Tag: Jews of Egypt

Nazis influenced Egyptian oppression, torture and deportation of Jews

According to a recent book, Nazis on the Nile: The German Military Advisers in Egypt,1949-1967 by Vyvyan Kinross (Nomad), some 6,000 Nazis may have moved to Egypt after WWII. They incited the 1948 pogrom against Egyptian Jews, and helped subject Egypt’s Jews to torture and deportation, Kinross argues. Their legacy may even persist today. Review by Justin Marozzi in The Spectator:

Aribert Heim, known as ‘Dr Death’ and the ‘Butcher of Mauthausen’, escaped justice. He lived quietly in Cairo as the Muslim convert Tarek Hussein Farid until his death in 1992. [Bridgeman Images]

As the government communications specialist and Middle East watcher Vyvyan Kinross reveals in this darkly gripping story, this wasn’t a question of a handful of advisers. At its height, the colony of German experts in Cairo – working across the entire spectrum of the military and security portfolio, from rocket and missile programmes, arms manufacturing and internal security to foreign service, intelligence and propaganda – may have numbered around 6,000.

The author admits that these characters were ‘sometimes unsavoury but always compelling’. This seems an understatement when it comes to Johann von Leers, a key Nazi propagandist and ideologue, honorary Sturmbannführer in the Waffen-SS and a baby-faced anti-hero of Nazis on the Nile. An acolyte of Joseph Goebbels, this was a man who dashed off 27 hate-filled books, including Jewry and KnaveryBlood and Race and Jews are Looking at You, between 1933 and the end of the war.

Having spent several years spewing out anti-Semitic propaganda in Juan Perón’s regime in Argentina, in 1956 von Leers relocated to Cairo, where he served as a political adviser and anti-Israel propagandist for Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s firebrand president, until 1965. When a Toronto Star journalist ferreted him out in his office in the ministry of national guidance in 1956, after a few nervous moments the unrepentant Nazi revealed his true self, launching into tirades against American Jews, Zionist-driven press attacks on Nasser and his uncompromising position on the new Jewish state. ‘Israel is abnormal,’ he told the newspaperman. ‘It must go. It causes trouble.’ Like several of his compatriots, he later converted to Islam, and changed his name to Omar Amin.

Kinross’s timeline is carefully chosen. It encompasses the trio of humiliating Egyptian military defeats: the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-9, Suez in 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967. By the time Egypt suffered its fourth military loss in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the German military, scientific and intelligence advisers at the heart of this engrossing narrative had long gone.

Humour is a scarce commodity here, but there is something bleakly comic about the clash of Teutonic efficiency with the rather more relaxed Egyptian approach to work and the inability of former Nazi and Wehrmacht officers to bend the world around them to their will.

At the centre of the hub of military advisers was Dr Wilhelm Voss, a hyper-efficient man who combined a flair for big-picture thinking with an impressive command of detail – ‘a skillset with which Egyptian management culture at the time was not widely blessed’, Kinross writes. General major Oskar Munzel, a highly decorated Wehrmacht tank officer, shared his frustrations with the Israeli spy Paul Frank: ‘A thousand times I’ve tried to beat into their dead heads that pretty paint and big identification numbers do not a fighting panzer force make.’

In 1952, the German war hero Baron Theodor von Bechtolsheim, a senior naval officer-turned-military adviser, complained that ‘the oriental sloppiness irritates me again and again, while here they just shake their heads about it. Malaish!’ This will sound an echo for anyone familiar with Egypt in the 1980s when the old expatriate joke was that the country was run by IBM – Inshallah (God willing), Bukra (tomorrow) and Maalesh (never mind).

Notwithstanding their many talents, the Germans often struggled to adapt to the different professional challenges in Egypt, not least being their strictly advisory roles. This meant, for example, that they could advise on the persecution and deportation of Jews rather than eliminating them directly, as the Nazis had done in Europe.

One of the darkest chapters in the book surrounds the persecution of Egypt’s embattled Jews who, with the arrival of cold-blooded German know-how, were subjected to oppressive legislation, economic strangulation, dispossession, detention, torture and deportation. The FBI claimed that the 1948 pogrom against Egyptian Jews in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War had been instigated by Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust, who was in Cairo at the time. Mass expulsions of Jews began with the Suez invasion of 1956 and within three months around 10,000 had left. ‘The methods used are so similar to what Hitler did before the war as to be frightening,’ the New York Times reported.

The similarity was no mystery. The leading light of Egypt’s new state security cadre was Leopold Gleim, an SS Standarten-führer and former head of the Gestapo’s Jewish affairs department in Poland. Serving under him was the former SS Gruppen-führer Alois Moser, then wanted in the USSR for crimes against Jews, and Bernhardt Bender, a former SS Sturmbannführer, who ran an interrogation centre in a disused cargo ship nicknamed ‘The Floating Hell’ by Jewish victims. Bender was alleged to have been the brains behind five camps for Jews, one of which was supposedly modelled on Dachau’s Block 10 sterilisation unit. Kinross acknowledges that if there is uncertainty here and over-reliance on western, especially American and CIA, sources, this is because ‘Egyptian records still remain inaccessible’.

Although the competition for most disgusting Nazi exile in Cairo was stiff, the Waffen-SS Untersturmführer Aribert Heim, known as ‘Dr Death’, arguably made it to the podium. As a doctor at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, one of his party tricks, according to the testimony of a survivor, was to kill a prisoner selected for his impeccable teeth by injecting him with poison, cut off his head, cook it in the crematorium until the flesh had been burnt off and then give the skull to a friend as a desk ornament. To evade an international arrest warrant issued in 1962, he fled to Cairo, where he successfully dodged justice until his death in 1992, having lived quietly as the Muslim convert Tarek Hussein Farid.



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American Jewish Committee launches ‘Forgotten Exodus’ podcasts

The world has overlooked an important episode in modern history: the 800,000 Jews who left or were driven from their homes in Arab nations and Iran in the mid-20th century to forge new lives for themselves and future generations. The Forgotten Exodus is a new limited podcast series  by American Jewish Committee (AJC). Manya Brachear Pashman tells the story of this pivotal moment in history by interviewing personalities who have made contributions to the countries where they resettled. eJP reports: (With thanks: Imre, Boruch, Monica, Avi)

A Jewish family in Yemen in 1985

Soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, author André Aciman’s family made a desperate flight from Egypt, where they lived under the threat of growing antisemitism worsened by the Nasser regime. For the family of memoirist Carol Isaacs, it was antisemitism demonstrated in the 1941 Farhud, or pogrom, that eventually uprooted them from their Iraqi homeland. And two generations after his family was spirited out of Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, Israeli windsurfer Shahar Tzubari took home a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Stories like these, which document the little-known plight of some of the 800,000 Jews who were forced out of their long-thriving communities in Middle Eastern capitals such as Cairo, Baghdad and Sana’a shortly before and after Israel’s creation, are part of a new limited podcast series by American Jewish Committee titled “The Forgotten Exodus,” which premieres today.

“We often view the Jewish world through an Ashkenazi lens; we talk about the Holocaust but not the Farhud in Iraq,” Manya Brachear Pashman, a religion writer and the host of AJC’s podcasts, told eJewishPhilanthorpy. “When we talk about Jews in the Middle East, we often talk about Israel. But for thousands of years Jews lived all over the Middle East with rich vibrant cultures.”

The six-part series, which opens with a segment on Isaacs, deliberately focuses on the stories of acclaimed writers, athletes and others whose stories, organizers believe, will resonate with the wider Jewish community. “I wanted to illustrate that these people are making contributions to art, culture, diplomacy and athletics, among many fields,” Brachear Pashman said. “They yielded these wonderful contributions to society.”

Aciman detailed his family’s perilous escape from the growing antisemitism during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency in his 1995 book Out of Egypt: A Memoir. “In Egypt you had a group of Jews who were native and were made stateless when Nasser came to power,” said Brachear Pashman, describing the situation for some Jewish communities in Egypt at the time. “They didn’t see the value of citizenship until it was too late. When they finally applied they were denied. Thankfully Israel existed by then; it was a haven for people who were stateless and had nowhere else to go.”

Isaacs pieced together her family’s ordeal fleeing Iraq in the graphic memoir, The Wolf of Baghdad: Memoir of a Lost Homeland, published in 2020. “It’s been interesting. A lot of people didn’t even know that there were Jews living in Arab lands,” she said. “Nobody knows about what happened to them, that they were ethnically cleansed, removed from their homes and dispersed across the world … It’s our truth and it’s our history.”

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More about Carol Isaacs

Egyptian-born scholar honoured by Queen

An Egyptian-born Australian has been awarded a medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours (Order of Australia) for service to the Jewish community of Sydney. (With thanks: Vernon)

Racheline Barda: ‘overwhelmed’

Racheline Barda is a lecturer in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, University of Sydney and the author of Egyptian-Jewish Emigres in Australia (Cambria Press). She has also written extensively for the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal and on Jews of the Islamic World.
In 2020 she was Consulting Curator for the Jews from Islamic Lands Exhibition, Sydney Jewish Museum where she has served as a volunteer guide for 25 years.

She was a speaker  at the  International Congress of the Jews of Egypt in Israel in 2006 and at the
The Jews of Egypt in Modern Times, Bar Ilan University, Israel in  2004.

Racheline Barda told J-Wire: ‘I’m overwhelmed. I really never thought that I would get such an award and I don’t think I’m so special. I got so much joy and pleasure out of I what I’ve been doing that it’s not fair to be recompensed for something you enjoy doing.’

Cairo Jews protest at Egypt’s seizure of second Geniza

The Egyptian Antiquities Authority has carried off a trove of historic Jewish texts from the Bassatine Jewish cemetery in Cairo, raising uproar in the Israeli press. The move is in line with Egypt’s policy of treating Jewish heritage as ‘national’ heritage. During preservation and renovation work at the Cairo Jewish cemetery at Bassatine, a second geniza* (repository of  documents bearing God’s name) was discovered in a burial plot belonging to the Mosseri family. What is interesting is that the current tiny local Jewish community, perhaps led by the Drop of Milk Association, has protested at the seizure of the geniza. This marks a change from the past: Magda Haroun, the community head, has acted as a stooge for the authorities, presiding over the shipping of Jewish libraries to the National Archives and refusing to back calls for Jewish access to community archives and records. She has even demanded that four Jewish-owned paintings in France be ‘returned’ to Egypt. (They have since been restituted to the owner’s descendants.) Report (Hebrew)  in JDN News (via Elder of Ziyon):
It is thought  that the Egyptian government was worried that the documents would be smuggled to Israel so they decided to grab them all now, against the wishes of the remaining Jews in Cairo, whose relatives might be mentioned in the collection.
It is not how old the Genizah is. No one has had the chance to study it yet. The Bassatine cemetery is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, built in the ninth century. The burial plot for the Genizah belonged to the Mosseri family, who immigrated to Egypt from Italy in the 18th century.
Ahmed Gendy, an Egyptian professor of Jewish and Zionist Studies who has studied the famous medieval Cairo Genizah,  confirms that the Egyptian Antiquities Authority has been negligent in how they handled this priceless collection. When he would request an item from the Genizah to study, he said that they would bring them to him in cloth bags, where insects and humidity could damage them.
Nevertheless, he supports the antisemitic actions of the authority by invoking his own antisemitism:
What the members of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority did by transferring the contents of the discovered Genizah is right, from the reality of the first experience that witnessed the theft or sale of the contents of the ancient Genizah.
What the Jewish community did most likely was done in coordination with the Israeli authorities, in order to internationalize the issue, so that the international community and its institutions would pressure Egypt to implement what the members of the community want in Egypt, on the basis that what was discovered may be linked to Jewish families, and that they do not belong to the Egyptian government. But the fact that members of this sect live in Egypt, and hold Egyptian citizenship, makes the issue of their resorting to the American embassy in order to pressure Egypt on this issue reprehensible, and confirms what we mentioned earlier in another place about the Jews of their constant feeling of isolation and lack of belonging to the countries in which they live.
The community saw that the Egyptian authorities were stealing their property from their own cemetery and ignoring their protests, so they appealed to the Americans who were also working on fixing up the cemetery. This “expert” who understands how little the Egyptian Antiquities Authority cares about the preservation of priceless Jewish items says that this is proof of how Jews in Egypt aren’t really patriotic Egyptians.
As far as whether Israel has the right to these documents: the Egyptian Jewish community in Egypt is reportedly down to only three members, while there are over 50,000 Egyptian Jews in Israel. Tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews in Israel should have a large say on their own relatives’ possessions, especially when the Egyptian authorities’ interest in those items is more to keep them away from Jews than to benefit from them. As with priceless Jewish objects from Iraq and Yemen, it is disingenuous to say that the antisemites who drove out the ancient Jewish communities out of their countries should have the right to the possessions of those very people they expelled.
*The first  and most famous Geniza, now dispersed to Oxford, Cambridge and North America,  was discovered in the 19th century in the attic of the Ben Ezra synagogue and contains valuable texts dating back to medieval times.


Egyptian-Jewish heroes commemorated in Israel

 A memorial has been unveiled at the Egyptian-Jewish Heritage Center in Tel Aviv to commemorate four Egyptian Jews who sacrificed their lives on behalf of the state of Israel. Levana Zamir, President of the International Association of Jews from Egypt – who masterminded the unveiling ceremony – reports:

Seated centre, surviving members of Operation Susannah Robert Dassa and Meir Zafran. Behind Zafran stands Levana Zamir, President of the International Association of Jews from Egypt, who masterminded the unveiling ceremony.

Engineer Shmuel Azar and Dr. Moshe Marzouk were hanged in Cairo for their involvement in the 1954 Operation Susannah (the Lavon Affair).  Eli Cohen was hanged in Damascus.  Jacques Levi, nicknamed  in Arabic el-Agalati (the ‘bicycle repair man’ ), was killed in  the Jewish quarter of Cairo.

A view of the Egyptian Jewish Heritage Center in Tel Aviv

During World War II, Jacques Levy el-Agalati served in the British army Sabotage Unit and was an expert in bomb disposal. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, when he was already a civilian, he managed to dismantle a number of bombs in the Jewish quarter of Cairo placed by the Muslim Brotherhood – and saved the lives of hundreds of Jews living in the area. But in September 1948, the bomb he was trying to dismantle exploded in his hands and he was killed on the spot, killing 70 Jews;  tens of people were wounded. The incident was reported in one of the main newspapers in Egypt, attributing blame to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Eli Cohen, born in Alexandria, served in the Mossad’s mission to Syria in the first half of the 1960s and provided the IDF with invaluable information which greatly assisted the IDF during the Six Day War. Eli Cohen was captured and hanged in Damascus on 18 May 1965.

Engineer Shmuel Azar, commander of the Alexandrian squad operating in Egypt on behalf of the Israeli Unit 131 as part of Operation Suzannah, took responsibility when he was captured for the squad he commanded in the past even though in practice he no longer occupied that post. He was hanged in Cairo on 31 January 1955.

The commemorative illuminated plaques

Dr. Moshe Marzouk, commander of the Cairo squad operating on behalf of the same Unit 131 as part of Operation Suzannah , also took full responsibility for  the squad, even though he had actually resigned from his post as squad leader in Cairo. He was hanged on 31 January 1955.

An illuminated plaque was dedicated to each of these operatives.  An additional  plaque was dedicated to the other members of the two squads who were captured as part of Operation Suzannah and spent many years in Egyptian prisons: Robert Dassa, Meir Zafran, Victor Levy, Meir Meyuhas, Marcelle Ninio-Boger and Philip Nathanson. The families of all those heroes also participated in  this historical event.

There was a flurry of excitement at the unveiling ceremony  when the only two surviving operatives of Operation Suzannah arrived: Robert Dassa (89) and Meir Zafran (93).

After the unveiling, Professor Nahem Ilan, head of the Cairo Heroes Memorial Foundation near the Intelligence Memorial Museum and Ella Shoshana, director of the Foundation, delivered fascinating speeches. Yossef Tam, head of the Union des Juifs d’Egypte, and Dr Yaron Friedman, a representative of Jacques Levi el-Agalati’ s family, also spoke. The ceremony was brought to a close by Shavit Ben-Arieh, Director of the Culture and Heritage Department at the Ministry of Culture, who honoured the historic event with his presence.

More about Eli Cohen

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman



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