Remy Pessah was born in Cairo, Egypt to a family of three sisters and a brother. Remy’s mother, Sarah Menasheh, was a homemaker and a “true nutritionist” while Remy’s father, Yaakov El Gazzar, was a jeweler. Together they lived on a street called Sharyah Besseyah, in a neighborhood very close to the synagogue. Remy spoke both Arabic and French at home, having attended French and American schools before studying at the American University of Cairo.
Remy has beautiful memories as a child growing up in Egypt. She remembers visiting the beaches of Alexandria during the summer months, deciding each day whether or not she felt like going for a swim.
Remy also has welcome memories of Shabbat celebrations with her family. She remembers the crisp preparation of Shabbat on Fridays; she would shower, prepare her home, change the sheets and wear fresh clothing. At sunset they would go to the synagogue, after which they would enjoy a warm meal of chicken soup, stuffed chicken, reshta, or homemade pasta that her mother would put in chicken soup. On early Saturday mornings, Remy and her family would return to the synagogue again. By 9:30 the service would end and they would return home to a family breakfast of fava beans, tahini, pita bread and feta cheese.
Some of Remy’s childhood memories, however, are hazier. She does not remember much of her life before Nasser came to power in 1952 when she was only 5 years old. Neither does Remy have personal memories of “Black Saturday,” which signified the beginning of Nasser’s reign and the way Egypt shifted from having anti-British riots to anti-Jewish riots. However, Remy does recall that growing up during the times of Nasser meant that participating in Jewish activities had to remain underground. For example, Remy’s family kept quiet about their connection to Israel and visited the synagogue to study Hebrew in secret.
Remy has vivid and sad memories of the 1956 Sinai War, which led to the Egyptian Government issuing a public declaration of Jews as enemies of the state. The war broke out just before Remy’s ninth birthday, causing her family to put a party on hold. In the middle of the night, they packed their bags and rushed to their grandmother’s house, leaving their home in complete darkness.
Decades later, Remy still remembers the sound of the bombs and the rush to cover their windows with navy blue sheets. At the sound of each explosion they were quick to take cover underground or under the beds. For years thereafter, Remy would wake in the middle of the night screaming as she remembered the blasts of explosions.
After the 1956 Sinai War, life for Jews in Egypt changed abruptly. Many Jews struggled to find jobs after graduating college, prompting them to leave Egypt immediately following graduation. Many Jews with French or Italian nationality were deported, including Remy’s grandmother and cousins who immigrated to France and then Israel when Remy was only 9 years old. Their eventual re-location to Israel meant that their only means of correspondence was through friends, because they knew that the Egyptian government would intercept their mail.
Remy yearned to join her family and friends in leaving Egypt. However, it was very difficult due to Remy and her immediate family’s Egyptian nationality. Egyptian-born Jews were not automatically granted an Egyptian nationality but the Egyptian nationality made it more difficult for Remy to leave the country. Even at Remy’s high school, ‘Israeli,’ replaced ‘Jewish’ as an option under the category of disclosing ‘Religion.’ In order to obtain an equal footing with their non-Jewish counterparts, many Jews paid fees and fought the legal system in order to obtain an Egyptian nationality. Remy’s father thought that with an Egyptian nationality his family would be protected by the State. He was wrong.
Remy says today that her father was in deep-rooted denial about the future of the Jews in Egypt and he strongly encouraged his family to stay in Egypt with the hope that the situation would improve for Jews in the country. Often he would tell his family members that life would one day return to the way it was before the anti-Jewish Egyptian leader Gamal-Abdel Nasser came to power, but President Nasser remained in office for 18 years from 1952 to 1970. Like Remy’s father, a well-established jeweler, many Jews were afraid of the uncertainties of settling in a new country and beginning a new life. Life in Egypt was all many Jewish families had known for centuries.
In the eleven years between the Sinai War of 1956 and the Six Day War in 1967, Remy says nearly all her friends had left Egypt for the United States or Israel. After Remy’s sister Vicky married and left the country, Remy remembers feeling completely alone. She could no longer develop any permanent friendships because her community was in the process of leaving.
Remy says she knew that the Six Day War in 1967 was inevitable. The walls of Cairo were covered with anti-Semitic graffiti, with drawings such as one of the foot of a soldier crushing a Magen David—the Star of David. Egyptians regularly chanted anti-Jewish slogans through the streets: “We are going to win the war! We are going to destroy Israel! There will be no Israel!” Mobs shouted. The Egyptian media falsely claimed that Egypt had won the war, adding fuel to the anti-Jewish riots throughout the streets.
The war had negative consequences that were unprecedented for the Jewish community in Egypt. Remy’s non-Jewish friends abandoned her with no other explanation than that she was Jewish. Worse, many Egyptians considered the Jews as traitors, and all Jewish men with Egyptian nationality were imprisoned after being taken in to Egyptian police headquarters for questioning. The police had promised the questioning was going to last only several minutes, but some men were imprisoned for years.
One such Jewish man who was imprisoned was Joe Pessah, Remy’s then fiancé, who she was engaged to and planned to marry in 1958 after Joe graduated from college. When Joe was sent to prison, Remy’s dreams of becoming a wife were shattered. For six months she received no word on what had happened to Joe or the nearly 500 other Jewish men aged 18-55 who were thrown in jail. Finally, one day Remy received a postcard that read, “Please send us some underwear;” a sign that Joe was still alive. For three years, Remy and Joe’s only interactions were from when Joe was behind bars. Committed, Remy travelled for two and a half hours each way for a visit that was allowed to last for just a few minutes.
The imprisonment of nearly all Jewish men in Egypt was extremely difficult for many women. Jewish synagogues attempted to help, but as most women had no income, their entire savings were sometimes depleted within the first year, which is why Joe’s mother was forced to flee Egypt with her youngest children. Remy has a picture of Joe’s mother and her other five children saying goodbye to Joe, Joe’s father and brother.
Remy clung to a small piece of hope she had left. Finally, Remy’s father was the first with news that Joe and the others were to soon be freed. Remy knew that the Jewish people were to be deported with their families. But come 1968, the government had stopped allowing the Jews to leave Egypt, and Remy was not yet Joe’s family. Thus, by 1970, Remy realized her only opportunity to join her fiancé out of Egypt was if they married. Taking matters into her own hands, Remy surprised Joe one visit at the prison when she came with a rabbi and a pair of rings. They married with Joe behind bars; afterwards Joe went back to his cell while Remy returned home. Joe was released from prison on June 24th, 1970 and Remy was able to join him just several days later.
Although Remy left Egypt with only two suitcases and the equivalent of five US dollars in her pocket, she says that the day she left Egypt was the happiest of her life. “I felt free for the first time in my life. I truly felt freedom,” she says. Remy and Joe were united in Paris, where they lived a beautiful life helped by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Six months later, the couple joined Joe’s family in the United States. Remy applied for American citizenship as soon as she reached the fifth anniversary of her residency. To preserve her Egyptian Jewish heritage, Remy attends Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City, the only synagogue for Karaite Jews in the United States. Remy says that because of her bad memories of being expelled from Egypt, she unfortunately no longer feels a connection to the country of her birth. The Egyptian government confiscated all of her family’s assets upon their emigration. “You cannot break the past, but you can move forward. And that is what I am doing.”
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.