Interviewee: André Toueg
Interviewer: Diogo Bercito
Location: São Paulo, Brazil (Virtual Zoom Interview)
Language: Portuguese (Transcript translated by Bercito)
Length of Interview: 32:14
Description: 72 years old, Toueg was born in Cairo to a Jewish family. His family hailed from countries like Libya, Syria, Italy, and Spain. They migrated to Brazil in 1958, due to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies against minorities, including the Jewish community. Toueg narrates his life in São Paulo, where he joined local youth Zionist movements and found new identities. He never returned to Cairo.
Interviewer – Could you tell me your name, your date of birth, and the place where you were born?
Interviewee – Yes. Good morning. I was born in Cairo. My name is André Toueg. And I was born in August 1949.
Interviewer – On what day, André?
Interviewee – August 27.
Interviewer – Tell me a little bit about your family. Where does the Toueg family come from, the last name? Was the family in Egypt for a long time? What is the family’s history?
Interviewee – The family, according to what was told to us, was [in Egypt] for a few generations. Maybe two generations. My maternal grandfather came from Syria. My paternal grandfather came from Libya. The grandmothers, one from Italy and one from Spain, as they told us, to get married.
Interviewer – And do you know why the family had ended up in Egypt? Were they looking for opportunities? Is there a specific reason besides marriage?
Interviewee – I think it was because of the relative peace at that moment to the Jewish community, which had been there for some tens of generations. Because Egypt was a very secular, cosmopolitan country. So they decided [to go].
Interviewer – What did your parents do? What kind of work did they do? What was more or less the family’s social status, André?
Interviewee – The social status was moderate. My father was an employee of the private sector. My mom did not work outside. My father had a good mastery of languages. He spoke Italian, Spanish fluently, and of course, French as a maternal tongue. [Inaudible] my sister and I were born. Our education was in the French lycée. I would say, really, a middle-class family living from my father’s wage.
Interviewer – Do you know in which part of Cairo you lived in those years, in which neighborhood?
Interviewee – Yes. We lived some blocks from the Nile river bank. Opposite the hotel. There was an international hotel, of an American brand. We lived in the opposite bank. The club was in the hotel’s bank. To go to school, we needed to cross the Nile. Our education began only in primary school, where we — my sister and I — were alphabetized in French.
Interviewer – What memories do you have of Egypt? Any specific memory? Anything you remember well?
Interviewee – I have memories, yes. I have memories of an agitated night in which Cairo was burned in a political act. I was very small, three or four years old. I have memories of street demonstrations, nationalist demonstrations. Of course, the military had already taken power. When my consciousness began, Gamal Abdel Nasser was already in power and there was some-thing sui generis. My mom had been a school colleague of his wife. So that in a certain moment, when they heard of our departure — because it was already intolerable to remain, my parents had decided to migrate — the spouse of Gamal Abdel Nasser insisted that we stayed, giving us guarantees of good treatment, etc. But the decision had been taken. Mid-1957, after the Sinai campaign of 1956, we departed.
Interviewer – Basically because of the problems with the government. The decision was taken because it was intolerable.
Interviewee – Yes. Besides, it was already intolerable to remain there. The situation only got worse, event after event, to the Jewish community. It only got a bit better for those who had remained and those who had come back after the peace agreement. But it is not a country in which today there is a comfortable community.
Interviewer – Did your parents, your father, lose his job, got any property confiscated, was there any episode of violence?
Interviewee – No. Nothing was confiscated. However, all that the family had had to be sold, to be returned, or rent interrupted, and it was like that that we prepared ourselves in two or three months and departed. I was seven years old.
Interviewer – Why Brazil, out of all options? For example, why not Israel or Europe?
Interviewee – Yes. Israel could have been an option, for my father’s brother had even migrated there, whose family, from there, always remained in the region of Haifa. But my father was very interested in finding opportunities during the trip, which got extended a bit. There were cousins and other relatives in Europe. We visited some countries in Western Europe, but my father did not find any opportunity. Regardless of the many recommendations, of his fluent languages, of his friends and relatives, he did not find it. But the goal of the departure, the de-lineated final destination, was not Brazil or São Paulo, but Uruguay, to which we went. There, there was a relative of my aunt and both families — her, married to my mother’s brother — the families were always close, united, virtually always living in the same building. My mother insisted more on the South American option. Added that to the lack of opportunities at that moment in Europe, we went to Montevideo. There we remained for two months. Immediately we were enrolled in school. We had prepared ourselves, by my father’s initiative, with Spanish textbooks. We had a base. He spoke Spanish and Ladino. I had heard from my grandmother and had assimilated some fluency, some knowledge of Spanish. I had no difficulties. Quickly, we integrated ourselves in school, my sister and I. But Uruguay was in economic decline and it was also hard to find a job, despite the presence of an uncle from my aunt’s side — he was not a blood relative — who migrated to Brazil, married a Brazilian woman, and lived between Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay. Later, we made fortune. But it was nothing decisive to my father. Back then, Brazil was already installing its car industry, which made the family very excited, curious, enthusiastic. Both my uncle and my father — my uncle was from the banking sector, he found a position in São Paulo, in the Ítalo-Belga bank — and my father, eight years after arriving in Brazil, São Paulo, found a job in Goodyear, Goodyear tires.
I remember then, the first night, the arrival in Santos. Immediately we boarded a bus and came to the Hospedaria [the migrant’s lodge]. It was night. There, in Brás, where today we have the Immigrant Museum, we spent the first night. In the following night, they decided for the neighborhood Campos Elíseos, where most [Egyptian Jewish] families gathered, they had already found a node of coexistence. Families that had arrived before and had occupied the neighbor-hood. There was even a building of triangular shape that was known as “the building of the Egyptians,” in the corner of São João [Street]. Soon, they began to look for schools for us. There was some value in languages. They decided on Dante Alighieri [a traditional Italian school] for my sister. I began, part of a semester. We arrived in the second semester, already in 1958. I did only two months of a second semester in a public school there on a street crossing Barão de Limeira [Street]. We lived in a boarding house for some months. My father, as my uncle did, rented two apartments in the same building and began normal life. The life of finding solutions for health care, solutions for some entertainment. It was very common that in the weekends — because families did not have automobiles yet — to rent a bus, gather a group, and go to Guarujá, to the Pernambuco beach. I remember how we used to cross the ferry. The kids hiding themselves on the floor so that the excess capacity, because of the number, did not lead to any scolding from the inspection crew. And I remember the returns, after a day of — let us call it “farofa” — which is the family and the group taking their food, a portable fridge, drinks — and thus late at the end of the day, the return with the feeling of sand, sea, sun, some-thing uncomfortable for me. But we enjoyed it a great deal. There were a lot of kids. The families knew each other. I was already growing up, eight, nine years old. To me, for example, all the Egyptian girls of my age were “cousins.” I knew them, I knew their parents, their group, and so on, so that I never, as a teenager, joined that group. My path was other.
My path was through a youth, Zionist movement in which I completed my Jewish education from 14 years old onwards. But after the public school, [which lasted] only those months, I went to the Ginásio Stafford, also there in the highest parts of Campos Elíseos, bordering Bom Retiro. I did one year of private school, with a Portuguese mastered in a quite good, quite fast way. I prepared myself and, after I was ten years old, my parents thought of transferring me to the Jewish school. That was in Jardim Paulista, the Beit Chinuch school, which did not have so many Sephardic Jews. It was more a school made by Ashkenazi Jews. Today it is a conservative school. Back then it was not that much. So there I made friends with other Egyptians, recently arrived, who came to the same classroom. And since I had been born in the second semester I had to do the famous fourth year, then the fifth year, the admission. I made it there in the Jewish school my preparation for the Bar Mitzva. The Bar Mitzva was in the Egyptian synagogue, Mekor Chaim, which nowadays is very orthodox for the Judaism that we knew. My father barely knew how to pray. My mom, zero, in Ivrit, Hebrew. But I soon instituted the celebration of Sabbath in our house. It was I who took Judaism and a little religion to our home.
Interviewer – Let me interrupt you, André, and return to some issues that I am curious about. In this process of coming to Latin America and adapting, did you have any help from any institution, for instance, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society)?
Interviewee – We had it. Exactly. We had it, yes. Exactly from HIAS. We had a yellow passport. Stateless. My father never had Egyptian nationality. Of course, neither did the children. Yes, we had help.
Interviewer – What nationality did you have before?
Interviewee – None. Since my parents were born in Egypt, and Egypt adopted [the practice] of not conferring nationality to Israelites, so none. It was written down as “Jews.” But it was not a nation. It was a religion, and it already came [written] in the birth certificate.
Interviewer – And the process of obtaining a visa, do you have any idea of how easy or hard it was?
Interviewee – It was relatively easy. I think that the authorities wanted us to leave soon.
Interviewer – You told me, André, that in Egypt the family’s socio-economic status was moderate. Did this change in Brazil? Did they go through some hardship? Did they enrich themselves quickly? How was that process?
Interviewee – They did not become rich fast. My father, who was the sole breadwinner, was a distinguished employee, distinguishing himself more and more in tire companies, American, established in Brazil. First Goodyear, then Goodrich. The situation was good for a middle-class family. But the acquisition of real estate property began — my father gathered a good estate — when he changed completely his focus and, by his sister’s suggestion — who lived in France but came to Brazil to visit them — she said, “why don’t you work with translation, as a certified translator?” He achieved that. He managed, in English and French. Soon, the situation be-came much better. He worked with the main law firms and all that. He always had a good strategy of contacts, of production of his texts and translations. He did well. He bought three properties in São Paulo, one in Guarujá. So the situation became much better. But it was not a gal-loping enrichment as it happened with other families, particularly with the Jews and also Egyptian Jews who came a bit earlier.
Interviewer – How did you see your own identity? Did you see yourself as a Jew in Brazil, as an Egyptian, an Egyptian Jew, a Brazilian? How did it happen in your head?
Interviewee – Immediately, yes, as a Jew. As a Jew with origins in the Egyptian country, but already totally detached from any possibility or interest in the fates of Egypt. I was interested, yes, in Brazilian politics. And I began, because of the youth Zionist movement, [to be interested] a lot in the politics of the Middle East. My main education, in the humanities, or the knowledge of these questions, came from the nonpartisan movement, right, but totally Zionist. I did not take part in any Israeli group or party, but it prepared us really to find the way of contacting, knowing Israel. I quickly got ahead of myself [and became] a madrich, a monitor, and I received a scholarship in the Machon for the study of young leaders of the diaspora. I was there in 1968. I almost saw the Six-Day War. There was a position offered for 1967, but my father told me “no, after the vestibular” [admission exams for undergraduate schools in Brazil]. And so it happened.
Interviewer – Before that, André, did you attend any Egyptian organization? You mentioned that you lived in that building, the Egyptian building in Campos Elíseos. Did you have contact with other Egyptians or has that never happened?
Interviewee – I had contact. A little because of Sabbath in the synagogue. And I became friends with my first good friend, who has been a friend for more than 60 years, who arrived when he was ten years old and came to sit on the same bench. The school benches were for two students. He arrived from Alexandria. Of course, we went to each other’s house, [we interacted with] each other’s friends, but it was not particularly something that interested me. Socially, my youth group was in the CIP [the Israelite congregation of São Paulo]. In the movement Chazit HaNoar. There I had my first girlfriends, I had excursions, I had the continuation for two years of work after coming back from Israel. Today, for example, I do not keep — besides that friend — more than three, four, five acquaintances that I frequently see from the Egyptian community. I do not attend the Egyptian synagogue, and I am not really interested in it. Mainly because [the synagogue] proved to be more orthodox than our education had guided us. And also be-cause we had changed neighborhoods, my first apartment, my first marriage… I had two official marriages and now I am in the third one. I had five children. Most of them, by the way, like Gabriel, respect their Jewish ties. He was interested in the Birthright, and from there decided to be in Israel many times. He was under the Sherut in the Kibutz. My daughter, although she is a doctor, and although she is not close at all with the religion, she keeps and practices the most central values of Judaism with maximum value and effort — with insistence, so to speak — she is extremely active in the actions of an NGO that she founded and presides to help communities in need in Brazil. Good… [he is interrupted] Speak, speak.
Interviewer – I was going to ask you if you went back to Egypt, to Cairo, if you wanted to…
Interviewee – I never went back to Cairo. I usually joke that I did not forget anything there. It does not interest me. What interests me is the geostrategic, geopolitical. This interests me. It interests me daily. Because the other side interests me, the Israeli. I went back to Egypt, to occupied Egypt. I went back to Tell Arish, which is in the north of the Sinai peninsula, on a trip in 1968. Before, of course, the region was given back to Egypt. But I just stepped there. To Cairo, I was never interested in [going]. My sister was interested in it. She went back. My uncle wanted to visit it. My father cut the ties and I followed more this, let us say, Zionist path, and I al-ways remembered Pesach: that we should not return.
Interviewer – What about traditions? Is there any food you prepare at home that comes from Egypt? Mulukhiyye, perhaps, something…
Interviewee – That persisted. Because My aunt is an excellent cook. Her mulukhiyye was an at-traction to all the family, including my children. There were days of feasting and they loved it. Some dishes, let us say, very Arab, maybe Lebanese, are still of my taste. But today it is not my focus. Really it is not. I also changed a lot through some conjugal changes. This disappeared. I took the values of the groups to which my spouses belonged.
Interviewer – Did you bring anything, did your parents brought any objects? Do you have any material souvenirs?
Interviewee – Yes, yes. From mugs to prepare coffee to some religious objects for the Sabbath Kiddush. Some things of this kind. A dish for Pesach. Things like that. My sister is the keeper of these things, in general. It is her that keeps it.
Interviewer – André, is there anything you would like to add? Something that I did not ask you and you think is important to your experience of coming from Egypt, living in Brazil?
Interviewee – Living in Brazil is a very good experience. It has always been very good for a Brazilian Jew, as I see myself. I never had — I am 72 years old — I never had any sort of incident, in the school, or socially, of antisemitism. I always considered myself very welcome. To-day it remains as such. Brazil is a good example of this. I have no doubt. Despite our critiques, and ours caveats to the situation today. There was no anti-Semitism, not like our colleagues — chaverim — narrated — from Argentina, Uruguay, other countries in which antisemitism grew a lot in these decades that I lived [he is interrupted]. You can ask me.
Interviewer – I just wanted to tell you that these were my questions. If you did not have anything else to add, I wanted to thank you for taking part in this conversation.
Interviewee – I thank you for the opportunity and I hope that this was useful.
Interviewer – Certainly. Thank you very much, André.
Interviewee – Thank you, and best regards.
Interviewer – Best regards.