‘Grandfather was convicted of being Jewish’

Joseph Esses.Click here to see the moving documentaryMichelle Kahn made of her grandfather.

 It began as a class project, but today it is a moving hour-long documentary of the life and times of a Syrian Jew. The film-maker is his grand-daughter, Michelle Devorah Kahn. Here is her story, as told to the Canadian National Post on the occasion of the Remembrance Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries on 30 November.

All it took to get from one end of the room to the other was a slight
step forward. Every couple hours, a man would walk by his cell and spit
on him. There was no food. There was no water. There was no light.
There were no comforting words, only brief moments when hopeful thoughts
would fleetingly pop into his head. From 1948 to 1950, my grandfather
had one job: He was a prisoner; a convicted Jew.

Joseph Avraham Esses was born on Oct. 16, 1919, in Aleppo, Syria. His
father was a textile merchant and he was the eighth of 14 children.
Although he enjoyed a happy childhood — filled with love, laughter and
an abundance of Baklava — living side-by side with his Muslim Arab
neighbours, things would take a turn for the worse. This was the point
in his life he never spoke about; the point I was most curious about.

So in 2007, for a class project, I set up two chairs, directed a
camera at my grandfather and interviewed him. My grandfather was a very
closed and cautious man at the time, and after much debating and
negotiating with him, I began to understand why.

He explained to me that as the end of the 1940s approached,
everything changed and the attitude towards the Jewish people, who were
once the “brothers and sisters” of the Muslim Arabs, shifted greatly. At
the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, my grandfather,
then a young adult, owned and managed his own shop, selling clothing and
incidentals (perfume, cologne, accessories, etc.).

One evening, after closing up his shop, he was walking home when
three young Muslim men cornered him in the middle of the street and
began beating him with their fists and whatever pathetic weapons they
had (sticks, rocks, etc.) and shouting, “You want a country? You want a
country?! Here is your country!”

Along with the entire Jewish community of Aleppo, he witnessed many
atrocities. Friends and family members often disappeared, never to be
heard from or seen again, or were slaughtered during broad daylight for
all to see. One incident involving a Jewish family man who was hiding
from the Muslims, lead to his three young daughters being kidnapped from
the marketplace and held captive for days, where they were tortured and
ultimately killed. A few days later, their cut-up bodies were delivered
to the family’s home and left on their doorstep in a sack.

Being Jewish became a crime and my grandfather was convicted of it.
Men, women and children were often hung for this crime in the town
square, as the Arabs cheered. My grandfather was luckier than most.

He had established strong, positive relationships with both the Arabs
and Jews over the years (professionally and socially), and boasted
about having the son of Syria’s chief of police as his best friend. But,
at the risk of appearing disloyal, everyone had no choice but to put
aside their personal feelings for political ones.

So my grandfather was allowed to live, but he was thrown in jail.
Many were left in there for days on end, starved, tortured and
belittled, and left to stand in dirt and feces. Even luckier for him was
that his relationship with the Arabs secured him a nightly release, but
each morning he was put back into that same jail cell.

Never knowing if things would improve, or if they would continue to
worsen, his family had no choice but to leave. Slowly, he began securing
the escape of his younger siblings and his dear mother.

One night, being the final family member left, Joseph turned on all
the house lights, left the radio at full blast, unlocked the front door
and left forever. He escaped across the border into Lebanon with a fake
passport, which listed his birthplace as Philadelphia. He left behind
all his cherished family heirlooms, belongings, money and memories. When
he crossed the border safely into Lebanon, he ran out from the vehicle,
kissed the ground and began singing a song of freedom.

This was not an easy interview for me to sit through. It was the
first, and maybe the only, time he had ever spoken about this in his
life. Most of my family didn’t know what I did. I knew he was in pain
and I knew he was afraid of people knowing the truth. But I also knew I
had a duty to my ancestors and my heritage to learn what really
happened. I began interviewing other family members and gathering
stories and photos. In the end, I had a full-length documentary on my
grandfather’s life titled, Wanted: The Joseph Esses Story.

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