Founded in 2001 by former Jewish refugees from Libya and Egypt, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) was launched as a grassroots initiative to educate and engage Jewish institutional leaders, policymakers, Jewish college students, and members of the general public to the unknown personal and collective stories of the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their mission is to achieve universal recognition for the heritage and contemporary history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.
JIMENA’s Oral History Project aims to collect and preserve the personal histories of Jews who fled Arab lands and now live in the United States. Little has been done to document, preserve, and expose the personal and collective stories of trauma and loss experienced by Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees are part of an aging population and for the sake of Jewish history and historical accuracy in the Middle East and North Africa, we must ensure that their histories be properly documented. JIMENA’s growing archives of unedited film interviews, transcripts, written testimonies, and copies of documents are available to the public for research.
Niv is honoured to share one of the testimonies in Issue 12. We present to you the story of Joe and Remy Pessah’s time in Egypt and how they came to settle in California.
Joe Pessah was crying. His ‘baby love,’ Remy, had other suitors and he couldn’t bear it. His mother came to him and said, “If she really loves you she will wait for you.”
At that time, Joe was studying electrical engineering in Cairo and did not have the means to marry Remy. His mother went to Remy’s family’s downtown Cairo apartment to speak to her mother and speak on her son’s behalf as a viable suitor. However, with or without said conversation, Remy would have waited.
They met in 1960. She was 14, he was 17. Remy went to the synagogue after school to study Hebrew. Joe was her teacher.
“It was love from far away,” she said. “At one point we confessed that we really liked each other, but we couldn’t meet alone, so we always had a chaperone.”
For six years their love grew until they were engaged in 1966. While Remy dreamed of their future together, greater forces would change their story forever.
“In 1967 the war broke out and all my dreams were shattered,” she explained.
Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser mobilized his troops in the Sinai and closed the gulf of Aqaba. Israel responded and within three days Israeli forces had pushed the Egyptians back and taken Sinai. By June 10, 1967, six days after the war began, it was over.
But the hard times for Egyptian Jews were just beginning.
Nasser had all Jewish men from 18 to 65 rounded up and sent to prison camps. “Every home was hit,” Remy said.
Although her father was too old and her older brothers were out of the country she was nevertheless affected. The Egyptian authorities took Joe’s father and uncle during the flying bombs of the Six Day War and sent them to Abu Zaabal prison; one month later they came for Joe. A peer of Joe’s at the university, named Hassan, implicated him and his best friend Roland Gouel as spies because he was jealous over the two students’ positions as class leaders. At Joe’s house, the Egyptians rifled through his belongings and found wires and fuses he used for electrical engineering projects. They took this as evidence that he was a spy and brought Joe, his brother, and his cousin to Abu Zaabal.
Remy went to synagogue the following day. Her cousin was there and said that Joe had been taken.
“I went through a severe depression,” she said. “I was very involved in my education at the University of Cairo to keep my sanity. Every week we would hear rumours that they will be released. I would wait and wait and nothing would happen.”
Six months later she received a postcard asking for two pairs of underwear to be sent to a particular address. “It was a relief just to know they were alive,” she recounted.
After eight months Remy had a chance to see the man she had been planning her life with. She travelled two and a half hours to see him behind the bars of Abu Zaabal for five minutes.
“The first time seeing him was sad, he had changed. His hair was very short . . . it was very difficult to see him in that state.”
By 1968, one year after his incarceration they were able to see each other once a month. When he was moved to Tora, another prison camp, they could see each other every two weeks for five minutes, and over time she was able to see him for 10 minutes.
Then one day in 1970, Remy’s father came to her and said, “I have good news Remy. They will release Joe.”
“Enough Dad, I don’t want anymore hopes. I don’t want to believe and be disappointed.”
Her father told her to trust him. Still skeptical, she went to the United Nations and spoke to an official who confirmed the happy news.
All the imprisoned Jews were to be deported with their families. Remy and Joe had never gotten married. So they brought a rabbi into the prison and were married there. “That was it, he went to his cell and I went home,” she reflected.
On Monday June 21, 1970, Joe was released and sent immediately to the airport. He could not stop and see his home one more time or to pick up his clothes. Remy had a flight for Thursday but went to the airport anyway to see Joe.
She was not able to get close to him but hollered at him from a distance as he walked along the tarmac.
“I am coming on Thursday,” she said.
Joe turned and extended three fingers. “Three days? I had three years in prison and you gave me three days of freedom.”
Remy laughed, “I wanted to throw a bomb on his head.”
After their reunion they lived in Paris for six months before moving to the U.S. They settled in Los Altos, California and raised two children David and Jacob. David made aliyah and now lives in Israel, while Jacob lives in Redwood City.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in JIMENA Egyptian Experience.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photograph of Joe and Remy Pessah courtesy of JIMENA.
Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) was launched as a grass-roots initiative to educate and engage Jewish institutional leaders, policy-makers, Jewish college students, and members of the general public to the unknown personal and collective stories of the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their mission is to achieve universal recognition for the heritage and contemporary history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.