Tuesday, November 20, 2012

'My family was among the first forced out of Egypt '

 The Cicurel department store in Cairo kept its name after its owners were expelled with nothing. This photo was taken in 1946.

 Jenny Stewart's family was among the first to be expelled from Egypt in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis in 1956. Here is her story, as told to Point of No Return:

"My name is Jenny Stewart (nee Setton). I was born in Cairo in 1935. I went to a convent boarding school.

"Our family was amongst the first Jews to be forced out of Egypt in 1956. I was then 21, a primary schoolteacher. The Suez Crisis had just broken out:  Britain and France in alliance with Israel were attacking Nasser after he nationalised the Suez Canal. We were among 25,000 Jews expelled from Egypt.

"It was November 1956. There was a knock at our door. It was Mrs Kromovski, an Ashkenazi lady from Poland. She begged us to take her in: she had been turned out of her home in Suez which had become a military zone.  Two officers came to our door and gave us three days to leave. We do not know if Mrs Kromovski’s arrival and our subsequent expulsion were linked.

"We packed our suitcases with warm clothes. My mother had a UK passport, but I had none. I had to get a travel permit from the Swiss embassy. My stepfather was stateless.

"We were allowed to take out only 20 pounds each.  I sewed a £10 note in the hem of my dress. My mother insisted on taking her jewellery with her. It was all confiscated by the immigration officers when we arrived at the airport.

"After a long and complicated journey - we left Cairo on a UN transport plane - I remember arriving  at London airport, which consisted then of just a few corrugated shacks. The cold and damp weather made my stepfather very ill. Having previously contracted TB he only had one kidney and asked to be sent to the Jewish hospital in the East End of London. He spent six months there. My mother became so depressed she had spells in a mental hospital under sedation.

"Jews who arrived in England after us were sent to refugee camps in the north of the country.

"My father, an import-export merchant in Egypt, was taken to prison. An Egyptian army officer had designs on the apartment he lived in, and had him arrested on trumped-up charges.  My father spent about eight months in jail with robbers and thieves. When he was released he was put on a ship for Italy, and then another to Israel. Life was a struggle: he started working as a postman; as he was well-educated and multilingual, he managed to rebuild his life in Israel.

"Our family business in Egypt involved running two shops selling French designer clothing and children’s wear. On our hurried departure we left the shops in the hands of my brother-in-law, but later he too had to flee Egypt, leaving all our property behind. We later found out that we owned a plot of  land in Alexandria, the site of an ancient Greek temple. It must have been purchased before  King Faroukh ascended the throne: afterwards, Jews were not allowed to inherit property.

"After 1979, when Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty, we visited Egypt. I remember staying in a palace in Zamalek, converted into a hotel, that I used to walk past as a child. The Egyptians welcomed us very warmly. But I felt Egypt had gone backwards. The shops still had their original names. Their owners of the large department stores, such as Gattegno and Cicurel, had fled Egypt with nothing. The street names, however, had all changed.

"We were recommended an Egyptian lawyer to try and get us compensation for our losses. We paid him his fee, but nothing came of it. "          


Suzy vidal said...

My heart is heavy after reading that story. Egyptians had no pity for any of us. They trampled us and vampirised us. They were so jealous of our properties that they couldn't care less and did what they did without any qualms.
Don't be surprised if I do not have any sympathy for Egyptians.
suzy vidal

Anonymous said...

Dear Suzy and bataween,
I beg to differ,
Millions in egypt regret the intolerance this country has reached. The streets now are self explanatory. Do not generalize, You should know better by now that your hand's fingers are not all the same (Egyptian Proverb). There was a documentary showing about Jews of Egypt in the Cinema about 4-5 months ago. If it says anything, it says how much this country has changed. We are not looking for sympathy yet it's pathetic the state we're in. What they did with the Jews, they're doing with the christians, the baha'is, Shi'a Muslims and even the liberal Muslims. It simply sucks. Your pain is now shared amongst many sects of egyptians. What goes around comes around. I am sorry the Jews had to suffer this. I hope this doesn't happen to me or any of my family/friends. Though... I truly believe it could happen to any of us soon. We don't need your sympathy, we need your prayers that this new revolution is against tyranny and towards a more liberal tolerant Egypt.

bataween said...

Of course we feel your pain and pray for a positive outcome to all this turmoil.
It is often said that the Jews are the canary in the coal mine, the litmus test of a healthy society and their expulsion always brings disaster to everyone else in society. What you need is a society that respects the rights of all to be different.
The film you mention was a good start, but iit was not ready to recognise that half of all Egyptian Jews now live in Israel. It told only the story of Jews who had fled to France. As I say, a good start, but Egyptians have to come to terms with things as they now are, not how they would have wished them to be.