Luci Cohen-Zimering

Luci Cohen-Zimering

My memories from Tunisia are bittersweet. There are so many happy years, then the war, the German invasion, the liberation – the exile. I was born in Tunis, to a family who lived there for many generations. They came from Spain via Algeria—we did not speak Spanish but my grandparents spoke Arabic and the children knew French. Our life revolved around our family and my parents, my two brothers, and I lived with my paternal grand-parents in the capital, Tunis. We lived in a neighborhood with mostly Jews, many Italians, and a few French. All my aunts, uncles and cousins were always with us. It was a great feeling to be all together most of the time, everyone considered me the “official babysitter” for all the babies and I loved it.

The best times were the holidays. We all learned cooking from my grandmother who was always considered the best cook in the family. For Pesach, we all gathered around a great table covered in white tablecloth and adorned with crystals so thin that once one broke just by tilting on the table. One of my uncles had the task to “grade” the main dish; whether it was couscous, pekella, kamounia, Pesach msoki, or all the kemia (different salads). The funniest thing that the children liked to do was to pull (unnoticed) the tablecloth and spill the red wine. It was easy with small Pesach silver goblets. Our parents were forbidden by Grandpere Maurice to scold us during the holidays, so we took advantage. When I feared the wrath of my parents, I would hide behind Meme Noucha’s skirts where no one could get me.

Then there were the summers. Every year after school my grand-ather rented a big house by the sea (La Marsa). Imagine all the cousins enjoying the vacation—the beach, food, and friendship. I remember that we played “school” pretending to be teachers and students. It was a way to keep us all quiet. Every summer we found ourselves in a different location. Once we stayed near Carthage which gave us the opportunity to visit the Punic ruins, the coliseum, and some of the most beautiful Roman ruins in the world. As teenagers, me and my cousins spent our days on the beach, walking back and forth at the edge of the water, and then joining the summer crowd which consisted mostly of Jewish, Italian and French young people. It seemed that the Moslem population kept to themselves in the Medina, a neighborhood that we did not visit. But we shopped in the Souks, those narrow streets full of colorful merchandise, delicious smelling food, animals, and people. Of course no one bought hand made carpets, copper or silver items, without bargaining forever—pretending to walk away and then being called back to finally get the object. I have beautiful necklaces and earrings that look like lace made of small hands. The “hand of Fathma” keeps us safe from the evil eye and so do the fish.

The Moslem population did not bother us and we were on friendly terms with everyone. They were, in their own country, the silent majority. Jews were respected and were highly ranked professionally. In fact the Bey’s private doctor was Jewish. However, one evening all the neighbors looked scared and we had to hide in the basement of our building. The Germans had invaded Tunis. I asked my mother if there would be nursery school the day after. I think that we stayed home for a while. My bachelor uncles were sent to hard labor camps while a few young men preferred to hide in the countryside. As a result of the food shortage at that time, hunger sent us to bed with stomachs half full. My father along with a few of his friends would rent a truck, drive to Algeria and come back the same day with lots of bags of potatoes.

I know now that the German army was planning to build concentration camps and the only thing that saved us was the lack of railroads to transport masses of people to them. I remember the bombs falling very close to our house, but thankfully nothing of ours was damaged. We were required to give our radios and other items to the Germans. The English, followed by the Americans liberated Tunis and the rest of North Africa in. When President Habib Bourguiba returned from exile in France, it was a day of celebration. With a few of my close friends I joined the crowd to welcome him. As a result, our French boss fired us. After having to find a new job, I was offered a secretary position by the Minister of Communications to Habib Bourguiba, Mr. Bechir Ben Yahmed. He insisted on teaching me the use of all the machines and I was responsible for keeping in touch, via Telex, with our employer when he was out of the country. I was treated like a princess. The business included selling FIAT cars and all the employees received a great discount. I was able to buy one car on my salary and my cousin did the same. I think that I was one of the only young girls in Tunis to have her own car.

Talk about ending the French Protectorate produced a great deal of tension and confrontation. This talk led to a few members of my family immigrating to France and Israel. When they left, they could only take the equivalent of 20 dollars and one suitcase. In 1962, I decided to join my brothers who were students in Geneva, Switzerland. Arriving there without money made it very hard but my brother’s friends helped me until I found a job. I experienced a great deal of culture shock! In Geneva, I met my future husband who was a PH.D. student at the time. In 1968 he got a position in the US and we moved to Ohio. My husband died in 1995 so I followed my younger son to Palo Alto, California. My older son and his wife live on the east cost.

I believe that some of us who left our country of origin miss the quiet and pleasant life that we once had. Since we lived in European colonies and had good relations with them, we lived in nice buildings with all the commodities for a very comfortable life. If our maid, babysitter, and cook were Moslem, we got along perfectly well with them and liked them a lot. During the High Holidays we attended the splendid synagogue in Tunis with the crowd spilling outside on the streets, without any fear. Our friends were all Jewish and the Italian and French attended private French schools with French teachers. I do not remember seeing Tunisian born students in my school which left them without education since public schools did not exist until much later.

1967 was a very hard year. Jews were attacked in the streets, and the synagogue was burned. My mother’s building was set on fire and the “haj” (concierge) saved her life. She then decided to flee to France, leaving her building and all of her belongings behind.

In 2000 my son wanted to visit the country where I was born. He liked it a lot, but for me it was very sad to return and I really didn’t want to go knowing that I would be disappointed. Everything had changed – the beaches were crowded, a trolley was build in the middle of the main avenue and the streets felt like total chaos. The taxi driver could not even find the street where we lived because the names were different. The Great Synagogue was heavily guarded by soldiers for safety; however we enjoyed our trip and bought many souvenirs. In the south, specifically on the island of Djerba, the scene remained as beautiful as it always was – untouched by the changes sweeping the rest of the country.

When I compare our life with the life of Jews in other Arab countries, ours seems wonderful, peaceful, and friendly. We try to keep contact with other Tunisians through a Tunisian website, “”. We would like to save our heritage, Judeo-Arab language, and memories.