Suez 1956: How we survived exile from Egypt

For Clemy Lazarus (nee Menir), February 2017 is a very significant anniversary. It is exactly sixty years since she arrived in England as a five-year-old refugee from Egypt. Here is her amazing story, as told to Point of No Return.

‘The year 1956
was not the first recorded time that the Menir family was exiled from the land
of their birth. The Encyclopaedia Judaica records that we lived in Tudela,
Spain in the 13th Century, and by the time of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, we
left Spain and had followed the same route to Egypt as the Rambam (Maimonides).

I
was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1951, and by 1956 my family was caught up in the
conflict that became known as the Suez Crisis. This was for two reasons.
Firstly we were Jewish and secondly my mother was a ‘British Subject’. My
mother had acquired this status along with a British passport by virtue of the
fact that her grandfather had worked for the British in India, generations
earlier. My father’s classification, however, was ‘stateless’. Although he and
his antecedents, for many generations, had been born and lived in Egypt, they
were, nevertheless, deprived of any rights, recognition, or entitlements of
citizenship because we were Jewish. I believe the official status is dhimmi. In
essence we were subjugated and lived as second class citizens. However, we did
enjoy a very good standard of living. My father established a successful
cardboard box manufacturing business in Cairo. 

My
father was one of four siblings. He was the eldest and he eventually joined my
mother in England. The second sibling established a life in Paris. The third
went to live in the fledgling state of Israel where he lived under very
difficult conditions in corrugated tin huts in a ma’abara for many years. The
fourth, a sister, remained in Egypt with her aged parents until my grandfather
passed away after which time she and my grandmother eventually moved to Israel. 

As
a consequence of the Suez Crisis, my mother, along with all British and French
‘citizens’ were unceremoniously expelled from Egypt. I have a memory of
military personnel marching through our apartment delivering the expulsion
order. 

This
caused my parents and grandparents severe heartache as my parents had five
children and my mother was, at the time, six months pregnant with number six.
She was obliged to leave for England on her own, without her husband, but with
five children in tow. She was 24 years of age at the time. She spoke French and
Arabic but no English and she knew no other culture than the Jewish/Egyptian
one in which she grew up. 

She
was compelled to leave without any money or possessions of any value. She did,
however, manage to buy a few gold bangles that she wore as jewellery and sold for the
purpose of sustaining us down the line. 

Once
in England, my mother was housed in a refugee camp, first in Leeds and then in
Kidderminster. These were essentially former wooden army barrack huts.

When
my mother was ready to deliver her baby, my siblings and I were placed in the
guardianship of the British Red Cross and she was taken to the local hospital
to give birth. This was a particularly harrowing time for her as she had no
means of communicating her concerns. During this time our suitcases were
ransacked and many fine Cacharel clothes were stolen. Added to this, my mother
returned from hospital to find that one of her children was missing. Her
youngest, Vivienne, had developed measles and had been placed in isolation. 

After
six months my mother was at the end of her tether. My mother is the sweetest,
most mild mannered, excruciatingly shy woman. Nevertheless, astonishingly, she
found the strength to march into the office of the commander of the refugee
camp. She banged on his desk, swiped all the paperwork to the floor and in her
best newly acquired English she declared, “Captain Marsh, bring my husband!” To
his credit, Captain Marsh did his utmost to make this happen and shortly
afterwards my father joined us in the camps. 

My
father had been given permission to leave Egypt on condition that he abandoned
his business, his home and all his possessions. Everything was confiscated by
the Egyptian authorities and to this day we have received not a penny in
compensation. 

 Marc Cohen, a Jewish refugee departing from Egypt

The
early years in England were extremely difficult for my parents. They had no
money, no home and no livelihood. Added to this, it was against every economic,
social and spiritual tide that my parents maintained a strictly orthodox home.

Shortly
after this we were welcomed by the Birmingham Jewish community, where we were
housed in a Victorian tenement building along with half-a-dozen other refugee
Jewish/Egyptian families, and committed to paying a nominal weekly rent. 

My
parents, who started from rock bottom, worked unbelievably hard, living a life
of deprivation and self sacrifice. They devoted all their time and energy to caring
for their family’s wellbeing and education, to the exclusion of all else. After
many attempts to work for others my father was eventually able to set up
a small cardboard box manufacturing business which subsequently grew into a
highly successful one. In this way he himself was then able to provide
employment for many other needy individuals. 

From
the moment my parents arrived in England, they showed their gratitude to their
British hosts by naming their new born baby Elizabeth after the Queen of
England. My father enrolled in night school to learn to speak English and soon
spoke English better than any Englishman. My father became a dapper English
gentleman, albeit with an Egyptian accent. When he could afford it he bought my
mother the finest clothes and had bespoke suits made for himself along with
matching bowler hats which he wore jauntily. The pinnacle of his achievement
was when he managed to buy himself a Rolls Royce. As a mitzvah, he shared his
good fortune by using his car to drive many a bride to the Chuppah

I
and my siblings are certainly ‘forgotten refugees’, but the point is that at no
time in our life did my parents define the family as such. At no point was that
label used as a yoke that bound us to our unfortunate early life. My parents
embraced their new life in exile and worked hard to improve their lot. That is
why I find the plight of the Palestinian refugees so heart-rending. To hold on
steadfastly to a refugee status for seventy years is to deprive oneself, one’s
children and grandchildren of the opportunity of leading a productive life of
promise and fulfilment.’

2 Comments

  • it's a kind of self-mortification which is useful for politicians who want to use those Arab refugees as a demonstration of Jewish "cruelty."

    Reply
  • 'My parents embraced their new life in exile and worked hard to improve their lot. That is why I find the plight of the Palestinian refugees so heart-rending. To hold on steadfastly to a refugee status for seventy years is to deprive oneself, one's children and grandchildren of the opportunity of leading a productive life of promise and fulfilment'

    This is what I say.They would prefer half a life of victimhood to building a proper life for themselves. I call it ridiculous

    Reply

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.