.
I asked my mother about it, only to find out from her and in a very casual manner, that she threw it out because it was dirty; that from a mother that had kept every jar from every pickle or jam purchase since her arrival in the states, habits don't die easy, if at all. Do they, indeed?
I honestly do not remember my reaction then, after so many years; was it indignation? Did I throw a tantrum? Or did I just accept her wisdom to move forward and forget about the past, with just a slight whimper? She was at her best when it came to those little gestures, G_d rest her soul.
* * *
A lasting Obsession.
Finally and in a way of closing this chapter of my life, I feel the need to address the reasons for my continuously drawing parallels between what happened to me during that period of my life and other major 'Jewish' traumatic events. If you recall in earlier chapters I was obsessed with remembering trivial details, and to try to cling on to them regardless of their significance in the overall mosaic of the events.
... I was 10 years old, a student in the catholic brother's French private school in Cairo, 'College Des Freres de la Salle'; one day at school I was approached by one of the brothers, a nondescript teacher and soccer coach; he was not to me anyway at the time, neither a mentor particularly nor one of those strict disciplinarians either.
Cher Frere 'Ambroise' was of Polish descent, small in built, wiry and of a pleasant disposition. He handed me that day a book, a soft covered book, titled 'J'est survecue a Auschwitz'. This book was written by a French catholic woman who was interned at that camp during the war and the book delved and dwelt on the atrocities that occurred in the camp, and detailed the Jewish experience with no holds barred. I remember reading the book in its entirety, and I remember that for the following week after reading it, I was in a depressed mood unknown to me prior to that experience; I could hardly eat or interact with friends and family totally, in total contrast to my natural demeanor at the time. I returned the book to Frere Ambroise and thanked him for allowing me to read it.
I still remember Frere Ambroise affectionately to this day. Long after this experience I continue to think of him as a man of character, who could have very easily been summarily deported from the country for having the book in his possession, in the first place, let alone lending it to a Jewish student. He introduced me at my tender age to a historical event that left me with the burden of understanding what it meant and what it continues to mean to this day.
My obsession, if I can call it that, was to try to equate what happened to me during that episode of my life and compare it to that distant experience, which was culled from reading about the Holocaust. So I tried, yet remembering the number of tiles in my cell or the shape of the washable number stamped in my arm while insignificant in this context, and dwarfed when compared to the events of the Holocaust, was all I could muster to tie myself back to my jewishness. It was unmistakably because of my jewishness that the events were happening again, and this time to me.
Now that I began to better understand my jewishness as I grew older, I can articulate my obsession best as that borne out of the collective Jewish suffering. It is not something that tore me away from my roots; on the contrary it cemented it further.
But I also recognize the passiveness inferred by any obsession, and besides being a victim in the eyes of others for my jewishness is not what I expect my jewishness to confer upon me. So, to me bearing witness is not a selfish or a passive act after all, and I take this opportunity to encourage other Holocaust survivors and anyone who had experienced the bigotry associated with being singled out because of their religion or their color, to speak of their experience. We owe it to ourselves and to others to bear witness to what happened to us, so future generations do not take their liberties and freedoms for granted and assume they were there all along and will continue to be there as a birth right, because they are not.
And so I have, in my simple way written about my own exodus experience. I am still proud of my jewishness; and I am amazed as to how virulent the anti-Semitism of the era we live in, still is. But may be I am still thinking as one of Pharaoh's Jewish slaves if yore that wandered in the desert for 40 years, and never entered the Promised Land, as free people; and that may be, just may be, the new Jewish experience for the non slaves among us will turn out to be a better one. I can only pray for it to be so.
Copyright © 2003 Israel Bonan. All Rights Reserved.