Friday, June 03, 2005

'Nostalgeria' trip

A list of names in one hand and a prayer book in the other, 130 Jews on a return visit to their home town of Tlemcen in western Algeria at the end of May sift through dust and brambles to locate the tombstones of their ancestors. They rub the dust off to reveal the names of their relatives whom they had not honoured since their departure in 1962.

" We can go back now in peace. We found them," says Maurice Choukroun, a sixtysomething from Paris.

" I found my mother's and grandparents' graves," says Paul Levy, 69, with satisfaction.

The Tlemcen Jewish cemetery has never been vandalised but has fallen into disrepair, in contrast with the cemetery at neighbouring Ain Temouchen which is totally derelict and damaged by earthquakes.

As soon as a visitor finds a grave, ten men assemble, heads covered, to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, intermingled with the muezzin's call to prayer.

Others are still looking. One man in tears, dressed entirely in white, calls his sister who remained in Paris so that she could tell him where their grandmother is buried. He finally finds the 'one he loved so dearly' behind some wild bushes.

Michele Choukroun, a 45-year old Frenchwoman who has been living in New York for the last 20 years, made the journey with her brother to 'reconnect with her roots'.

From Algiers the French ambassador joined the visitors, but the Algerian foreign minister, Mohamed Bedjaoui, had to cancel at the last moment.

The visitors were the first since 1956 to make the Hillula (pilgrimage) to the tomb of the 16th century rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua.

"People would come from all over - from Morocco, from Tunisia. We had parties in the town centre," Mr Choukroun remembers." We also came on the eve of exams because it would bring luck," remembers George Medioni, who came from Israel with his wife.

The faithful prostrate themselves on the tomb and sweets are distributed. Article here (in French)

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