Fifty Years Later
by Jocelyne Shrago
This article has been written by Jocelyne Shrago who has recently had a reunion of family and friends that she had known in Algeria, a country that she was born in, but had to leave 50 years ago.
I have just returned from a memorable visit to Israel.
I was born in Algiers, Algeria. We lived in a district called Bab el Oued - the gate to the river. I don't know where my ancestors originated but in 1848 they settled in Tunisia, then moved to Algeria. They were traders and shopkeepers. They lived amongst the Moslems and the Europeans from Spain, Italy, Corsica, Portugal. I suppose the Europeans came to enjoy a better life in a country similar to their own. By 1950 they worked in the capital city, Algiers. They were civil servants, bankers, teachers. We all lived in flats, went to the same schools and had a French education, spoke French used a French passport to visit France, Spain or elsewhere.
My father was a postmaster and as a civil servant was allowed a free boat ride to France every other year. We went to visit relatives or to the Alps or other mountains. We were not rich but we managed. The most important thing in our life was FAMILY. We went on outings to the beach or to picnics in the forest together, three or four cars at a time. The Jewish population was part of the European population.
We celebrated the Jewish Holidays together. Our daily help brought us delicacies at Ramadan, our Christian friends wished us "Happy New Year" and we sent them biscuits and cakes at Purim.
The Jews had special customs for their Holidays. I remember walking in the streets the day after Seder night and seeing the bitter herbs which had been thrown out of the windows. For Rosh Hashana we went to the shochet who killed one chicken per member of the family plus one for the poor (this custom still exists with my family in France). Jewish weddings lasted for days. Firstly, the Henna party when friends and family came to wish the bride and groom good fortune, put a piece of henna into the palms of their hands with a gold coin and tied a red ribbon around. The bridegroom's family brought presents for the women: slippers, perfume, gold bracelets for the bride.
There was singing and dancing and eating homemade patisseries. On the day of the wedding musicians came to serenade the bride at home and in the street. Women were ululating -youyous for good luck. My sister had such a wedding in Algiers; her daughter had a similar one in Marseilles ...
In 1954 our life changed. The Algerians wanted their independence. There followed a bitter and bloody war. There were three factions: the Arabs, the Army and the OAS - people like us who did not want to leave Algeria and were against the other two. There were bombs, grenades, shootings, killings. We were afraid to go out much - the youngsters could not meet their friends in cafes or cinemas.
There were demonstrations, sometimes bloody; we were constantly listening to the news. There was a curfew and a deep mistrust between the Arabs and the Europeans.
Finally in March 1962 the Algerians got their independence. My parents and I had already left in January. Everywhere the slogan was "La valise ou le cercueil" - the suitcase or the coffin. The Europeans had no choice but to flee. 1.5 million Europeans, including 150,000 Jews, took the boats to Marseilles with just a suitcase and photographs to remind them of their past life. School friends disappeared. Families descended on other family members. Children were sent to boarding schools in France. It was chaotic, it was sad, it was heart-breaking.
Our life was turned upside-down and we were not welcomed in France. We were "Les Pieds Noirs" - The Black Feet. In Algeria we used to talk loudly, make big gestures, we laughed a lot and helped each other. The French lived indoors; they were cold, calculated and resentful.
Time went on. We calmed down, worked hard and rebuilt our lives, at least our parents did. We, the children lost contact with almost all our old friends and made new ones.
FAST FORWARD to 2011 when two brothers in Israel decided it was time to have a Reunion fifty years after we left the country of our Ancestors. It was to be held in Netanya 5-12 February 2012. I signed up immediately.
I met up with two friends and others I had not known. We let our hair down and for a week we were back in a familiar atmosphere. We sang, we danced, we talked of the past and marvelled at the wonder of Israel. Some were on their first visit. Some were not even Jewish.
We had a great time.