It was one of the largest ethnic cleansings of modern times, yet the media have largely ignored the mass exodus of Jews from Arab lands. The David Project's Forgotten Refugees film has been trying to remedy this state of affairs, with its poignant stories of discrimination, expulsion and escape. In her comprehensive piece for Community Magazine, Our parents, the refugees, Kelly Jemal Massry recounts stories of Jewish refugees that were not included in the film, such as that of Rabbi Elie Abadie, whose parents fled Syria for Lebanon following the riots of 1947.
Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Safra Synagogue is the child of survivors of the 1947 Syrian riots. The mobs—aided by police the Jews had once trusted—began burning synagogues and sifrei Torot in what became known as the harayik. One day, rioters entered the building in which Rabbi Abadie’s parents lived. Within minutes, Mrs. Abadie heard shrieks of terror. “They were beating Jews, destroying their property, looting stores, ruining businesses,” she recalled.
Escape was risky. Syrian police patrolled the border and imprisoned Jews who were caught trying to cross. Some were daring enough to bribe a well-connected official or walk outside the border where no one would see them. But many of these attempts were unsuccessful, and resulted in death, torture or incarceration. Rabbi Abadie’s parents hid in his grandparents’ house, and a few days later they made separate attempts at escape. His mother obtained a doctor’s permit and took her sons to the Lebanon Mountains, but his father was unsuccessful after several attempts to escape Syria. In one instance, he was caught by a Syrian guard whom he happened to know. The guard said, “The authorities are after you because you’ve tried to escape several times, and I have orders to arrest you. I’m coming back to arrest you tomorrow.”Mr. Abadie understood the hint, and the very next day, with the help of some friends, he boarded the train to Lebanon. A train official with whom he was acquainted hid him in the cargo hold, warning that if he would sneeze or move a muscle they’d both be caught and killed.
His father hid there silent and motionless for hours, his fear intensifying once the train reached the border. The police conducted a thorough search of the cargo. When they came to his wagon, he was certain he’d be discovered. Miraculously, the guard was distracted and moved on to the next wagon.
As soon as the train crossed the border, Rabbi Abadie’s father jumped off the moving train and into a ravine. Somehow, he landed safely, suffering only minor bruises. He began walking through the Lebanese terrain in search of his family, traveling by night so as not to be seen. Eventually, he found his wife and children. They were entirely unaware of his escape, and were stunned when he walked through the door.
Stories of separation and reunion were not uncommon during those tumultuous times. Families were never allowed to leave the country together, as stray family members were seen as insurance that the deserter would return. For one man, his family’s decision to leave Syria in the seventies in favor of a more progressive country—namely the United States—meant a year and a half separation from his mother. He and his father ventured ahead, while his mother, brother and sister remained behind in Syria, awaiting nothing short of a miracle. He was just seven years old while this upheaval was taking place and was painfully uncertain of what was going on—if his mother would ever come, if they would have to return, or if his family would just remain separated forever. Finally, after enormous bribes were paid, connections tapped, and begging levied, his mother was allowed out of Syria.
In 1992, under pressure from many fronts, Bill Clinton issued a mandate requiring the release of the rest of the Syrian Jews as part of a deal with President Assad. Many migrated to the United States, Israel, and other friendly countries.