Claude Rouas was born in Algeria in 1933. Orphaned at a young age after both of his parents died of cancer, Claude was raised by extended family including his uncle “Papa Isaac”, and his brother, who was the eldest of 5 siblings. Growing up in poverty and without parents, Claude learned the art of hard work early on. His childhood jobs included selling movie tickets, pedaling goods on the street, tailoring and working as a pastry chef. He lived on an all-Jewish street in the city of Oran, bordering an Arab Muslim neighborhood. Claude recounts some fights between the groups, but overall he remembers Jewish-Muslim relations during this time as peaceful.
Claude’s family migrated from Algeria to France in 1937 in hopes of finding better opportunities and a more secure life. Their first home in Paris was a store they rented, sleeping in the storage room and using the storefront as a makeshift dining room. They returned to Algeria in 1941, where Claude remained until moving to the U.S. in 1963.
Though he doesn’t come from an observant background, Claude was raised with a value of preserving Jewish tradition, and recalls fondly practices from his childhood such as studying for his Bar Mitzvah and going to synagogue on Passover. Every Friday evening his family gathered together for a Shabbat meal of couscous and d’fina stew. Jewish custom was an integral part of mourning and life cycles growing up.
The holiday of Yom Kippur holds significant meaning and memory for Claude. He remembers the hunger-fueled intensity and sullen temper of his congregation members at La Grande Synagogue d’Oran, some of whom even passed out at services. But Claude still looked forward to the holiday every year for a different reason. As it is customary to don new clothing for Yom Kippur, it was a busy time of year for the 9-year-old tailor. Working longer hours than usual, Claude stayed at his boss’s house for extended periods of time. Here he was guaranteed a cup of hot coffee and a slice of bread & butter every morning – a luxury that felt like “a dream life”. Nowadays Claude feels even closer to his faith, which he expresses through practices including lighting Shabbat candles weekly and wearing tallit.
One of the most profoundly sentimental mediums that invoke Claude’s memory is the French-infused Jewish Algerian music. Ingrained in Claude’s mind are the lyrics of Enrico Macias, which intone stories of Jewish expulsion and migration to France. The melodies bring up such strong emotions of longing that he avoids listening to them altogether.
At the age of 14, Claude took a major step towards a more promising future when he left his family to attend a hotel and restaurant school. As the only Jewish student, he faced some of his most marked experiences of anti-Semitism the hands of his teacher, Monsieur Soleil, who was the head of the dining room department. Mr. Soleil had cordial relationships with other students in his department, who were 90% Arab Muslim, but with Claude he was physically and verbally abusive, asserting that Claude didn’t belong in the school because he would “never survive in this industry.”
Claude excelled above and beyond these hardships, graduating at #2 in his class and building a career in the hospitality business. He served for two years in the French Army as a butler to a general in Paris. Here he went on to work at some of the most renowned restaurants and hotels in Paris and London, such as Maxim’s and Hotel Mirabelle. In Paris he also met the owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed Ernie’s restaurant, who invited him to work there. He was promoted to General Manager at age 32, and oversaw the institution as it grew to be San Francisco’s most successful restaurant of its time. In 1981, he opened a Napa Valley restaurant which subsequently grew into a world-class luxury resort - aptly named Auberge Du Soleil, a fitting comeback to the instructor who told Claude he would never succeed in this industry.
Claude’s last visit to his birthplace was in 1985, when he returned with his two daughters to see his mother’s grave. Claude found the Algeria of his childhood was unrecognizable: the street names were changed and beautiful landmarks had been destroyed. A road ran straight through the middle of the Jewish cemetery, which had become a “wilderness”, and it was impossible to find his mother’s burial plot. Miraculously, his daughter happened upon the very patch of land where his mother’s tombstone still stood. For Claude, the entire trip was worth this very moment.
Though Claude chose to leave North Africa, his family along with the rest of the Algerian Jewish population was forcibly expelled by 1962. Stripping of civil rights and violent pogroms made the country unlivable for Jews. Claude reflects with sorrow that Algeria has ceased to be home for a Jewish community, and cherishes his memories – “the one thing that nobody can take away from you.” His story is one of mourning but also of possibility and tremendous success, a true embodiment of the self-made man.
JIMENA’s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA’s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.