Eliott Cohen

Interviewed by young people at Edgware & Hendon Reform Synagogue

10 November 2019
I was born in Alexandria in Egypt in 1949. My real name is Eli Cohen, which is quite a famous name. But when I came to this country, I changed it to Eliott. But really, it’s Eli Cohen and I’ve got about five cousins with the same name as me. The first Eli Cohen was our grandfather. He was born in Aden and that’s how we came to be British – Aden was a British colony, so we were born British through my grandfather. He had seven children and they all had children, and they all called their firstborn sons Eli after their grandfather. That is the tradition, especially I think in the Sephardi, to take the grandfather’s name and call the firstborn son after them.

There was another Eli Cohen who was a spy for Israel in Syria, and he became so famous. He had a very sad ending, but they named a street after him in Israel, in Bat Yam, Tel Aviv, where he lived.

My mother’s maiden name was Toledano, which is also quite a famous name in Sephardi Judaism. She had Turkish ancestors.

Early life in Egypt
My memories of Egypt are quite clear, even though I was only seven when we left. We were quite a large family. My father had seven brothers and sisters, so I had lots of cousins in Alexandria. We were brought up as Sephardi Jews, Judaism was very important to us. And we had lots of tradition.

Egypt was a fantastic country at that time. We spoke several languages and Alexandria was a very cosmopolitan city. We lived opposite the sea, and we went to the beach most weekends. We had a private cabin on the beach. My parents used to go to private clubs. We led a very, very comfortable life there. We never felt a sense of danger. Jewish people were well liked.

My parents spoke several languages fluently – French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic – you managed to speak so many different languages in the city. My first language was French, so we went to a French school. There were all different types of school – Italian, German, French. I went to the French school and my family spoke mainly French at home. So, I was brought up speaking French mixed with Arabic and all different other languages as well.

My memories of Egypt are very happy, very pleasant memories, we had a very nice lifestyle. As children, we were taken to school by taxi. My family were all very close, we all lived very near each other, many in the same apartment block, and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays together. We kept all the Jewish practices and traditions. We had a fantastic synagogue called the Eliyahu Hanavi in Alexandria. It was an amazing building, quite palatial, really very ornate. I believe it still exists, though I don’t know what state it is in now. I remember going there with my father for all the Jewish holidays. We used to walk through an old market to get there. We didn’t have any sort of worries at all about being Jewish there or mixing with everybody.

Sephardi traditions
Music and food were very important. The music was a mixture of European and Arabic, Israeli-Egyptian-French. My mother was an excellent cook, and she cooked all the traditional Sephardi dishes – the stuffed vegetables, the rice, the sweets were amazing, all the dates. And, of course, Egyptian falafel is the best… During the holidays and Passover we used to have all the families together. And the food there was amazing. We would have the whole table laid out with all the little dishes that family members used to make and bring. We all used to get together at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, we had all those celebrations. To this day, I still remember all the dishes and foods.

When we came to England, we brought all our traditions with us and we kept them going. You know, there were a lot of people from Egypt that came to this country. Most went to Israel, some went to France, some to other parts of the world. But we came to England because my father was British by birth. And my mother had all her friends from Egypt that we managed to meet up with here. So, we kept all the cooking and foods that we used to have in Egypt. It kept going through.

Leaving Egypt
Why did we leave Egypt, where we had such a comfortable life, with maids and all sorts of things? It was all politics to do with the Suez Canal [known as the Suez Crisis of 1956]. President Nasser had overthrown King Faroukh and Egypt became a republic. Nasser was basically anti-British, anti-French, anti-Israel and anti the Jews. Basically, he wanted to take over the whole country and he used the military to do it. During the crisis, there were a lot of air raids by the British and the French. It was quite a frightening experience, to be there at that time. It wasn’t easy. We knew we had to leave.

We had to abandon everything: our businesses, our cars, our houses. It was very difficult. We were allowed to take one suitcase of clothes and nothing else, no valuables. I remember my mother taking us to a department store in Alexandria – we had to buy winter clothes because we were coming to England and we had never experienced cold weather. We thought, we might have snow which we never in our lives had seen. I had a coat in my suitcase, and I’d never had a coat before because you didn’t need them in Egypt. When were at the port in Egypt we were thoroughly searched, and I remember my mother had brought one particular cut-glass ashtray that she really wanted to keep, and they wanted to confiscate that.

As a seven year-old, I didn’t really register how serious the situation was – to me, it was like an adventure. We had to leave, pack our bags, get on a train and then a boat across the sea to come to England. It was a very rough crossing as well.

Arriving in Britain
We arrived in January of 1957, and it was so cold! And it was the first time I’d ever seen snow. We were taken to a camp in Leeds, all the Jews, and then we were brought back to London, where we were helped by the Jewish communities here to settle down and try and reclaim some of the properties and business we had in Egypt.

I had my Bar Mitzvah in this country as part of the Sephardi community, because when we came here, all the people from Egypt somehow got together and created our own synagogue. That’s where I had my Bar Mitzvah, and I was taught for it by someone at the synagogue.

Going to school here was very difficult for me at first, because I couldn’t speak the language. At the age of seven all I could say in English was yes and no. Young kids used to talk to me and some used to tease me and I would just say yes, no. Eventually you pick up the language; at this age, you can pick up a language very easily. It didn’t take long: within a year, I was fluent in English, I’d say. I had two older sisters, one three years older, one six years older than me. My eldest sister could speak English because she’d studied it at school in Egypt, and she really looked after my younger sister and myself. We only spoke French. We knew how to speak Arabic, but we couldn’t read or write it. My sisters went to JFS in Camden Town. I went to Davenant Foundation Grammar School.

It must have been very difficult for my parents: they left their country, everything was taken away from them, to come to this country with three small children of 7, 10, 13, to start a new life. Two brothers came to this country: my father and his brother, with their children, and so the family has grown here. I certainly see myself as British. My father spoke English, but my mother never learnt the language properly in all her time in this country. She managed to get by by knowing all the other languages: French, Italian, she spoke Greek with the grocer, Spanish with another shopkeeper, and all our friends were from Egypt, so they communicated without needing to learn English.

Family diaspora
I live not too far from my sister. My other sister emigrated after being here for 10 years. She went to Canada and had her family there. I’ve got cousins all over the world. The majority went to Israel because that was the country that they wanted them to go to. It was the nearest country and the easiest to get into if you are Jewish. A lot went to France, some went to South America, we were split up all over the world and now I’ve got relatives everywhere – Mexico, America. The majority are in Israel. They had children, and their children had children, so I’ve got a very big family in Israel. We’ve always kept in touch with the family in Israel and around the world.

I have never gone back to Egypt myself. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t want to be disappointed. If I go back, it wouldn’t be the same as I pictured. I think, with all the wars they’ve had, a lot of the country will have been ruined. The memories I have of it would be shattered if I go back and see it the way it is.

A lot of my family have been back, especially those in Israel, my cousins and their children. They went to visit and they actually went to the place where we used to live. A lot of us lived in the same apartment block, which had a big Star of David on the top of it because it was mainly Jewish people who lived there. The block is still there apparently, but it’s very run down and dilapidated, and it was a shame to see it that way.. One of my cousins saw the caretaker, who was still there. The caretaker recognised my cousin and said, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ Because they really liked us so much. In Egypt, the whole country respected us and liked all the European and the Jewish people. And I think when we all left, it was for the worst for the country. They lost a lot of culture that we gave to their country. They lost a lot, basically.