My life in Abu
Zaabal and Tora
Revised 10 -30-2004
Elie A. Kheder
We would like to thank
our members in Egyjews
discussion group for contributing this story and making it available to
Internment in the Egyptian Concentration Camp, during the Six Day War "
I like to share with the forum
a story, a life story of my younger brother Marc.
For many years we have asked
Marc to write about his experience in Egypt, and for many times he declined,
he did so due to the bad memories he carried... a scar he did not want to
Two weeks ago, Marc decided to
celebrate his dedication to be a Hazzan , he
self taught the Hebrew and led the whole congregation that day for the
Shabbat service, all alone, reading straight from the Torah !.. How proud we
all were !
Few days later he sent me the
following; titled "let the whole world know". Some might relate to but for
others might be a little hard to relive.
Marc is a simple man and I love
him dearly, I know he went through lot of agonies documenting and reliving
these memories,... but what he wrote came
straight from the heart !
You might like to jump straight
to : My Internment in the Egyptian Concentration
Camp, during the Six Day War.
Elie A. Kheder
This is my life.
By Marc Khedr
The First Part deals a little bit
about my family and me and the Second Part is the story of my internment at
Abu Zaabal and Tora
My name is Mourad Amin Khedr. My
father's name is Amin Khedr Vita
Maatouk, My mother's name is
Gracia David Dabbah.
When we came to the USA we changed our
names, David and I kept the last name as Khedr.
The Kheder family consists of five
My older brother's name is Elie, we
call him Lili.
I am Mourad. They call me Marco or Marc.
My sister Fortune, we call her Touna.
David, we call him Doudou, he was 16 when I was
taken to the concentration camp, He was a great help to all of us in the
camp, visiting us twice a week and helping other families outside the camp.
And the last one is my youngest brother, Joe and we call him,
I was born in Cairo, Egypt, November
26, 1946 in the Sakakini area. In 1958, we moved
to a nicer neighborhood, called Midan el
Tahrir right in the center of Cairo. I studied
at "Lycee' Français"
in Daher and obtained the "E3dadeyah"
( Junior High School diploma). Then I went to
"Institute Salesiano Don
Bosco", an Italian trade School in Rod el Farag (a Cairo
neighborhood). There, I graduated in 1965 from the Mechanical Section. I
also went to the "Leonardo da Vinci" School of
hired me as a teacher, where I worked for two years. My starting salary was
18 Egyptian pounds per month (roughly under $3 present value). It climbed to
23 Egyptian pounds, which, at the time, made me feel very rich.
In April, 1967, a few months before
the Six Day War, my older brother- Elie, loosing hope in finding any job for
a Jew after graduating from college left to the USA via France. My family
intended to follow him shortly after that, due to the continuance anti
Semitism and economic squeeze on the remaining few Jews in Egypt in
addition, Nasser was threatening war against Israel, something which worried
us very much.
A few months later, in June, the Six
Day War began between Israel and the Arabs My father and I were sent to the
concentration camps for three years and 3 months, first at a camp called Abu
Zaabal, then in one called
Tora, just outside Cairo. We were released in 1970, given a French
entry visa and taken directly to Cairo airport leaving to Paris, France,
with only the shirts
on our backs.
There, I worked for three months
in a clothes warehouse for a monthly salary of 800 French Francs (roughly
In January 1971, before immigrating to
America, my family visited Israel for two weeks. We were reunited with my
uncles and aunts whom we didn’t see for over 20 years.
In America, we went to San Francisco
because of the large number of Egyptian Jews. The Jewish Community put us in
a hotel on Vanness St. I also found a job with
my younger brother, David, at Fritzi of
California, a clothing manufacturer owned by a Jew who was committed in
helping emigrant Jews. I went to night school to learn electrical and gas
welding and auto mechanics.
After few months it got boring and
wrote a letter to the Jewish Federation to do Aliyah.
My mother found out and took all my mail so I wouldn't leave. Meanwhile, she
started talking to Aziza
Moussa regarding her daughter, Bella Moussa
Pessah and we got engaged. I was 26 years old and she was 18. On June 22,
1974, we got married and now have two boys and a girl--- Victor, Isabel and
In 1982, Fritzi
closed the department I worked in and I was laid off. I then worked in a
foreign car repair shop, called Enzo's on Bush
St., I worked for free for the first four months and when I was more
experienced, the owner hired me as a "Mechanic Helper" for $8 an hour. I
worked there for two years until the business was sold. Then I worked for
Quality Tune Up for another two years after which I became one of the
franchisees and got my own shop in the corner of
Serramonte Blvd. and Gellert in Daly City
(San Francisco Bay Area). I managed the shop for the next ten years. I gave
the shop to my son Victor because he was interested in cars. He managed it
for 2 years then gave it up. He was only 21 years old and the stress was too
much for him. I am writing this to tell the story to my children and
grandchildren, our background history and from where we came.
We are Karaite Jews.
My Internment in Egyptian
Concentration Camp, during the Six Day War
Khedr Memories ( pictures from the concentration camp, and more )
On Tuesday, June 6
, at 2.00 am, I was sleeping next to my brother and suddenly my
mother was shaking me on my shoulder. "Wake up, wake up Marco." I put on my
clothes, half asleep and I didn't know what I was doing. The house was dark;
no lights and at the front door were two men. They said we were to come for
questions which wouldn't take long, only for a few minutes. They took me and
my father. We were taken outside to a waiting car which drove us to the
Abdin prison in downtown Cairo. I was only 19
The prison cell was dark. At the door,
a guard was standing. The door had a strong metal bar at the top, as a
safety measure against escape. Inside the cell, we saw a few more Jews,
about 8 or more. The cell was smelly like sh..t,
stifling heat, no air, dark. We heard the sound of bombs. We gave the guard
one Egyptian pound (20 cents, a lot at that time) just so he could open the
door for five minutes and allow fresh air in from the outside. Next morning,
around 10.00 am, we were taken to a big, green, army truck and on to the
concentration camp. The truck stopped in front of a big building which, I
found out later, was the famous Abu Zaabal
concentration camp. I heard wailing and loud voices coming from inside. I
was very scared. I didn't know where I was and couldn't believe what was
happening to me. My heart started beating strongly and I started to
perspire. We were taken to a big gate, through it we saw a large table,
three soldiers sitting. We formed a line and one by one, approached the
table. One of the soldiers said: "Ya yahoudi ya
ibn il Kalb,
esmak eh", "You Jew, son of a dog, what's your
name?" We then emptied our pockets and given sackcloth to wear, a blanket
and an aluminum plate. No knives or forks. We had to eat with our hands. The
building was two stories high: the Jewish prisoners were on the second floor
and the Moslem Brotherhood and anti Nasser Egyptians and Palestinians from
Gaza (who were supposedly collaborators with Israel), were on the first
floor. I went to the second floor and I was shocked. There were people,
young and old, running round and round a small yard, like dogs, and behind
them, a soldier beating them with a big belt. They were screaming. It was my
turn to run. It felt like a bad dream! You heard the voices scream, "Down
with Israel. Long live Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Palestine is Arab. Down with the Jews and with the Zionists", repeated over
and over. We were then taken to our cell, which was made for 20
persons, although 60 were crammed in it. The room was 25ft by 30ft with one
toilet and two small, square windows on the ceiling. The cell had a metal
door. The floor was made of white tile. We were all Jews. The first thing we
did was to introduce ourselves. I didn't know anyone. Night time came. We
had nothing to eat. We heard the bombs. It was very dark. We wanted to sleep
but couldn't, mainly because we were stuffed together like sardines, very
close to each other. Each person had enough space for about two and half
tiles. The other person's feet were in your face. If you wanted to pass by
to go to the bathroom, you had to step over several bodies and by the time
you returned, your place was already taken by someone else! Morning time
came. There was a daily routine. First, we were ordered to sing stupid songs
like "Down with Israel. Down with Zionism.
Palestine is Arab. Long live Gamal Abdel
Nasser." Then we had to run around a circle while one of the guards swung
his belt at us. The Jewish prisoners were on the second floor of the
building, in rooms # 19 through 25. Breakfast consisted of "foul
medamess" (cooked fava beans) and bread,
a typical Egyptian meal. The food contained small stones and sand which
crunched in our teeth as we ate. Sometimes, we found cigarette butts in the
food, probably put there deliberately by the guards. On Thursday morning
June 9, (fourth day of the war), another large group of Jewish prisoners
(about 200 persons) arrived by train from Alexandria. They went through the
same procedure as we did.
Apparently, they were paraded in front
of the Egyptian people in the streets, as if they were Israeli prisoners.
They looked as if they had been beaten badly. We were divided in two groups
and taken outside to the yard where stones and rocks were scattered. No
talking was permitted. They asked us to separate the big rocks from the
small ones. There was no particular reason for this. All they wanted was to
keep us busy and humiliate us by forcing us to do meaningless work. The
routine was the same nearly every day. For lunch, we had rice, "foul
medamess", cheese, vegetable and sometimes,
There were around
400 Jews, in total at "Abu
Zaabal". The youngest was 17 years old and the oldest was 82. The
guards consisted of the "Kaed" or captain, and 3
officers, two of whom were very bad guys I still remember their names:
Essam. I will never forget their faces either. They were recent
graduates of the Army College and hated Jews. They showed us their muscles
in front of everybody and beat us for no reason. Whenever the news from the
warfront was not good for Egypt, we knew they were going to beat us. The
Moslem Brothers were allowed to receive newspapers, daily, including Al
Ahram and Al Goumhouria.
One of us, climbed to the highest window to be able to read the headlines,
which was in large print and in red. From the headlines we were able to tell
what was happening. In the first few days of the war, the headlines were
about Egypt's victories over the Israelis and the large number of Israeli
planes shot down. The news said that many Israeli prisoners, including
pilots, were captured. Knowing the Egyptian propaganda, we realized that all
this was just a bunch of lies.
One day, while I was running around
and the guard was hitting me with the belt, I suddenly felt sick and had to
stop. My heart was beating very hard like it was going to jump out from my
chest. The officer asked me if I had a heart problem and I said yes. I found
out, later, that my father had told the officer that I had a heart problem.
Because of that, I was transferred from Cell 20 to Cell 22 which was for
older prisoners. However, every time the guard saw me in that cell, he would
ask why I was with the older persons since I was much younger and "I looked
as strong as a horse or even a camel." Anyway, it was thanks to my father
that I was put with the older prisoners and thus avoided some of the
beatings. One day, we were asked to fill an application that allowed our
families to send us money for the prison "canteen." We could buy a limited
number of cigarettes, sardines, cheese, vegetables and watermelon. But since
we had no knife to cut the watermelon, we would drop it on the ground and it
would crack open. I used to trade cigarettes for food since I did not smoke.
One day, for dinner, we were given a bucket of soup to divide among us. But
after eating some of it, one of the prisoners told us there was a dead "rat"
in it. As it turned out, it was only a joke by David El
Gamil and "the rat" was only a part of eggplant. David El
Gamil was the funny one among us. He made us
feel better with his sense of humor, even in prison. David went to Israel
after he was released in 1970.
After eight months, we were
transferred to another concentration camp, "Tora",
which was much larger. Visitors were allowed once a month and I had my first
home meal when my mother came to visit us. All boxes containing food had to
be opened, which the guards inspected. They would take away any unusual
looking food and dump it in a bucket of water. Gradually we were allowed to
receive food every two weeks. We found out that by giving the guards
cigarettes or money, he would let the food boxes pass without opening them.
We rigged a small apparatus out of an empty can which allowed us to heat our
food (Towtow). We used cotton and cologne for
fuel. During the next two years, our condition improved. We were allowed to
leave our cells to go into the yard all day. We played soccer, exercised,
ran and even constructed a tennis court! In the evening, we would play poker
by using hand made cards from the packets of Belmont cigarettes. We would
draw the numbers by using red mercurochrome (a red-colored antiseptic) and
charcoal (from burnt pieces of wood). In the playground, Muslim and Jewish
prisoners mingled together. Strange, but we got along fine with little or no
conflict. We had one thing in common: We hated Nasser since he had
imprisoned and brutalized us all, Moslem and Jew.
One of the fellows from the Moslem
Brotherhood taught me how to do "crochet" with a pair of needles.
First, I had to make a needle from a piece of wood which I filed carefully.
Then, I would get thread from the sleeves of the sackcloth garment we wore.
I would then roll the thread into a ball and then knit myself a hat, gloves
or socks. In the playground, we exercised a lot.
Every morning, I would run and then
take a cold shower. Running around the inside of the camp was about three
quarters of a mile. The best runner among the prisoners was a thin, but,
powerful looking Muslim fellow. He could run 25 times around the camp and
was the camp champion. However, I practiced hard and was able to beat him,
thus becoming the champion. I was very proud of that accomplishment. The
Jewish prisoners played soccer against the Muslim prisoners and we beat them
3 goals to 2. I scored one of the goals. I was pleased with myself.
As the months and years passed, I was
very worried that we were never going to be released and was even thinking
of escaping. One day, we were taken by truck to court. The Judge told us the
reason we were in prison was because we were Zionist spies for Israel.
I remember one horrible event that
happened. One day, a guard demanded a young man to undress and to sodomize
his brother in front of their father who nearly had a heart attack. They
were from Alexandria. Another time, the guard found out that our "chammas"
was wearing striped underwear (or no underwear at all with only a pajamas
pants, I can't remember). He accused him of being "gay", a most awful insult
in Arab culture and beat him very hard. To make him stop, we gave the guard
In the prison, we needed money for
virtually everything-----bread, clothes, to open the door, to make a
mattress (using straw), special favors, etc. We purchased a small stove from
a Muslim prisoner. It was made from the cans of food we received---halvah,
"foul medamess" or vegetables. The "stove‚
worked well but had not screws and was not soldered together. The stove cost
us ten to fifty piasters, depending on the size,
a lot of money at the time. I made "prayer beads" from olive pits. I also
made a backgammon, dominos and checkers; they were made by mixing the dough
of the bread with water, then form them into the
desired shape. For color, I rubbed wet dirt on the game pieces, and then let
them dry in the sun.
By the third year in prison, we began
hearing rumors of our release. One day, an announcement was made and we were
divided into groups and mine was the last one to exit the gate. The Captain
was concerned that, upon our release, we would come back and bomb the
prison! He tried to be nice to us! We were taken directly to the airport
where we boarded a plane to Paris, because the French government agreed to
give us temporary asylum. We were greeted by HIAS, Hebrew Immigration Aid
Service, a wonderful organization which put us up
in Paris for 8 months till we obtained our U.S. entry visa. We arrived in
San Francisco in 1971 where we started our new life, in freedom and
security. It's good to be in America. I entered the concentration camp when
I was 19 years old promised only to be for few minutes and came out when I
was 22. Precious three years and three months were wasted.
I am writing this so that the whole
world knows what the Egyptian authorities did to us simply because we were
Jews, even Egyptian indigenous Jews who were in Egypt over three thousand
years before the Arabs invaded and conquered the whole Middle East in the
Marc Khedr, August 2002
Also of interest
Marc Khedr Memories
NASSER'S JEWS 1-2
Les Juifs de Nasser
Internees at Abu Zaabal and Tora Prison