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Jews, almost extinct in Egyptian city Alexandria

By Ellen Hale - 2002, Source: USA Today

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- The wood cabinets in the records room at Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue sag under the weight of dozens of mammoth leather-bound logbooks. At his desk, 62-year-old Victor Balassiano, the youngest Jew left in Alexandria, leafs through one of them.

Here, in 1888, he points out, was a marriage. There, the birth of a baby boy. This, a death. In spidery handwriting and fading ink, the pages tell the story of the life and history of a community.

But the recent books are mostly blank. A birth hasn't been recorded in nearly two decades; there are only deaths -- and of those, just a handful. In antiquity, Alexandria was one of the greatest Jewish cultural capitals of the world, in modern times a vibrant home to 40,000. Today, the Jewish community is for all practical purposes extinct in this city of 3 million people.

Jews were driven out by the thousands in the decades after World War II. The few hundred left behind have dwindled to a minuscule community on the verge of dying off. The story of the logbooks is the story of the disappearing Jews of Alexandria.

"The number of pure Jews left today? You can count them on two hands," Balassiano says, and proceeds to do so. "Me, my wife, Dr. Salame, Sarah Cohen . . . " At eight, he stops.

As the last Jews of Egypt disappear, the legacy of their history here seems doomed to vanish, too. Jews who fled the country are claiming their right to the scrolls, documents and even the information in Balassiano's record books that they were forced to forfeit when they left. Egypt has refused the requests. It claims the artifacts belong to the country under its antiquities laws.

At least 100 old Torah scrolls remain in Egypt, about half of them stored in less than ideal conditions. One stash of artifacts remains in boxes at the airport in Cairo, where it was confiscated as a returning Egyptian Jew tried to take the artifacts out of the country.

"The government is holding these things hostage," says Desire Sakkal, president of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, headquartered in Brooklyn.

"We left so much behind," says Sakkal, who fled Egypt in 1962.

Up until the 10th century, 90% of the Jews in the world lived in what are now Arab countries. But perhaps no place had as distinctive and rich a Jewish legacy as Alexandria. From the time the city was founded more than 2,300 years ago by Alexander the Great until 40 years ago, Jews played a prominent role in establishing it as a center of culture and enlightenment.

In ancient times, a third of its population was Jewish, and for centuries it served as the birthplace and home of many of the religion's leading thinkers, writers and poets. Philo, the first Jewish philosopher, was from Alexandria; the 12th-century sage Maimonides lived and wrote here for a time.

Until the second half of the 20th century, as many as 40,000 Jews lived in Alexandria in a prosperous cosmopolitan community that, though not integrated with the Muslim population, lived peaceably with it. They set up hospitals, schools, homes for the aged and charity programs, and they ran many of the city's successful businesses. Even today, although ramshackle and rundown, the grand department stores still bear the names of their Jewish founders: Cicurel, Benizon, Chamla.

But after the creation of Israel in 1948, and in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli wars, thousands of Jews fled Egypt. Others were evicted, or arrested and interned. Bank accounts were frozen, businesses confiscated and property seized.

Ada Aharoni's family, whose roots stretch to the 16th century, was evicted in 1949, allowed to take the equivalent of $40 and a few personal belongings. "I took my favorite doll, the one with a porcelain head," recalls Aharoni, a poet who now lives in Israel. "They cracked it open to look for money."

After King Farouk was toppled in 1952, Arab nationalism and anti-Jewish sentiment increased. New laws made it virtually impossible for Egyptian Jews to work in government or run their businesses. By 1975, the Jewish population in Egypt had shrunk to 200; small communities were left only in Cairo and Alexandria.

In Alexandria, where once there were 16 synagogues, only the Eliyahu Hanavi remains. The others were sold, torn down and built over, or locked under government guard. The mansions of the wealthy Jews were sold or seized, the schools taken over and now used for Muslim students.

No one knows what will happen to the remaining property when the last of Alexandria's Jews die, nor can they predict the fate of the antiquities that bear proof of a society that thrived for generations.

"Everything Jewish . . . will disappear unless there is some kind of remarkable turnaround," says Charles Hill, professor of international relations at Yale University. "Many Muslims want any memory of that society to just disappear."

At Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, Balassiano pauses among the carved wood pews that bear bronze plaques carrying the names of the city's old Jewish families. The marble synagogue, on Naby Daniel Street in the colorful Attarine district in old Alexandria, is said to be one of the most beautiful in the Middle East. It seats nearly 1,000. But in addition to Balassiano, there are only two other Jewish men left in Alexandria -- far short of the 10 needed to hold a minyan, or prayer group. For religious holidays, men are flown in from Israel to make up a minyan.

Though he has lived tranquilly with his Muslim neighbors for decades, there are so few Jews left here and political tensions run so high that Balassiano and the last of the city's Jews keep a quiet profile. He doesn't tell people he is Jewish; his children didn't either, when they lived here. Balassiano's son has moved to Israel. Last year, his daughters moved to Boston to attend Northeastern University. He doubts they will ever come home, because home, he says, no longer exists in Alexandria.

"They are happy there, and they will not find any work here. Besides, they will never be able to marry and raise a family in Egypt," Balassiano says.

"Who will be here after me? I have been asking myself this for years now. Only God knows."