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.
In this video, JIMENA member Henriette Eshkenazi tells the story of her life in a peaceful and tolerant Sudan and Egypt before she left the Nile region permanently in 1962. Born in 1933, in Halfeyah, a suburb North of Khartoum, Sudan, Henriette’s father owned a restaurant and an ice cream parlor. Her Grandfather was a famous peddler who sold staple goods from a horse and buggy. Her father was of Iraqi Jewish origins and her mother was born in Sudan.
The early years of childhood were good for Henriette in Sudan, her father was successful, the family lived in a large house and could afford to hire servants. Henriette recalls crossing the Nile river on the way to her local synagogue in Khartoum, which would fill up with over 400 people on the Jewish holidays.
Growing up, everyone in Henriette’s circle of friends spoke Arabic as their first language, but Henriette also studied English while attending the American Mission School.
When Henriette was 13 years old, in 1946 her father died and her mother had just given birth to her seventh child. To ease the burden of raising so many children, her aunt in Cairo invited her to come live with her.
It was in Egypt after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 that Henriette began to experience anti-semitism.
Her Uncle was assaulted, she saw mobs rioting against Jews and burning Jewish stores. Her family had to move to a different suburb away from the Jewish neighborhood where they had become targets for violence.
Jews began to leave Egypt en masse in 1956 once Gamel Abdel Nasser took power and Egypt was faced with the Suez Canal crisis. Henriette got married in 1952 and her husband had a job with International Harvester near the Pyramids in the Payun neighborhood. Henriette did not leave Egypt until 1962 after the State put her family under house arrest for being Jewish and her daughter came home from school telling her that she was told she had a choice of taking a relgion class designed either for a Muslim or a Christian.
Henriette moved to the United States in 1962 where they settled in Chicago. The Egyptian government only allowed the family to take out a small amount of money. Her husband gave a work colleague the family’s money to keep, to give to them when the colleague would come to the United States. For three years the family did not hear about the money or the work colleague but then one day they received a phone call.
The work colleague wanted to meet for dinner, he gave Henriette’s family their money with interest.