Ninette's luxury before her exodus from Egypt

Doreen Wachmann meets a lady who rebuilt her life after her country kicked her out

THE plight of Palestinian refugees is continually plastered across our media.

But not that of the near-million Jews evicted from Arab lands, who overcame their experiences of loss and dislocation and made lives for themselves in their host countries.

One woman who would like to help to set the record straight is Cairo-born Ninette Levy, now living in St Annes.

She was born in 1933 into a family of Anglo-Jewish ancestry who served Britain in the Middle East.

One of her paternal ancestors was chief physician to Queen Victoria, who was sent to Turkey as a physician to Turkish soldiers.

Her maternal great grandfather was the British ambassador to Turkey.

His Leeds-born son Albert Tarragano returned to Turkey as chief ships' chandler for the Turkish navy.

Ninette's mother, Berghe Eskenazi (nee Tarragano), whose grandfather was a rabbi in Turkey, was evacuated to Egypt with other British citizens during World War One.

Her husband Samuel Eskenazi went to Egypt with his mother after his silk trader father died.

Joining the British army, he served as chief interpreter to Field Marshal Allenby in Palestine, after which he served in the British Intelligence Service till his exodus from Egypt.

Although Ninette's parents were very supportive of their synagogue and charities within the Jewish community, they were extremely well-integrated into the top echelons of Egyptian society, having friends in high places.

Consequently, as she was growing up Ninette initially did not believe in Judaism, thinking it was "just a world of show".

Yet the Eskenazis themselves enjoyed a very luxurious lifestyle.

Ninette recalled: "My father was into all the new gadgets like wireless and gramophones."

Ninette was sent to a Christian English mission school.

She said: "I had no Hebrew education - only poor Jews went to Jewish schools.

"The wealthier ones went to either French or mission schools."

In fact, at around 11 Ninette was on the point of converting to Christianity.

She said: "I wanted to become a missionary in Africa."

However, fortunately her grandmother intervened and took her to an "excellent" rabbi who persuaded her to change her mind.

She recalled: "He told me that Jesus was a Jew and that Christianity was for non-believers to make them like Jews.

"He said that you don't have to be Christian to do good deeds and that we can ask God for favours and don't need to go through Jesus. He brought it home to me when he said that I wouldn't go to my brother to ask my father for pocket money for me.

"After that I became very Jewish."

But other Jewish girls were not so lucky and many converted to Christianity, including Ninette's best friend and all her family.

Ninette tried to stem the rapid rate of conversion by telling her classmates' parents what was happening and some were withdrawn from the school.

Ninette, who was top of her class, stayed on and gained a university scholarship to study English literature.

In her spare time, she attended Maccabi which, in Cairo, was a Zionist organisation preparing young Jews for aliyah.

Ninette would have gone to Israel, but her father put her off. She said: "My father was not a Zionist. He was more a European. He did not want to leave his cushy life.

"If we were not later kicked out, I doubt whether he would have left."

During the Israeli War of Independence, Maccabi had to go underground. Nevertheless, the authorities managed to get hold of the organisation's records. Its leaders were imprisoned and deported.

Even 15-year-old Ninette was arrested. But she was fortunate to have as her godfather a senior judge who arranged her release within hours.

Because of her Jewish identity, Ninette was unable to work on graduation. But, as a keen language student interested in music, she was content to further her interests.

Financially well-cared for, she said: "I never worked in Egypt. I did not need to."

That was until, as British citizens, her family was deported in 1956 with only 50 to their name.

Her father, who was still working for the British Intelligence, was imprisoned before his eventual deportation.

The events surrounding the family's deportation were so traumatic that it is only recently that Ninette has been able to speak about them.

Last March, she revisited Cairo for the dedication of the city's Rambam Synagogue.

She said: "When I left Egypt an iron curtain descended and blocked almost all my memories.

"I still cannot remember the streets I walked.

"It was the same horrific effect that I felt when I visited Cairo for the first time since my departure in 1956.

"I cried from the moment I landed at the airport until I left.

"I just could not remember much, no matter how hard I tried."

The little she did remember were practical details.

With her mother and brother under house arrest, it was left to Ninette to dash around Cairo in order to try and transfer the family's valuables into transportable items.

In the streets, she would be rudely jeered at by Arabs as she went on her massive shopping spree.

Boarding ship with her mother helplessly weeping and younger sister Lisette clutching her doll "as though her life depended on it", the family's cases were ransacked.

And Ninette was subjected to a physical search which left her "limp with shame and horror".

The ship set sail for Italy from where the family made their way to England.

They were at first housed in a former prisoner-of-war camp in Kidderminster.

After a month, they settled in Birmingham where they were joined by Ninette's recently released father.

Fluent in four languages, Ninette was able to earn good money, working for the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.

After marrying her first husband, the couple settled in Manchester's Didsbury where Ninette gave birth to her three children and worked as chief interpreter for the CID.

In 1966, the family moved to Southport where Ninette ran a jewellery business and was active in the League of Jewish Women.

After nearly 30 years of marriage, Ninette divorced and married her second husband, Isadore Levy. Sadly, he died last summer.

In 1999 they moved to St Annes to be near daughter Danielle, who lives in Blackpool.

In St Annes, Ninette is very active in voluntary work, having run a social circle for five years and an Emunah charity shop, as well as working for the League of Jewish Women, Macmillan Cancer Support and monitoring local hospital departments.

But since her recent visit back to Cairo, Ninette has become increasingly involved in work to gain international recognition for the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

She says: "We only hear about the plight of the Palestinian refugees.

"In fact, we too were refugees!"

She has told of her experiences to the British Association of Jews from Egypt and is contributing to a book entitled Ma Sortie d'Egypte, to be published by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries which was recently successful in gaining compensation in Israel for these refugees and is now taking the matter to the European Parliament.

Ninette is appealing to her fellow Egyptian refugees to contribute to the book to record their "individual histories for the sake of Am Israel history".

She says: "We have gone through so much suffering without the world hearing about it.

"It is about time we set the record straight."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph