Voice of Denise Amnon- Life from Aleppo to Chicago through Beirut


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.


Denise Amnon worked in the Chicago garment industry for many years. She is now retired. Born in Aleppo, Syria on November 16, 1926 Denise was the daughter of a banker, Hillel Nahmad and her mother was Matilde Safra. Her parents were married very young, they met when an aunt introduced them to each other. Her mother was 16 and spent four years trying to have a child after which Denise was born. She remembers her grandfather was a Rabbi based in Aleppo and her grandmother loved playing cards. Her childhood contains many happy memories growing up in the Jewish area of Aleppo. She lived in a big apartment building with her grandparents.


At the age of 12, she could no longer attend school because World War II started in Syria. Her family moved to Beirut shortly thereafter where her brother and sister were born. She recalls her family being religious, separating meat from milk and strictly keeping kosher. As she grew up she modernized and followed Jewish practices less carefully. In her home in Beirut the family would speak Arabic and French. She made friends with Lebanese from all different religions. She attended the Lycee Francois in Beirut, the girls American School and Nursing school in Beirut. She remembers attending religious services at a few different synagogues, although her grandfather was a Rabbi who studied torah at home.


Shabat dinners were special occasions in the Nahmad house. She would enjoy eating Friday night salmon with parsley as well as Kibbeh and Ajine. During the holidays she would go to resorts while others would come to her house to be with her grandfather. Friends would always bring along a Sefer Torah to read from when they celebrated holidays at her house. She remembers her grandfather being particularly popular with Jews from Iraq and Iran who settled in Beirut.


Having non-Jewish friends was just as important to Doris'' family as their Jewish friends. Different Muslims and Christians would come to the house and visit or do business with her father. One of her father''s Jewish friends bought his business from a Muslim in Aleppo. She remembers having a Muslim neighbor who had a Jewish grandmother.


As a youth Doris was involved in the Maccabi Youth Jewish organization. Her family was Zionist and supported the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.


Due to the "Israel problem" the situation for Jews in Beirut began to get difficult in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Talk of an impending war with Israel scared many Beirut Jews. In 1952 she left to Istanbul, where her Uncle had a position as a banker.


Her family left behind a nice chandelier in Beirut, donating it to the local synagogue in memory of her brother. Now the Chandelier has disappeared. No one knows where it is, she believes it was stolen. Her last visit to Lebanon was in 1957.


She lived in Istanbul for 6-8 months, a period during which she met her husband at a wedding. The Lebanese allowed her family to leave with all their possessions. Her uncle and brother still live in Istanbul.


In the late 1960s, her family immigrated to Milan, Italy where her brother was studying in 1968. She remembers her father bringing the family''s oriental rugs, silver and other precious goods to Milan.


After Milan, Denise came and settled in Chicago for work. She was employed in the designer clothing department of Marshall Fields on State Street. She had no experience in designer clothing prior to coming to Chicago but they hired her because she could speak five languages. Her management was generous and gave her everything she wanted, she needed to leave at 3PM to be with her children, she had to take Saturdays off for Shabat and they agreed to that arrangement. In the course of her work, Denise met many American stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and John Travolta.


Reflecting on her experience in the United States, Denise says that she never faced discrimination or fear in the US. She loves keeping up with her Lebanese traditions through food. She does not like eating Ashkenazi foods such as Gefilte Fish. In Chicago she has her independence. Looking back, it was a great thing that her family never bought a house in Beirut because she did not have to worry about losing any assets. She keeps in touch with many Muslim Lebanese friends in Chicago and feels like she is a part of the greater Lebanese community. She visits Israel on occasion because she has both her parents, brother and Uncle buried in Jerusalem.