This March, Sara and Jacques Blumenzweig’s family will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their arrival in Seattle after leaving Egypt as refugees during the Second Exodus.
The Blumenzweigs and the Cohens (Sara’s family) were among many families who moved to Cairo from other parts of the Diaspora in search of a better life in the late 1800s when Egypt was welcoming outsiders. They were part of and felt accepted by a large, vibrant Egyptian community. As happened in ancient Egypt, the tenor of the times began to change, and around the end of World War II, the Jews were increasingly less welcome there. Life for Jews continued to deteriorate with Egypt’s opposition to the creation of the State of Israel and Nasser’s rise to power in the 1950s.
In what is now called the Second Exodus, waves of Jews began to leave Egypt. But Sara and Jacques chose to stay in Cairo to be close to Jacques’s aging parents, with hopes that things would improve.
At the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, the Egyptian government rounded up the heads of all the Jewish households and imprisoned them. Jacques was taken away in front of his family. They didn’t know if they’d ever see him again.
Making matters worse, the government had frozen the assets of Jews. Sara struggled to care for their four children as their available resources diminished. Neighbors and coworkers who had been friends turned a blind eye.
As Jacques and many other men languished in prison for months, the Jewish immigration organization HIAS worked behind the scenes to secure the release of as many prisoners as possible. HIAS got the Spanish government to issue passports for Jacques and Sara and their children, Cecile, Claude, Sonia, and Joe, and it urged the Egyptian government to “let their people go.”
In late 1967, Sara and her children headed to the port of Alexandria, not knowing if Jacques would be there. He arrived at the ship still in handcuffs. With a mixture of relief and uncertainty, the Blumenzweigs began their personal exodus, traveling by cargo ship (the Bena Dorm) through a rough Mediterranean Sea to Barcelona, Spain, then by train to Paris, France, where they lived for five months as refugees before making their way to Seattle, Washington, in 1968. A year later, they welcomed baby Camille to the family. In 1999, Jacques passed away. May his memory be for a blessing.
In 2015, the bar mitzvah of Sara and Jacques’s youngest grandson (also named Jacques) fell on the Torah portion Va’eira, in which Moses and Aaron implore Pharaoh to “let our people go.” The serendipity invited us to reflect on how luck, individual actions, and external forces impact our lives, and how hard it can be to turn one’s back on what is known (even when it’s bad) and face the unknown in hopes of a better future.
The extended family remains grateful for the courage it took Sara and Jacques to risk an uncertain future, the inspired efforts of strangers who made their exodus possible, and the Seattle community who welcomed them to their new home.
Postscript: Around 75,000 Jews were living in Egypt in 1948. Today there are fewer than 100.
Jennifer Fisch moved to Seattle in 1992 for grad school and forgot to leave. She married Joe Blumenzweig in 1999, and they are the proud parents of Jacques. Jennifer currently works for Seattle Children’s Hospital.