April 21, 2024

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50 years on, bitter-sweet memories from Arab countries


 Tonight is the start of Yom Yerushalayim, the day that recalls the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. This year marks 50 years since the momentous counter-attack by the Israeli army which ended with the words, broadcast across the nation: ‘Jerusalem is in our hands.’ But conditions became very difficult for  Jews still in Arab countries. Eta Kushner interviewed several for the WhereWhatWhen.com site (with thanks: Malca)

 This year Jerusalem celebrates its 50th anniversary since re-unification

Tania Shichtman is from Lebanon, the country that lies just north of Israel. Her family lived in Beirut, though outside the Jewish quarter. “It was a beautiful city and a beautiful life,” she says, “until the war.” The Jews knew that if Israel won, they would be saved, and if not, they were in great danger. Tania was a teenager at the time and remembers sitting by the radio day and night worrying. It was not only their Moslem neighbors whom they had to worry about. “The Lebanese Christian neighbors hated us almost as much as the Moslems. We understood that our lives depended on the success of Israel, and we were petrified. If Israel lost, angry mobs would come to our house. It was pretty frightening. The first three days, before the true facts came out, it was very scary. That was the first time I realized the importance of having Israel.” Tania describes the tremendous relief when the war ended with Israel victorious: “It was like going back to life. I can remember those days like they were yesterday.”

After the Six Day War, Tania’s family realized that they could no longer stay in Lebanon. Until the war, they had lived together and were friends, but after the war, attitudes changed. “It wasn’t our country. We were not wanted.” There was a lot of resentment that Israel had won. “We didn’t have a very hard time but it was emotionally wrenching,” explains Tania. She had grown up thinking she was part of the country, and “all of the sudden you are a stranger.” They left Lebanon in 1970 and went to Panama, where her brothers had already settled. There she met her American husband who was working for the Defense Department. The new couple were not particularly religious and moved to Aberdeen, Maryland, where her husband Mel got a job. “My husband, my son, and I began to return to Judaism together, but then our son took off, and we had to play catch-up,” says Tania.

Their son Max felt drawn to Judaism even as a very young boy. The Shichtmans realized that they had to move to a Jewish area for his sake. But it was not enough for Max. By the time he was bar mitzva, he decided to wear a kippa and expressed a desire to attend Beth Tfiloh school. Tania and Mel were happy with this and encouraged him, because they wanted to get closer to their roots as well. Eventually Max became a rabbi and now lives in New York.

Jonathan Attar was a teenager living in Iran. He recalls the first days of the war when the only news they heard was the Arab propaganda declaring their victories. All the Jews were crying, and fast days were proclaimed. The Moslem population, meanwhile, was rejoicing in the streets, shouting “Death to Israel! Death to America” and giving out candies.

Even for a few weeks after the war, the synagogues were closed because the Jews were afraid the Moslems would come and try to kill them. Fortunately, no one was hurt. A few weeks later, everything was back to normal, and they resumed the relationship they had with their Moslem neighbors as it was before the war.

Margalit Tiede was only nine years old and living with her family in Moshav Yish’i, a small agricultural village comprised of Yemenite immigrants. While growing up, Margalit lived a very sheltered and somewhat secluded life. There was no real transportation, and they rarely left the yishuv to go further than nearby Beit Shemesh by horse and wagon.

Before the war, moshav members made a trip to Beit Shemesh to stock up on dried goods and necessities for the “shelters” (actually, just trenches they had dug themselves). Families were instructed to prepare food and water ahead of time. Twice a day, Margalit’s father, who was a paramedic in the reserves, and her brother would leave the shelter and milk the cows while “hoping that nothing would happen.” The chickens also had to be cared for. “Life doesn’t stop on the farm, so we had to keep doing these things during the war,” says Margalit.
The moshavniks usually went to Beit Shemesh every Tuesday and Thursday to sell their produce. During the war, however, they had to wait for a cease-fire in order to travel. Whenever they heard a siren, day or night, they all had to run to the trenches. When it seemed quiet, her mother would quickly run home and cook them food. On some of the days, they heard the sirens constantly and saw the airplanes flying overhead, never knowing whether they were friend or foe. Most of the men were in the army or in the reserves. The remaining men patrolled the moshav.

“We could hear explosions and knew when something was happening, but no one told us what was going on for many days.” She doesn’t think people were afraid. As children, they used to run out and play when there were no sirens. Also, they did receive news of the Israeli successes, although not every day.

“I remember that after Jerusalem was liberated someone came to our village with a loudspeaker and announced, ‘Yerushalayim beyadeinu.’” Everyone ran out of their trenches onto the streets of the moshav, shouting to each other, “Yerushalayaim beyadeinu” and dancing in the street.

Gila Davis was 12 years old and living in Cairo with her well-to-do family. The Six Day War was when she realized that it was a big deal to be a Jew living in a Moslem land. Before the war, they had friendly Arab neighbors, and “everything was fine.” As the war drums began beating, the Jews felt something ominous in the air. Those wealthy enough, sent money out of the country for safekeeping.
The day the war started, a fast day was proclaimed in the community. As soon as the fighting began, Gila’s father and all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 60 were arrested. They were taken to a type of concentration camp three hours away, in the desert, where conditions were terrible. In the beginning, while the war was going on, the men suffered terrible torture, and for nine months there was no communication at all. No one knew the men’s fate. Gila’s family feared their father was dead.
The day before the police took Gila’s father away, her mother had gone into the hospital for emergency surgery. When they came to arrest him the next afternoon, her father gave Gila the keys to his business. ”Take care of your siblings and don’t let anyone in,” he told her.

“I was in a trance. I didn’t know what was going on.” Gila says. There was no parent in the house as her mother was still in the hospital. Gila heard a commotion and went to the balcony overlooking the building’s courtyard. She saw masses of Arabs rallying against the Jews and promising to kill them. A young man, the son of their Italian Jewish neighbor, was being dragged away by the police. His young wife, with a new baby in one arm, was holding on to him with her other, pleading, “Please don’t take him away!” The policeman threw the woman to the ground. Gila started crying, believing they would never see their father again. Then all her siblings joined in with her tears.

The Italian neighbors, an elderly couple, came into the apartment and arranged for the children to go to their grandparents’ apartment in a different neighborhood, not in the Jewish area. (At the end of the war, when Nasser resigned and the truth came out, the Moslem neighbors there wanted to kill them all. Only their grandparents’ Christian landlord managed save them.)

Before the war, Gila had lived a very sheltered life, and her father was quite overprotective. The children didn’t go anywhere other than the expensive French school they attended and straight home. Her mother never left the house, and when her father was gone it was especially hard for her. “My mother didn’t even know how to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. My father did all the outside things,” she recalls.

As previously sheltered as she was, when the war ended and they were still at her grandparents’ house, Gila decided to run away to find her mother. She wanted to go home. Conditions in the grandparents’ apartment were difficult, and they were always hungry. She had never been allowed out alone but figured out that her mother must be in the only hospital in Cairo that allowed Jews; it was run by nuns. She managed to find her mother, who asked upon seeing her, “They took him away, didn’t they?” Her mother immediately left the hospital, against medical advice, so that she could bring all of the children back home with her.

When the war broke out, all the Jewish businesses were forced to close. Her father was accused of being a spy. “Later on,” says Gila, “My mother was forced to sell my father’s business for next to nothing. We had no source of income. No one was allowed to work, and money became very scarce. We had to sell all the furniture in order to buy food.” Their relationship with their neighbors also changed. Things were never the same, and Jews felt the great animosity and resentment of their non-Jewish neighbors, especially the Moslems.

After a year of writing letters pleading for help, they were able to get some aid from the Red Cross, which met them quietly in the shul. But Gila remembers that “we were always hungry.” For two years, until they were able to leave Egypt, her mother fasted every Monday and Thursday.

Nine months after the men had been arrested, the families learned the fate of their loved ones and were allowed to visit the men in the camps. Each month they had to register the names of those who would be visiting, and only two family members were officially allowed to go for a monthly visit. Somehow, her mother managed to scrape together enough money for the crowded, hot, three-hour taxi trip through the desert. Usually the guards allowed the children to visit, too, although it was against the law.

It was two years before her father was allowed out of the camp. HIAS whisked him away straight to France. About six months later, HIAS aided the rest of the family to reach France as well. After a seven-day boat ride to Marseille and a train ride to Paris, the family was finally reunited. “The first words my mother said to my father when she saw him were, ‘Is there food? Is there food? The kids are starving.’”

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