I pen this article on June 10, 2015, the 48th anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Relations had never normalized after the 1948 War of Independence, and dangerously heightened tensions led up to the battles fought between June 5 and June 10. After obliterating Egypt’s air force and vanquishing its ground forces, Israel went on to seize control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt), the West Bank and East Jerusalem (from Jordan), and the Golan Heights (from Syria).
As this miraculous victory being was celebrated in Israel, the small community of Jews remaining in Egypt suffered. The advent of the war prompted Egyptian authorities to knock on the doors of nearly all the Jewish houses in the country and round up some 600 men between the ages of 16 and 60, whom they held as “Israeli POWs.” Although the war ended in six days, some of these POWs – Ezra Halawani, a”h, among them – were held in primitive and overcrowded prison conditions for three years.
In this exclusive WWW interview, Baltimorean Vicki Halawani Vogel shares how the the Six-Day War changed her life in Egypt.
My father’s family dates back to the mid-1400s, in Tzfat. My paternal ancestors left Spain before the Inquisition, in 1456. My mother’s family came from Istanbul, Turkey. Both my father, Ezra Halawani, a”h, and my mother, Chava/Yvette Halawani, a”h, were born in Egypt, as were my siblings and myself. My maternal grandfather was from Greece and my maternal grandmother from Turkey; she came to Egypt in a boat with her parents at the age of three.
When I was growing up, most of the Egyptian Jews were successful businessmen, including my father. We lived in a prominent neighborhood in Cairo. I remember my childhood home vividly. There was a living room and a dining room. My father had a contractor break the wall between them to make one very large dining room to accommodate all our guests. There was one large room for the children, a master bedroom, a long kitchen, and long bathroom. My father installed a small sink in the hallway of the kitchen and bathroom so that we could wash negel vasser outside the bathroom and also to give the guests access to an additional washing station besides the kitchen, which was very, very busy with the food preparation.
There was also a hallway when you entered the apartment. That hallway had a large built-in bookcase for sefarim; my father’s precious library was comprised of sefarim from all over the world. I used to wake up on Shabbos mornings to my father’s sweet melody of layning the parsha: shnayim mikrah ve’echad targum. I will never forget the special secure and comforting feeling of growing up in a loving home that made Torah so sweet to me. When the Six-Day War broke out, I was eight years old. My brothers were ten, seven, and four.
There was a very important government building right near our apartment. The main shul, Shaar Hashamayim, was a short distance from my home. My parents were very big on hachnasas orchim. We had Shabbos and Yom Tov guests on a regular basis. Often there were 30 to 40 guests at a time. The gabbai used to announce in shul that it was open house by my family, and everyone was welcome to join us for the Shabbos or Yom Tov meals.
My father provided my mother with four maids to help with the household chores and children. Most of the maids went home for the night and returned the next morning. My happiest childhood memories were from Egypt. Yiddishkeit was a privilege, and I truly felt like a bas melech (princess). I felt different – special and privileged to be Jewish. The Jews spoke mostly French among themselves and their children. We did not mingle with the goyim. My home and my shul were the two main focuses of my life. That’s where I grew physically and spiritually.
The Egyptian government was respectful to the Jews, their religion, and their place of worship. The government guarded the shul with soldiers on Shabbos and especially on Yamim Tovim. I never felt or knew of any anti-Semitism. Parents never spoke of government politics to their children; politics spoken in public or in private would arouse suspicions of espionage. This would put the whole family in great danger and possibly annihilation. We had freedom of religion, and fairness in legal practices and business dealings, but never politics. Nasser, Egypt’s president at the time, would say that he did not hate Jews - he hated Israel. I never even knew that Israel was geographically so close to Egypt. It was never a topic of discussion.
The day was Monday, June 5, 1967, the 26th day of Iyar. It was during sefira,10 days before Shavuos. The schools ended the year on that day and sent all the children home. I arrived home a little confused, not really understanding what was taking place. It was midday; my father was home and my mother was cooking lunch. I was so happy to be home with my family and started to show my father my report card and end-of-the-year prizes when the door bell rang. Two government officials dressed in civilian clothing entered our home. They asked my father to go with them to the police station for 15 minutes – 15 minutes that would turn into three long years in an internment camp.
I understood what was about to happen, so I dropped to the ground and held one of my father’s legs extremely hard in order for the officials not to take him way. They threatened that if he doesn’t get me off of him, they would drag him away. At that point, my mother was in the back of the apartment busy with lunch and not aware of what was taking place in the dining room. My father tapped me on my shoulder and told me in French to go get my mother. I was hesitant to leave him but I listened and ran to the kitchen to get my mother. By the time we came out, the officials had already walked him out of the apartment. We saw my father from the top of the staircase while he was looking at us from the landing, 10 steps down. My father looked at my mother and told her, “Hashem is with you; take care of yourself and the children.” I was beside myself with pain and confusion. I found my father’s Shabbos shirt that was not washed yet. I took it and went to the corner of my bedroom, held it tight against my chest, and cried quietly into it. I remember soaking it with my tears. After that I started to talk to Hashem. That was my survival technique during the war. Those words are still ringing in my ears 48 years later: “Hashem is with you.” Those are the words that helped me survive the war and its aftermath, and move on with my life with the true feeling of Hashem being at my side all the time.
Those three years were very difficult for everyone, but my mother used to say that the three months of not knowing if he was alive were worse than the three years. Rebbetzin Kamenetzky taught me that ayn simcha kefitron hasfeykus – there is no joy like the removal of doubt. Once my mother found out that my father was alive, life was more bearable.
My father and the rest of the internees made the best of their situation in the camp. They spent their day learning Torah and playing sports to stay fit. The families were allowed to visit once a month for one hour. That was the most precious hour of the month for my family. We came to visit in our finest Shabbos clothing We brought homemade cooked food and whatever else that we were allowed to bring, like sefarim and clothing. My mother had tremendous mesirus nefesh during the war in making sure that my father received kosher food and taking care of all her children’s physical and spiritual needs. I always daven that I should be as good a person as my mother was.
Eventually, my father and his friends had to learn to cook for themselves in order to survive. My father refused the treif food that he was offered. He survived on dirty rice that was full of rocks. When we saw my father for the first time, after three months, he had lost a lot of weight and some of his teeth and his hair from malnutrition. He was 45 years old. In the prison we spoke about our days, our schooling, and other happenings in our lives. We kids were all over my father. We just did not want to let go of him! I remember one time in the prison, after our visit, that I did not want to leave. I begged my father to let me stay with him. I even asked him to speak to the guard to give me special permission. Of course, that never materialized. My love for my father and the void that I felt made the whole experience of the visit just exhilarating.
My father was a tremendous kiddush Hashem in the camp. His behavior towards his fellow man and his Creator were exemplary! He used to counsel the younger Jewish boys, ages 16 and up, to give them chizuk (strength) and help them deal with the gezeira (Heavenly decree). He encouraged them to daven, learn, and talk to Hashem about their pain. The officials used to torture them in front of their fathers if they questioned their situation and made noise. My father had to convince them to refrain from those things as a mitzva of kibud av, honoring their fathers – that way, the fathers would be spared the pain of watching their young sons being tortured.
During the years my father was in prison, we continued to go to shul. In shul, you would see young children, mothers, and much older men, who were not taken by the government. The shul was almost empty. After davening, the children all lined up to receive a bracha from the Chacham, Rav Chaim Douek. He was the chief rabbi of Cairo. After the bracha, the children went to the huge, gorgeous aron kodesh, put their hands on the thick glass doors, and said their private words to Hashem. I remember always asking Hashem to keep us safe and get my father out of prison.
In January, 1970, we celebrated my oldest brother’s bar mitzva in shul without my father. That was the bo bayom. After shul, my mother packed a whole seuda, and we went off to celebrate with my father in the camp. My brother layned in prison for my father. All the prisoners made a beautiful lechaim, wishing for the liberation in the zechus of the bar mitzva boy. That summer of 1970, all the prisoners were liberated.
The prisoners left by plane to Paris, without their families. The families followed their loved ones a few months later. In Paris, each family had to wait for their immigration number to be able to discuss their future plans. We waited there, in a hotel, for seven months; then, we left to the United States. Our first home was in Philadelphia.
We left Egypt right after I turned 12. I always said that it was my bas mitzva gift: a second yetzias Mitzrayim (Exodus from Egypt), baruch Hashem! I think it’s very hard for most people to leave their homeland, but in my case it was bittersweet because of the turn of events. I felt very happy to reunite with my father and be part of a full family again, baruch Hashem!
It has been 48 years, thanks to Hashem’s kindness and miracles, that Israel was victorious in the Six-Day War. The first day of the war was the 26th of Iyar – which is the gematria (numerical value) of Hashem’s name: Hashem was with klal Yisrael, helping them on that fateful day. And on the 28th of Iyar – 28 is the gematria of koach (strength) – Hashem infused His soldiers with strength and gave us the Kosel, which had been in Jordanian hands for 19 years.