Jews expelled from Egypt who resettled in Brazil are finally telling their story in an exhibition in Sao Paulo.
. The very first Jews in Brazil were Sephardim fleeing the Inquisition, They relocated from Recife to Dutch colonies in north America in the 17th century.
In modern times, 1,500 families emigrated to Brazil from Egypt. They are one of three Sephardi communities in Brazil. Jews arrived in the 19th century from northern Morocco to profit from the Amazonian rubber boom. Small communiies still exist in Belen and Manaus in the north of the country.
Almost the first thing visitors see at Sao Paulo airport is a branch of Safra bank, established by a lebanese-Jewish family from Beirut. In the 1950s and 60s, Jews resettled in Sao Paulo from Syria and the Lebanese town of Saida (Sidon).
Numbering 8,000 people in a mainly Ashkenazi community of 100,000, the Jews from Egypt barely warranted a paragraph of explanation at Sao Paulo’s Jewish Museum. And so they decided to tell their own story.
The exhibition marks 70 years since the Free Officers’ coup deposed King Farouk. The writing was on the wall for the Jewish community: 25,000 were expelled after the Suez crisis.
In the 1950s Brazil was seeking to attract immigrants. Jewish employees of US multinational companies were able transfer their jobs to Sao Paulo, the commercial capital. Others were assisted by the refugee agency HIAS which never demanded repayment of financial support. Some children were offered free places at Jewish schools.
About half the Egyptian Jews arrived stateless in Brazil. Some acquired Iranian nationality. One moved from France in the 1950s but threw his French passport in the Seine when he was called up to the army to fight in the Algerian war. He bought an Iranian passport and left for Brazil.
The refugees were not allowed to take more than 20 dinars out of Egypt. They filled wooden crates with clothing and hid jewellery in the base. They also brought odd items like a coffee grinder, a device for chopping herbs to make the traditional molokheya or a police First Aid manual.
The crates were used for sleeping until the refugees could afford to buy a sofa bed in part exchange.
The exhibition Judeus de Egipto: 70 anos de exilio is on at Hebraica, Sao Paulo until 17/July 2022.