PROFILE: Claire Berke

Claire Berke

Claire Berke fled Cairo, Egypt in 1956 before the Suez Canal War. Growing up in Cairo, Egypt she was taught that being Jewish made you a second-class citizen. She was ridiculed at school because she was Jewish. She was taught to never mention Farouk, the former king of Egypt publicly because “You are a Jew and if Farouk wants to, he can send you to jail for being Jewish.” Her father was never granted Egyptian citizenship by the government because he was a Jew.

By 1956 the government, (under the command of Colonel Abdel Nasser) had taken away her father’s plastic factory because he was Jewish. Jews were not safe in Egypt, nor were their belongings. Claire’s mother had all her valuable jewelry taken from her safety deposit box by workers who knew that she was Jewish. Colonel Abdel Nasser’s government started to imprison young Jews in 1956 and Claire’s mother feared for the future of their family. She wanted Claire to leave with her brother first because she thought that it would be an immediate opportunity for her to leave safely. The rest of her family followed her to Israel 3 months after she arrived there. This is her story of her struggle to survive after leaving Egypt.

In October 1956 as thousands were leaving Cairo, Egypt my mother told me that I should leave with my brother Alex. He was going to study electronic engineering in Montpellier. I was twenty-years-old. We were allowed to bring one suitcase each on the boat to Marseilles and six Egyptian pounds. At the port of Alexandria, I wore a long sleeve shirt to hide my three gold bracelets. I was lucky because they let me go with a gold ring that I was wearing.

As soon as we arrived in Marseilles, we dragged our suitcases to the train station nearby and left them at the consignment office. That night, we slept on two benches that were back-to-back to each other and near the public toilet. I felt safer being close to my brother. The next morning we went to jewelry stores trying to sell a large diamond which Papa had given to Alex to pay for his studies. He had hid it inside of a feather pillow. After trying at three stores we understood that it was not going to work because the diamond did not have official paperwork from customs.

We asked the storeowners for directions to nearby pawn-shops and then we walked through dark cobblestones streets to find them. They all offered Alex too little money. Papa had told him the lowest amount of money that that he should accept. Disappointed, he decided to take a train for Montpellier in the afternoon. I found myself alone in a foreign country with no friends, family or money. I was scared. I walked trying to gather my thoughts. I would have liked to stay in Marseille, but I only had a tourist visa good for one month. In order to get an immigration permit, I was sure that I would need more money. Also I needed to get a job fast, but who was going to employ me with the train station as my address? I decided that I didn’t have a chance. That night I bought a banana for dinner and slept sitting up on the bench at the train station. I was scared of a strange man who looked like he was going to assault me. I locked myself in the retched toilet stall for protection. Later I found a bench that looked like it was in a safe location. This went on for four more nights.

In the morning, I washed myself using paper towels in the sink by the toilet. I asked around for directions to the Sochnut (Jewish Agency). I did not have an address since my father had assured me that they would be absolutely no problem going to Israel for free. The Sochnut consisted of overcrowded tents. Inside a large tent I talked to the gentleman sitting at his desk. He immediately asked me for my passport which was from Iran because my father was never able to get Egyptian nationality. I had taken my grandfather’s nationality. He immediately threw it in the trash and proceeded to give me Israeli immigration papers. I asked him to put me on a ship that was going to Haifa as soon as possible because I had no money. He told me that if I couldn’t pay I would have to wait for a month in Marseilles, otherwise the next ship departed in eight days.

I quickly walked to the pawn shops, accepted a few francs for my bracelets, and then returned to the Sochnut to get my ticket. I also wrote to my uncle in Manchester to please send me some money because I was worried sick that I would not be able to purchase a couple of necessities from the pharmacy. He sent three pounds right away, may he rest in peace, and I felt great.

I found a pension and got a room on the third floor. I struggled to drag my suitcase to the room because there was no elevator. A man saw me opening the door to my room across the hall from his. By the way he looked at me I knew he would be trouble. That night I pushed an armchair under the lock and went to sleep. In the middle of the night he banged hard on my door, and tried to force it open. Luckily it did not break and he finally left. In the morning I quickly pushed my suitcase down the stairs and started to walk down the street wondering where to go. As luck would have it I ran into Mino, the son of our Italian neighbor in Cairo in the street. We decided to share a room together for the next two nights because he was also short on money.

Finally the day arrived to go to the port and board the ship to Haifa. I walked in the purser’s office and asked an Italian officer if I could sleep on a deck chair on the bridge as I did on the ship from Alexandria because I got sick last time. He finally let me share a cabin with a couple on their honeymoon. Thankfully, they were nice, and asked me to leave during the day so that they could have privacy. The officer (who had ill intentions for us) also let the girls use the shower in his cabin. It had been ten days since I last had a bath. I felt much better.

I was glad to finally arrive in Haifa. There I reunited with my Uncle Albert Mizrahi and lived with him, and his family in a shared old Arab apartment in Haifa. We lived with another couple. I struggled to find work and finally secured a job making visas for a travel agent. When my mother came with my younger brother and sister, the Sochnut gave them a Maabarah, a wooden shack with a Turkish toilet outside. The bathroom consisted of a sink and a shower head that spewed out cold water. I washed myself in the morning by boiling a kettle of water. We lived at Kiryat Benyamin for eighteen months until my immediate boss, Mr. Rothstein, helped us (I never asked for his help). He called the Sochnut and told them to give my parents a one bedroom apartment because he needed me to live closer to work. I was very thankful for this because I had agreed to marry a very nice Englishman and did not want his mother to see where we were living. We moved five days before his parents came for the wedding. You may wonder as to why the Jewish Agency did not give us an apartment to start with but in those days everything in Israel went according to “protectia” or whom you knew.

A week after we got married we took made our way back to Victoria, England where his parents were waiting to take us to their home. We lived in England for six years and ran a successful self-service grocery store. My husband always wanted to move to California so we did. We sold all of out belongings and immigrated to America in 1965. I think that I made a good decision.
If someone had told me back when I was a little girl walking to school in Cairo while trying to avoid the Muslim men who pinched me and yelled out “Yehoudeya bent kalb”, or daughter of a dog, that I would be living in the Los Angeles one day, I never would have believed them.