The first time we attempted to escape Aleppo was shortly after the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine in November 1947. A powerful fear seized us and all the Jews in the city during the war, when we were compelled to cope with bitter experience of seeing the burning of our businesses, schools and synagogues, including the Central, or Great, Synagogue, which housed the ancient Aleppo Codex (the priceless manuscript of the Hebrew Bible created in Tiberias in the 10th century). Our family, who lived in a Muslim neighborhood and saw with our own eyes the torching of the Jewish-owned café opposite our home, and heard the angry crowds chanting that, “Palestine is our land, and the Jews are our dogs,” decided that there was no alternative but to try and flee Syria before it was too late.
It was decided that everyone in the family would put on the clothes of Arabs. My mother and we four girls wore veils; my father and the four boys also put on traditional Arab clothing. To further hide our Jewish identity, our parents assigned each of us an Arab name, like Fatma or Mohammed. We locked our house with all its contents and set out for the railway station in the hope of boarding the first train that would take us to Lebanon, and from there to the Land of Israel.
But immediately after we got on the train, the conductor announced that if there were Jews among the passengers they had to disembark immediately or face severe punishment. We had no choice and were forced to get off for fear we would be found out. That ended our first escape adventure – but not our ordeals. Fearing the pogroms would continue, our family joined other Jews in the home of a Christian family that had undertaken to protect us and others afraid for their lives. The image of the men standing and reciting Psalms for our salvation has never left my memory. After a time the situation calmed down somewhat and we were able to return to our home, though the urge to try again to leave Aleppo did not abate.
The desire to flee stemmed not only from existential fears but also from a potent affinity for Zionism that had informed our lives even before the war broke out in Palestine in 1948. My father, Kemal-Avraham Basul, had visited that land in 1934, when the rail line between Damascus and Haifa was still operating. The intention was to see whether it would be possible to immigrate with the family, but it didn’t work out at the time. Still, the longings for Zion did not diminish – for example, my father used to read us stories in Hebrew, like the one about little Yossi, who wanted to get to the Land of Israel. The tale fired our imaginations and touched us so deeply that our eyes and his welled up with tears each time he read it to us.
The true heroine of the family was our mother, Latifa-Adina, who had helped smuggle Jewish youths to the Land of Israel even before the War of Independence broke out. At night she would don a veil and visit Jewish homes where she collected teenage boys and girls and took them to a smuggler. During one of those rounds she smuggled out my sister Ilana, who was only 11, and my brother Shaul, who had just reached bar-mitzvah age.
From that moment, the aspiration to reach the Land of Israel assumed a strong personal-emotional dimension for us, especially now that contact with my brother and sister was almost completely cut off and the little information that reached us came via a third party and was very fragmented. After the armistice, in March 1949, my parents made another effort to smuggle out my sisters Sarah and Odette, as part of a general scheme to sneak the family out in stages, one by one. First the girls and thereafter, the younger brothers, Ezra, Yitzhak and David. One evening my sisters got dressed in many layers of clothing and were given food and money intended to get them through the initial obstacles. However, when the smuggler arrived to take them, my parents changed their minds and decided that they could not bear another parting.
The smuggling idea was also abandoned because such attempts became ever more dangerous as time passed – people caught trying to flee were thrown into prison and subjected to severe torture. One must bear in mind that as early as 1944 the Syrian government had prohibited Jews from leaving the country, and had ordered the death penalty or lengthy imprisonment for anyone caught in the act.
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In that state of affairs my parents started to consult about how to leave legally, which at that time seemed like a pipe dream. Nevertheless, they didn’t despair and tried to use connections they had in order to obtain the coveted passports. What helped was that my father was a teacher in an Arab school and his students had great respect for him, as per the well-known Arab saying, “I will be a slave to whoever will teach me even one letter.” After the outbreak of the War of Independence my father was given early retirement but nevertheless kept in touch with one of his students, who over the years had risen to prominence and become the governor of the city of Aleppo. My parents sought to take advantage of that connection to obtain passports.
On the eve of what would be our departure from Aleppo, in the winter of 1954, my father was in touch with the governor, and wonder of wonders, he helped us get valid Syrian passports. In return, my father had to agree to forgo his pension, as well as our house and all it contained. This was actually a singular case, in which Syrian passports were given to Jews: Although other Jewish families succeeded in leaving legally, they all held foreign passports from Iran or other countries. It must be noted, of course, that the reason my father’s former student acceded to our request for passports was that the destination we cited was not Israel but Turkey, which over the years had become a central transit point for Jews fleeing Aleppo.
The governor was very likely aware of our intention to get to Israel, but still agreed to help us not only to obtain authorized documents, but also with good advice. For example, he suggested that we keep our plans secret, even from our relatives and other members of the local Jewish community, and also advised us to lock the house and pretend we were going on an outing, so as not to arouse the neighbors’ suspicions. Moreover, he provided us with two cars that took us straight to the border with Turkey. We were met there by Turkish gendarmes who, when they saw the tarboosh my father was wearing, snatched it and threw it away angrily. Kemal Ataturk had of course banned that fez-like head covering as part of the modernization revolution he introduced with the establishment of modern Turkey.
So in that symbolic manner our saga in Syria came to an end. In Alexandretta-Iskenderun, we were met by Mossad agents who took our passports in order to forge others, so as to get additional Jewish families out of Syria. Very few were fortunate enough use the fake documents before the Syrian authorities got wind of them and put an end to the possibility of Syrian passports for Jews. As for us, after spending two months in Turkey, we reached Israel in April 1954, and were reunited with my sister and brother. Along with many other immigrants, we embarked on the well-known trajectory of the Sha’ar Aliyah transit camp in Haifa and later to permanent housing.
Prof. Ofra Bengio is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and head of its Kurdish studies program.