My life in Abu Zaabal and Tora
Revised 10 -30-2004
Introduction by Elie A. Kheder
We would like to thank our members in Egyjews discussion group for contributing this story and making it available to everyone.
" My Internment in the Egyptian Concentration Camp, during the Six Day War "
I like to share with the forum a story, a life story of my younger brother Marc.
For many years we have asked Marc to write about his experience in Egypt, and for many times he declined, he did so due to the bad memories he carried... a scar he did not want to rouse !
Two weeks ago, Marc decided to celebrate his dedication to be a Hazzan , he self taught the Hebrew and led the whole congregation that day for the Shabbat service, all alone, reading straight from the Torah !.. How proud we all were !
Few days later he sent me the following; titled "let the whole world know". Some might relate to but for others might be a little hard to relive.
Marc is a simple man and I love him dearly, I know he went through lot of agonies documenting and reliving these memories,... but what he wrote came straight from the heart !
You might like to jump straight to : My Internment in the Egyptian Concentration Camp, during the Six Day War.
Elie A. Kheder
This is my life.
By Marc Khedr
The First Part deals a little bit about my family and me and the Second Part is the story of my internment at Abu Zaabal and Tora concentration camps
My name is Mourad Amin Khedr. My father's name is Amin Khedr Vita Maatouk, My mother's name is Gracia David Dabbah.
When we came to the USA we changed our names, David and I kept the last name as Khedr.
The Kheder family consists of five persons:
My older brother's name is Elie, we
call him Lili.
I was born in Cairo, Egypt, November 26, 1946 in the Sakakini area. In 1958, we moved to a nicer neighborhood, called Midan el Tahrir right in the center of Cairo. I studied at "Lycee' Français" in Daher and obtained the "E3dadeyah" ( Junior High School diploma). Then I went to "Institute Salesiano Don Bosco", an Italian trade School in Rod el Farag (a Cairo neighborhood). There, I graduated in 1965 from the Mechanical Section. I also went to the "Leonardo da Vinci" School of Mechanical Drawing.
Don Bosco hired me as a teacher, where I worked for two years. My starting salary was 18 Egyptian pounds per month (roughly under $3 present value). It climbed to 23 Egyptian pounds, which, at the time, made me feel very rich.
In April, 1967, a few months before the Six Day War, my older brother- Elie, loosing hope in finding any job for a Jew after graduating from college left to the USA via France. My family intended to follow him shortly after that, due to the continuance anti Semitism and economic squeeze on the remaining few Jews in Egypt in addition, Nasser was threatening war against Israel, something which worried us very much.
A few months later, in June, the Six Day War began between Israel and the Arabs My father and I were sent to the concentration camps for three years and 3 months, first at a camp called Abu Zaabal, then in one called Tora, just outside Cairo. We were released in 1970, given a French entry visa and taken directly to Cairo airport leaving to Paris, France, with only the shirts on our backs. There, I worked for three months in a clothes warehouse for a monthly salary of 800 French Francs (roughly $155 today).
In January 1971, before immigrating to America, my family visited Israel for two weeks. We were reunited with my uncles and aunts whom we didn’t see for over 20 years.
In America, we went to San Francisco because of the large number of Egyptian Jews. The Jewish Community put us in a hotel on Vanness St. I also found a job with my younger brother, David, at Fritzi of California, a clothing manufacturer owned by a Jew who was committed in helping emigrant Jews. I went to night school to learn electrical and gas welding and auto mechanics.
After few months it got boring and wrote a letter to the Jewish Federation to do Aliyah. My mother found out and took all my mail so I wouldn't leave. Meanwhile, she started talking to Aziza Moussa regarding her daughter, Bella Moussa Pessah and we got engaged. I was 26 years old and she was 18. On June 22, 1974, we got married and now have two boys and a girl--- Victor, Isabel and Albert.
In 1982, Fritzi closed the department I worked in and I was laid off. I then worked in a foreign car repair shop, called Enzo's on Bush St., I worked for free for the first four months and when I was more experienced, the owner hired me as a "Mechanic Helper" for $8 an hour. I worked there for two years until the business was sold. Then I worked for Quality Tune Up for another two years after which I became one of the franchisees and got my own shop in the corner of Serramonte Blvd. and Gellert in Daly City (San Francisco Bay Area). I managed the shop for the next ten years. I gave the shop to my son Victor because he was interested in cars. He managed it for 2 years then gave it up. He was only 21 years old and the stress was too much for him. I am writing this to tell the story to my children and grandchildren, our background history and from where we came.
We are Karaite Jews.
My Internment in Egyptian Concentration Camp, during the Six Day War
Marc Khedr Memories ( pictures from the concentration camp, and more )
On Tuesday, June 6 , at 2.00 am, I was sleeping next to my brother and suddenly my mother was shaking me on my shoulder. "Wake up, wake up Marco." I put on my clothes, half asleep and I didn't know what I was doing. The house was dark; no lights and at the front door were two men. They said we were to come for questions which wouldn't take long, only for a few minutes. They took me and my father. We were taken outside to a waiting car which drove us to the Abdin prison in downtown Cairo. I was only 19 years old!
The prison cell was dark. At the door, a guard was standing. The door had a strong metal bar at the top, as a safety measure against escape. Inside the cell, we saw a few more Jews, about 8 or more. The cell was smelly like sh..t, stifling heat, no air, dark. We heard the sound of bombs. We gave the guard one Egyptian pound (20 cents, a lot at that time) just so he could open the door for five minutes and allow fresh air in from the outside. Next morning, around 10.00 am, we were taken to a big, green, army truck and on to the concentration camp. The truck stopped in front of a big building which, I found out later, was the famous Abu Zaabal concentration camp. I heard wailing and loud voices coming from inside. I was very scared. I didn't know where I was and couldn't believe what was happening to me. My heart started beating strongly and I started to perspire. We were taken to a big gate, through it we saw a large table, three soldiers sitting. We formed a line and one by one, approached the table. One of the soldiers said: "Ya yahoudi ya ibn il Kalb, esmak eh", "You Jew, son of a dog, what's your name?" We then emptied our pockets and given sackcloth to wear, a blanket and an aluminum plate. No knives or forks. We had to eat with our hands. The building was two stories high: the Jewish prisoners were on the second floor and the Moslem Brotherhood and anti Nasser Egyptians and Palestinians from Gaza (who were supposedly collaborators with Israel), were on the first floor. I went to the second floor and I was shocked. There were people, young and old, running round and round a small yard, like dogs, and behind them, a soldier beating them with a big belt. They were screaming. It was my turn to run. It felt like a bad dream! You heard the voices scream, "Down with Israel. Long live Gamal Abdel Nasser. Palestine is Arab. Down with the Jews and with the Zionists", repeated over and over. We were then taken to our cell, which was made for 20 persons, although 60 were crammed in it. The room was 25ft by 30ft with one toilet and two small, square windows on the ceiling. The cell had a metal door. The floor was made of white tile. We were all Jews. The first thing we did was to introduce ourselves. I didn't know anyone. Night time came. We had nothing to eat. We heard the bombs. It was very dark. We wanted to sleep but couldn't, mainly because we were stuffed together like sardines, very close to each other. Each person had enough space for about two and half tiles. The other person's feet were in your face. If you wanted to pass by to go to the bathroom, you had to step over several bodies and by the time you returned, your place was already taken by someone else! Morning time came. There was a daily routine. First, we were ordered to sing stupid songs like "Down with Israel. Down with Zionism. Palestine is Arab. Long live Gamal Abdel Nasser." Then we had to run around a circle while one of the guards swung his belt at us. The Jewish prisoners were on the second floor of the building, in rooms # 19 through 25. Breakfast consisted of "foul medamess" (cooked fava beans) and bread, a typical Egyptian meal. The food contained small stones and sand which crunched in our teeth as we ate. Sometimes, we found cigarette butts in the food, probably put there deliberately by the guards. On Thursday morning June 9, (fourth day of the war), another large group of Jewish prisoners (about 200 persons) arrived by train from Alexandria. They went through the same procedure as we did.
Apparently, they were paraded in front of the Egyptian people in the streets, as if they were Israeli prisoners. They looked as if they had been beaten badly. We were divided in two groups and taken outside to the yard where stones and rocks were scattered. No talking was permitted. They asked us to separate the big rocks from the small ones. There was no particular reason for this. All they wanted was to keep us busy and humiliate us by forcing us to do meaningless work. The routine was the same nearly every day. For lunch, we had rice, "foul medamess", cheese, vegetable and sometimes, meat(?).
There were around 400 Jews, in total at "Abu Zaabal". The youngest was 17 years old and the oldest was 82. The guards consisted of the "Kaed" or captain, and 3 officers, two of whom were very bad guys I still remember their names: Rashad and Essam. I will never forget their faces either. They were recent graduates of the Army College and hated Jews. They showed us their muscles in front of everybody and beat us for no reason. Whenever the news from the warfront was not good for Egypt, we knew they were going to beat us. The Moslem Brothers were allowed to receive newspapers, daily, including Al Ahram and Al Goumhouria. One of us, climbed to the highest window to be able to read the headlines, which was in large print and in red. From the headlines we were able to tell what was happening. In the first few days of the war, the headlines were about Egypt's victories over the Israelis and the large number of Israeli planes shot down. The news said that many Israeli prisoners, including pilots, were captured. Knowing the Egyptian propaganda, we realized that all this was just a bunch of lies.
One day, while I was running around and the guard was hitting me with the belt, I suddenly felt sick and had to stop. My heart was beating very hard like it was going to jump out from my chest. The officer asked me if I had a heart problem and I said yes. I found out, later, that my father had told the officer that I had a heart problem. Because of that, I was transferred from Cell 20 to Cell 22 which was for older prisoners. However, every time the guard saw me in that cell, he would ask why I was with the older persons since I was much younger and "I looked as strong as a horse or even a camel." Anyway, it was thanks to my father that I was put with the older prisoners and thus avoided some of the beatings. One day, we were asked to fill an application that allowed our families to send us money for the prison "canteen." We could buy a limited number of cigarettes, sardines, cheese, vegetables and watermelon. But since we had no knife to cut the watermelon, we would drop it on the ground and it would crack open. I used to trade cigarettes for food since I did not smoke. One day, for dinner, we were given a bucket of soup to divide among us. But after eating some of it, one of the prisoners told us there was a dead "rat" in it. As it turned out, it was only a joke by David El Gamil and "the rat" was only a part of eggplant. David El Gamil was the funny one among us. He made us feel better with his sense of humor, even in prison. David went to Israel after he was released in 1970.
After eight months, we were transferred to another concentration camp, "Tora", which was much larger. Visitors were allowed once a month and I had my first home meal when my mother came to visit us. All boxes containing food had to be opened, which the guards inspected. They would take away any unusual looking food and dump it in a bucket of water. Gradually we were allowed to receive food every two weeks. We found out that by giving the guards cigarettes or money, he would let the food boxes pass without opening them. We rigged a small apparatus out of an empty can which allowed us to heat our food (Towtow). We used cotton and cologne for fuel. During the next two years, our condition improved. We were allowed to leave our cells to go into the yard all day. We played soccer, exercised, ran and even constructed a tennis court! In the evening, we would play poker by using hand made cards from the packets of Belmont cigarettes. We would draw the numbers by using red mercurochrome (a red-colored antiseptic) and charcoal (from burnt pieces of wood). In the playground, Muslim and Jewish prisoners mingled together. Strange, but we got along fine with little or no conflict. We had one thing in common: We hated Nasser since he had imprisoned and brutalized us all, Moslem and Jew.
One of the fellows from the Moslem Brotherhood taught me how to do "crochet" with a pair of needles. First, I had to make a needle from a piece of wood which I filed carefully. Then, I would get thread from the sleeves of the sackcloth garment we wore. I would then roll the thread into a ball and then knit myself a hat, gloves or socks. In the playground, we exercised a lot.
Every morning, I would run and then take a cold shower. Running around the inside of the camp was about three quarters of a mile. The best runner among the prisoners was a thin, but, powerful looking Muslim fellow. He could run 25 times around the camp and was the camp champion. However, I practiced hard and was able to beat him, thus becoming the champion. I was very proud of that accomplishment. The Jewish prisoners played soccer against the Muslim prisoners and we beat them 3 goals to 2. I scored one of the goals. I was pleased with myself.
As the months and years passed, I was very worried that we were never going to be released and was even thinking of escaping. One day, we were taken by truck to court. The Judge told us the reason we were in prison was because we were Zionist spies for Israel.
I remember one horrible event that happened. One day, a guard demanded a young man to undress and to sodomize his brother in front of their father who nearly had a heart attack. They were from Alexandria. Another time, the guard found out that our "chammas" was wearing striped underwear (or no underwear at all with only a pajamas pants, I can't remember). He accused him of being "gay", a most awful insult in Arab culture and beat him very hard. To make him stop, we gave the guard money.
In the prison, we needed money for virtually everything-----bread, clothes, to open the door, to make a mattress (using straw), special favors, etc. We purchased a small stove from a Muslim prisoner. It was made from the cans of food we received---halvah, "foul medamess" or vegetables. The "stove‚ worked well but had not screws and was not soldered together. The stove cost us ten to fifty piasters, depending on the size, a lot of money at the time. I made "prayer beads" from olive pits. I also made a backgammon, dominos and checkers; they were made by mixing the dough of the bread with water, then form them into the desired shape. For color, I rubbed wet dirt on the game pieces, and then let them dry in the sun.
By the third year in prison, we began hearing rumors of our release. One day, an announcement was made and we were divided into groups and mine was the last one to exit the gate. The Captain was concerned that, upon our release, we would come back and bomb the prison! He tried to be nice to us! We were taken directly to the airport where we boarded a plane to Paris, because the French government agreed to give us temporary asylum. We were greeted by HIAS, Hebrew Immigration Aid Service, a wonderful organization which put us up in Paris for 8 months till we obtained our U.S. entry visa. We arrived in San Francisco in 1971 where we started our new life, in freedom and security. It's good to be in America. I entered the concentration camp when I was 19 years old promised only to be for few minutes and came out when I was 22. Precious three years and three months were wasted.
I am writing this so that the whole world knows what the Egyptian authorities did to us simply because we were Jews, even Egyptian indigenous Jews who were in Egypt over three thousand years before the Arabs invaded and conquered the whole Middle East in the seventh century.
Marc Khedr, August 2002
Also of interest