Interviewee’s Name: Toufik Kassab
Reference Number: SEPHARDI VOICES-NY016
Interviewer: Dr. Henry Green
Date of Interview: December 12, 2013
Location of Interview: New York
Cameraman: Simon Degen
This is December 12th, 2013. This is an interview for Sephardi Voices. My name is Henry Green, I’m here with Toufik Kassab, the interviewee from Syria, and the cameraman is Simon Degen.
Tell us your full name, please.
And where were you born?
And when were you born?
May 21st, 1940.
So first, I just want to tell you how much Sephardi Voices appreciates you taking the time to be interviewed today. Thank you.
So let’s begin with something general. Tell me about your family’s background.
My father was born in Turkey in Gazientep, 1904. He came to Syria, 1909. And he got married after that with my mom, who was born in Syria, 1910. After that, my older brother, his name is Murad, 1931. And the second one was my sister, her name is Marro, 1932. The third one was Ezra, 1934. Number four was Behai, my sister, 1938. Between me and my sister, are two boys older than me and younger than me, they passed away. One of them was at thirteen years, and the other was six years old. I was born in 19—no, Bahia is 1938, and I was born in 1940. My other sister, her name is Rachel, 1945, and the last one was my brother, 1948, his name is Salim. That is the story of my family between my father and mother, and sisters and brothers.
Do you remember your grandparents at all? Do you remember meeting them, your father’s parents?
Yes. My grandfather, his name is Ezra. He was the father of my mother, and he passed away in 1973 in Syria.
And he was born in Aleppo?
He was also born in Turkey.
He was born in Turkey, okay. And when did he come, and why did he come to Syria?
They came to Syria because at that time, there was a war in Syria. In 1930, there was a war. So they ran away from Turkey not to go be a soldier, because in that time, my father was telling me, “Anyone that goes to the war is not going to come back.” So they ran away, most of the Jews that were living in the area there in Turkey, they came to Aleppo.
[4:53] Aleppo, because it’s very near the border to Turkey. It’s only half an hour, from the Turkey border to Aleppo.
And what was the Aleppo Jewish community like then, in this period growing up? Big community, small community?
Big community, it was at that time. We’re talking over one hundred years. It was a big community at that time. It was approximately between twenty-six and twenty-eight thousand Jewish people there in Aleppo City.
And did they have synagogues and Jewish schools?
Yes, there was a synagogue. We had, until now—there was a big synagogue there, which was built after… before, maybe twenty five hundred years. It’s a huge synagogue there, King David who built the synagogue in that time. Still until now, the synagogue is there. What happened is… In 1947 when Israel got pull from the UN to become the State of Israel, all the Arab people in Aleppo City, they were against the Jews. So they started to go behind the Jews, they burned all of our synagogues. We had a lot of synagogues, our houses, our stores, and we had very big problems at that time. So we had many synagogues, and all of them got burned, all of them. And this synagogue especially, was a very big synagogue. After I became President of the Jewish community after 1976, I was very interested to go and see what’s going on with this synagogue. I went there to see—I saw the synagogue, it’s, there is synagogue but it’s messed—it’s like nothing is there. So with my friends, we decided to go to rebuild part of the synagogue. We spend money, built it, and we fixed part of it, because this is like for our Jewish history it’s very big history. As I told you it’s older than twenty five hundred years old.
So we fixed part of it, we started—the community would go there to pray in the synagogue. Because this… the position of the synagogue was too far from the Jewish community, wherever they were living. Like, if you were going to go walking Saturday, you had to go forty, forty-five minutes, to reach the synagogue and to pray there. So just to let the synagogue move on, we were going every Saturday to pray there, all the community was going there, especially. One time the government, they come to talk to me and say, “We should have a meeting about the synagogue.” So I said, “Okay.” We went there, this is like a museum, and part of the history of Aleppo, like it’s a big treasure. They said, “We can give you all the people you want. Architects, everything you need, but you have to go to spend money from your pocket for material, and then labor from us.” And so it’s a very big deal, because the building is a big building, and they are… I don’t know how I’m going to mention this to you, how the synagogue was. The synagogue was three, four parts. It was big in the middle, with a place to put seven, they call it Safek Torah. Ehal, it’s a big, very old thing. And plus there is, at the top, a balcony especially for the ladies who were going there, and so we needed big budget for this. We had connections with UNESCO, and UNESCO was ready to help us. But I saw at that time, I was busy with something else, I was busy building anew the community, because we had a lot of problems there, and I was responsible for the school, for all kinds of problems in the community. So I couldn’t go for it. But still, the synagogue is there. And we had another four, five synagogues, all of them got burned. And we kept a synagogue in our area, the area I was living there. The area’s name is Jamilah. In Jamilah, there is a school, next to school there was a synagogue, so the people all were going there to pray there, and we were managing the school.
Did—these synagogues, these schools were also in the time of your grandparents, right?
And do you remember going with your grandparent, your mother’s father, to the school, with Ezra to the school, or doing things with him?
My father, he wasn’t in Syria, at that time.
No, you and your grandfather.
My grandfather, even, was in Turkey.
But when your grandfather moved to Syria, you said, Aleppo, do you have memories of being with him?
Can you tell me some of those memories, things you did with your grandfather?
He had a store, not too far from the old synagogue. It’s a market, and he had a store grocery, I still remember that. And behind this door there was a school. This is different school from the one I was telling you about in Jamilah, this is not that school. So I remember when I was like five years old, I still remember until now, I was going to the school, and I was passing by him, to ask him for candy. He was selling five candies for one penny. For me, he was giving me six instead of five. I still remember that.
And what language did you speak with your grandfather?
And your grandmother, did you—
My grandmother, she passed away in 1982, in Aleppo.
And what was her name?
Bahia. And she… do you remember memories with her, did you used to spend time with her?
Sure, a lot of time spent with her. And the strange thing is, my grandmother, she had maybe fourteen kids.
[13:00] Yeah. And very interesting story about one of her sons, his name is Abhoun. I remember when I was in school, when I was five years old, he came. He was a soldier with the English soldiers, so he came to the school to pick me up from the school, and I was four, five years, I remember that. Then in 1948 he went to Palestine, and he was in the war between Palestine and the Jewish at that time, 1947. After that, my grandmother and all my aunts were asking what happened to this guy. Nobody knows what happened to this guy. Maybe at that time, I was six, seven years old. “Hello nephew,” he came to me, and told me, “Let me tell you what the story is.” I have uncles, and I have aunts in Israel. One of my aunts still living there, her name is Adele, she has three sons. The three sons were trying to find what happened to their uncle, who was the guy which was in the war. In the end, they found him, he’s dead with another name—his name is Abhoun Kassab, and his father’s name is Ezra. They put his name as Abhoun Ezra, so they couldn’t find him. When they found him, they made a special party for him, and they invited all his family from all around the world. They went there, and they celebrated, like he had just passed away. It was a moment. This was one of fourteen brothers and sisters.
Did—these were your mother’s parents. What about your father’s parents?
Oh, this is very good question. My father… he was the brother of my grandfather, but from other mother.
My grandfather and my father were brothers, their father was one father. My grandfather which is my father’s father, he got married with five different ladies.
At the same time, or…
Some at the same time, one of them passed away, then another one, so… My mother’s father, he was the first child for his grandfather, first. My father was the last one from the other wife. So they got married now, so my mom got married with her uncle. That’s why the family is the same family.
Hmm. Did your grandmothers wear more traditional dress clothes or—what would they be wearing?
They would be wearing like a long suit, traditional, and always covering their head.
[16:44] With a scarf, or…
With a scarf.
Did they wear—did they cover their face at all?
No, they just covered their head.
And what language did they speak?
Arabic and they speak Turkish too, because they were coming from Turkey. Between the wife and the husband, they were talking Turkish, not to the kids.
So when you grew up and you talked to your parents, what language was in the house?
And when you went to school, what language did you learn in school?
Arabic and Hebrew. And then, when we went to school, we had part of the studies in French. Then, in third grade, I decided to go, to move to the French school, the Lysee. So I stayed there another two years to get the certificate, in that time it was the fifth grade, and when you finished fifth grade you got a certificate, meaning certificate of the study of elementary. So I got the certificate. Then, my father came to me and told me, “That’s enough for you, now you have to come to work with me.” I told him, “Listen, I was in the school, I was the number one student in the class, I was doing very good.” He said, “No, not anymore, you have to come to help me, because I need someone to help me.” And he had at that time a small store, he was selling fabric, and the area was an Armenian area. So I couldn’t find any other chance, so I went with him to work with him. And I was twelve years old. Twelve years old until fourteen or fifteen, I learned the Turkish language, and the Armenian language. And I was speaking these two languages perfectly, one hundred percent.
So I stayed there working, then when I saw my father was—our family was a simple family, we were as a total, four brothers, three sisters, and we were living in the area, not in the Jamilah area, the area I was living, they called it Basita, that’s it. Most of the Jewish were living in this area. Then they started to go to move out from this area to Jamilah, much more high society. But we were living there. And we were living, my father, my mom, and seven kids, with the one room. Until 1947, and I was seven years old. We went to Jamilah, and we rented a house there, and we started there. So my father opened a small store, very small. So in 1948, when the problems started against the Jews, the people stole all the merchandise from the store, and they burned the store, they burned the store. And my father at that time, he didn’t have anything even to live, because nothing was there. I remember when I was like seven, eight years old, when they came, some people that got help from United States, to help the people, help leave, they gave them twenty-five hundred Syrian pounds as a help, to go and rebuild himself, to start to do business again.
So he took this money and started to go to bring some merchandise, to resell again. So when I went to work with him, I saw he was going with the very low level from the fabric to sale, meaning very cheap things, because he doesn’t have money. So I have a vision, I said to my father, “We’re not going to stay like that, we have to go higher.” But we don’t have money. I said, “We have to do something, we have to go to build credit,” I started to go to buy—and I was like fifteen, sixteen years, I remember one time, fifteen years, sixteen years old, I went to buy merchandise for the store, I went to somebody to ask him, “What’s the price for this?” He didn’t answer, because, because I am a kid. Then, I said to myself, “I want to go to do whatever I have in my mind.” The truth is, another two, three years, I started to build myself, I started to build the business growing up, but we started from zero. Another few years, I started to be an importer, I started to bring import and export from outside, from Europe, Greece, and Turkey, and so I started to grow up. And I became like a wholesaler. This is the business world.
So in 1976… 1976, in that time, there was no permission for any Jews to go outside from Syria. For work, for business, for anything, you’re not allowed to get a passport to go outside. And I was working as an importer, I cannot go to bring any merchandise in my name, because I’m not allowed, I’m a Jew. So I was using a Muslim name, one of my neighbors, I was bringing the merchandise, then using a guy who has connections with the government. I said, “Listen, I need to have a passport to go because I have a business, I need to go to see companies outside and that,” and he said, “That’s going to cost you money.” I said, “How much is that going to cost me,” and he said, “That’s going to cost you one thousand five hundred Syrian pounds.” I said, “I’ll pay.” And he worked like three months, and he got me the passport, I can go outside Syria. This is the first Jew who can go outside Syria. And I took the passport, and I went to Italy, Spain, turkey, Greece, I was ordering merchandise to Syria. I went to Milan in Italy, I went there and I met couple people from the Jewish community there, they were asking me what the situation of the community was there in Syria, and I told them, “We had a kind of problem.” In Aleppo, we had everything there, but the situation of our management for the community was—there is a rabbi, with everything under his hand. He can do anything he wants, nobody can complain. We were complaining, complaining, but had no power.
So when they was asking me about those things, one of them said, “You know what, I’m going to take this message, I’m going to send this message to New York.” After maybe one year, less than one year, received a call from Steven Shalom, he said, “I’m going to come to visit Aleppo.” And Steven shalom, he was… we knew about Steven Shalom, he was responsible for sending the help to Syria. The community was getting ten thousand a month to help for the expense of the poor people, the synagogue, and the schools. Alright, he came, me and a couple friends went to meet him, and he said, he told us exactly, “I’m coming here to make the special committee board.” Anyway, after back and forth, we made a committee of ten people, and I was one of them. So it was… we kept fighting with the rabbi, the rabbi didn’t want to have anything new, he preferred it to stay everything under his control. Anyway, when we had the community, I worked very hard to bring everything back, because we had a lot of properties that nobody was asking about. I worked to bring it back.
[26:34] And the funny story is, after we had the committee board, I put my mind to it, I said, “We should have connections with the chief of Mukhabarat,” the Syrian FBI, which was very difficult for us, because one soldier, one small soldier, he could do anything with all the community, and nobody could complain. Why? Because we had no way to go and speak with the higher people there. So I started, I worked six months, back and forth, I sent letters to the chief, “I want to see you,” I couldn’t see him, six months trying. So one day, I was meeting with the guy who was buying merchandise from me. I was telling him, “Listen, I have this problem, I do not know how I’m going to go meet this guy.” He said, “I know him, he’s my best friend.” He asked me, “You want to see him?” I said, “Yes.” “Let’s go tomorrow.” So I went there with him, nice big office, he said, “This guy’s name is Toufik Kassab, and he’s responsible for the Jewish community.” “Wow, are you sending me letters?” I said, “Yes, unfortunately, I couldn’t see you.” “I’m always busy, you know,” I said, “Okay, but it’s very important.” I now kind of have connections… He said, “Okay, that’s my phone number. Anytime you need something, just call.” I said, “Alright,” I took his phone number, and in the next two days, I bought a nice bracelet, a gold bracelet, and I call him. I said, “Can I stop by you,” he said, “Okay.” I stop by, our first meeting, and I said, “I’m not asking you something, I’m going to give you a small gift, just to remember me.” Took the bracelet and put it on his table, he said, “Okay. From now on, your connection will be with me. Anything you want, just call me.”
From that time, to the last day I was in Syria, I built with him an unbelievable connection, and he was—he passed away now, but he was really unbelievable. I was, in Syria, much more than a king. How? I could do anything I want, anything you imagine. I could go to call, and he was in Aleppo City, like he’s the president of the city, he can do anything he want, with no complaint from anybody. So our community now started to breathe. Why? Because in the past, we were having problems with the Mukhabarat, and now the Mukhabarat comes to protect us. So now it becomes the opposite. Let’s say if we were working with any Muslim guy, and this guy, he owes you money, and he didn’t pay you. He comes to me, he says, “This guy’s not paying,” I say “Oh, he’s not paying, you can go to bring him to the Mukhabarat. Twenty-four hours, he has to go and pay you the money.” Twenty-four hours. No court, nothing, by force. With these stories, many stories. And through him, we had a lot of properties, this is for the committee, not the regular people, this is for us, the committee. And all these properties were… nobody asked about those.
So I worked hard to have a big file, and I went to them one by one, one by one—like, I have the list here now. We had like maybe forty, forty-five tenants. So I went to them, one of them, and if somebody refused to pay me, I had the Mukhabarat, I could go to bring him there. So, from zero, I started to collect eight hundred and fifty thousand Syrian pounds a year, from zero. So this guy, he was ready to go and do anything I wanted. I was paying him money, which for us is nothing. Any problem, any problem, legal or illegal problem, he could go to fix it.
[31:50] Like, one day, a guy from our community, his brother came to tell me, “The police took my brother, and I don’t know what the reason is.” And they don’t know where the guy is. Then they found out he’s in a police prison somewhere. What’s the problem? He’s selling jewelry, he bought a bracelet from a guy, the guy was a thief, he tipped the bracelet from a lady, he killed her and took the bracelet, and he sold it to him. Syria is big with murderers. I said, “Ok, where’s the prison?” They gave me the prison. I went to the chief and said, “I have a problem.” He said, “What’s the problem?” I said, “The problem is this, and I want him out.” He said, “Okay.” He called the police prison… “Who’s the chief there? Ok, let me speak to him.” He said, “My name is this. I’m the chief of Mukhabarat. Do you have a Jewish guy? His name is Yaacov Behar,” and they said, “Yes,” and he said, “What’s the problem?” They said, “This is the problem, he bought a bracelet from this guy, this guy killed the lady, and he was selling the bracelet.” Told him, “You know what, I’m going to send your prisoner to the Jewish community now. Give him to them, let him sign, from now on he shouldn’t go to buy anything from somebody.” I went there, I said—the police officer said, “You know, this is murder.” I said, “This guy maybe doesn’t know what the rule is, what’s the law.” Anyway, he called and he came. I said, “What’s the story?” “I bought the bracelet.” “How you going to go and buy the bracelet from the guy if you don’t know him? Anyway, promise the officer from this point on you’re not going to do it again.” So he said, “Okay, I promise,” and I took him with me. This guy could have gone to jail for ten years.
So like these stories happened many times. So one time, we had a family going to Turkey, they have a passport, and they’re going to Turkey. And the family is, you know, a poor family. And with them, there is another guy, not the same family, going with them and he has a passport. And this guy, he has a family, they went with him there to the border just to finish with him at the last minute. They were checking them, they found in their luggage a lot of gold, bracelets and chains, and they found a couple thousand dollars in the bag. This is against the law in Syria. This is sedition, they’re going to have to take the gold, take the money, and go to prison five years. That’s the law in Syria. So they call me from there to tell me that that’s the story, and they’re going to make a report, send him back to Aleppo, and finish. They’re going to send him back to Aleppo, he can do nothing. I said, “Okay,” and went to my friend, I said, “I have a big problem.” He said “What’s the problem? I said “Okay, it’s on the border with Turkey and the people are there, and the bus stopped there.” He called the chief of Mukhabarat of the other area, the city Idlib, called him and said, “What’s going on there?” He said “Yes, we have two Jewish families, they have gold and they have money.” Tell him, “Listen”—by the way, he was talking on the phone, and I was on the other line. He called me… “Tell me, Toufik, what do you want him to do?” I said, “Please, tell him to give them the gold, give them the money, and let them go.” He said to the other office in Idlib area, “Listen, give them their gold, give them their money, and let them go on the bus now.” Finish the problem. That is, if there was no connection, the problem was never going to be finished. And like this story, there are many stories. I know I was paying him money, but compared with the problem, the money is zero, nothing.
[37:04] When you think back in terms of these stories, was there—I listened to you talk about the community a lot. What was your house like? Did your parents go to synagogue on Shabbat, what was… Tell me what a Shabbat dinner was like in your house.
All of the community was going to Shul every day. Not just Shabbat, every day they were praying.
Your father, also?
My father. Every single day he was going to pray in the synagogue, and was celebrating Shabbat, and we were—all the community—shomer Shabbat, they kept Shabbat. And our life was simple, but in less than fifteen years, we were living in very good shape. Very good. Why? Because we’re getting protection from the Mukhabarat, which is—the only problem we had at that time in those fifteen years was that we could not go to get passport for all the families to leave Syria, that’s the only problem we’re having. You could get passport for you or your wife, or you and one kid, but they have to keep some people there. Exactly what happened to me. You know, I have a very interesting story for me. One day, I had a big connection. I reached the point, with my friend in Aleppo, where if I need something from Damascus which is in the capital, he could connect me to anyone bigger than him who was in the government. So there was in Damascus a general, he’s the specialist for the Jewish in Syria, specialist. And I built with him a connection, but he was very bad. But anyhow, doesn’t matter, he could show you like he’s your brother, but in the back, different. His name is General Riesa Assad.
So I was going every week or every two weeks to him, from Aleppo to Damascus, driving four hours. Just if we had a problem, this or that, this guy is sending his dog, but at the end, nothing. I spoke to my friend in Aleppo, I said, “Listen, I want to see his boss, the biggest general.” His name is Hassan Khalil. This guy is from the five people who are keeping Syria. Five people, one of five people. He said, “Okay, I’ll get you an appointment.” So he called me to tell me, “You know, next week you can go, such and such day, he’s waiting for you, go there and call on him.” I went to Damascus, I went to this guy, the general who’s responsible for the Jewish, and I said, “I have an appointment with Hassan Khalil.” He said, “What? How are you going to meet him?” I said, “I have an appointment. I sent him a message, said I’m going to come to meet him in your office.” The guy got scared, why? Because I’m reaching above him to his boss. So he said “Okay, I’ll call his office.” He said, “He’s very busy, he can come another time.” So okay. I went out, I called him by myself, he comes to the phone, I said, “I’m sorry to bother you. If you’re busy, I can come anther time.” He said, “No, today.” I said “Okay, I’m in the hotel, such and such.” He said, “Okay, stay there until six, and I’ll send my car.”
At six, the car came, “That’s you,” got in there, went to the same office. The guy started talking to me very nicely. He said, “Toufik, we are friends. Did you complain something about me?” I said, “No, I didn’t complain, I have nothing against you. But there are certain problems, you cannot go to find any solution, so I prefer to go to see the big boss, maybe get a better solution.” Alright. So, I went there, I stayed there like half an hour, and he came. He came, and you know what they did? He came to the office, and they cut all the streets. So he came, went inside, and we sit together, me and him and the other guy. He told me, “Toufik, I heard there is problem between you, between me, and between Riesa, that’s the other general.” He said, “I want to know exactly what the problem is between me and him.” I said, “Sir, I have no problem between me and him, but we have such problems, I don’t think the general is going to find a solution. That’s why I tried to meet you, because I know everything is in your hands, and you can go to put on us a different label in life.” This other general was very scared, you know.
Anyway, we stayed there like half an hour, and we spoke of many things. Then he said, “You know what, I understand everything now. Go, make a list, whatever you want, send it to me, and I’ll let you know exactly what’s going to be done with this list.” So I said, “Okay, very good,” we shake hands, and he’s gone. So from that time, the general Riesa Assad, he started to skip from me, because he saw me, saw that I could reach higher than him.
[43:54] So, one day, a big problem happened in Aleppo. One family escaped. Escaped through the Lebanon border. And there is the simple thing, this family was—another guy from Mukhabarat was living in the building. And I know him very well, he’s my best friend. So when this family escape, he said, “You know what? I heard something from this family, from the wife.” He said, “One day, she came to tell me, there is a guy, his name—that’s me—he said, I’m going to get you a passport. And you go with your family.” She asked the Mukhabarat guy, who’s living in the same building, the guy said, “Okay, if he gets you passport, that’s good.” So, when the family escaped, the guy, he remembered his name, the guy’s name. He followed the story, he caught him, and his father is a general in Lebanon, a general in the Syrian part of Lebanon. So they went through the border with Turkey in the military way. And who was between the family and this guy? It was a guy, his name is Edmon Sahadei, from our community. He took commission, about two hundred thousand dollars, and the guy said, “I know this guy, and that’s what happened.” They took the guy, they took him and put him in prison. So the problem now become big because yes, this is connected between Aleppo and Damascus, and there is the way I did it, and there is the one, the true military way, which is a very big deal. And there is someone from our community in the middle.
So the first two, three days, I received many calls from around the world. “Toufik, please go to help this guy to take him out.” I went to my friend, I said—His name is Abu Omar, the big general. I said, “Abu Omar, what are we going to do with this story?” He said, “That’s a big story, I can do nothing. That’s a lot of people involved.” I said, “But listen, I want this guy to go out. How much can it cost me? I’m ready for it.” He said, “It’ll cost you a lot of money,” and I said, “How much?” He said, “Twenty-five thousand, and I said, “You got it.” Why? Because they called me from all around the world. One of them from New York, he called me, he told me, “How much will it cost? Don’t think.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to give you twenty-five thousand but”—I was talking to him Thursday, he told me to come Saturday night. Went to him Saturday night, he said, “Go to the officer of investigation, tell him to send me the file, and I know what I’m going to do.” I went there—I know everybody there. I said, “Listen, send this file to the chief, and he knows what to do.” He said, “I cannot do that, I don’t know, what am I going to tell him?” I said, “Don’t do anything, just send it to him.” I said that to him, and he send it to him. After half an hour, he came, with his signature, to release him out.
The officer was in shock. “I don’t know how, I don’t know how the chief…” I said, “That’s not your problem. Just give him to me, I’m taking him out.” They called him, and the officer said to Edmon, “First God, and second is Toufik. If not, you’re going to twenty years in jail.” We went out, and three days after, the chief Mukhabarat of Aleppo called me to tell me, “Toufik, you have to come right away, right now.” I went there and said, “What’s the story?” He told me he got an order from Damascus. They’re asking for anybody connected with this story, they have to release them to Damascus. He said, “Now what are we going to do?” His name is in the file. I said, “This guy has a passport, and the passport you have in your office. Give it to him, I’m going to have him travel tomorrow.” He said, “But they’re going to come to ask me.” I said, “The passport’s not from you, the passport’s from Damascus. You are not involved with the passport. Just give it to him.” He said, “Okay,” gave it to me, but he said, “Listen, tomorrow, if he’s not going to move out from Syria, I’m not going to be responsible.” I said, “Okay, tomorrow.” I called him, and I said, “Tomorrow morning, eight o’clock, I’m not going to see you here.” Eight o’clock, the guy left to Turkey.
[50:00] And they sent all the people involved with this story to Damascus, without him, because he left. After two weeks, I went to visit the general Assad in Damascus. So, General Assad in Damascus was always fighting with the Aleppo general. Fighting, why? The guy in Aleppo, he knows this guy is eating money, and the other guy knows also that in Aleppo they’re eating money. I went there, the general Riesa Assad, he said, “Toufik, I know you’re too smart, but they expect from you to play this game.” I said, “Which game are you talking about?” He said, “The game is, you take off Edmon Sahadei and you let him travel.” I said, “What are you talking about? You’re talking to me like I’m the chief of Mukhabarat, what power I have to take a guy from prison and let him go? What are you talking about?” He said, “Listen to me, I know exactly what you can do.” He said, “If anything happens between me and the general of Aleppo, anything happens, any fight happens, you’re going to be in the middle, and you’re going to be in the prison.” Why? Because he knows I have big connections, so he’s going to protect himself, so I have to go with this note, to the general of Aleppo. I said, “Listen, this guy said this,” so he had to go to leave him alone. “Don’t touch him,” that’s kind of protection to him.
So when he said that, I said to myself, “You know what, I’m finished. For me, it’s finished, I have to leave Syria.” I went to Aleppo, I spoke to the general, and I said, “I want to move out.” He said, “Okay.” Meanwhile, he was preferring to let me go. Why? Because I had reached a very high point in the government, as I told you. Everybody knows me there in Syria, and I can do anything I want, so he saw me jumping, always jumping to the top. He said, “Okay.” My wife has a passport. My three kids have a passport, and I have a passport. I have a daughter, her name is Jenna, and she doesn’t have a passport. I said, “But listen, I need a passport for my daughter,” and he said, “I’ll get you the passport.” I said, “Alright.” We sent the paper to Damascus, which is the general Assad. And I went there, and I asked him. I said, “Listen, I need a passport for my daughter, because we have people waiting in America, we are going there,” and he said, “Okay. If it’s for you, we are ready, we are waiting.” I said “Alright, when am I going to get the passport?” He said, “Ten days.” I said “Alright,” I sent my wife with three kids to New York. I stayed… me, my daughter, and my sister in law. My sister in law, she was alone. All her parents left to New York.
So I went, I was waiting, ten days, fifteen days, I was living alone, because my wife, she’s there in America. So I went back to my friend in Aleppo, I said “Listen, Abu Omar, what’s going on?” He said, “I’m going to call the chief in Damascus. Not Assad, the big boss.” I was sitting there, he called him, he said “Listen, the president of the Jewish community’s girl, his daughter… we sent you the papers, didn’t get it yet.” He said, “Okay, I’m going to send it to you. Meantime, I need the two contractors that are asking for money.” Okay, it’s one hundred percent going to send it, because I heard. And this isn’t somebody else, you know, when he says it… so another two weeks, I didn’t get anything.
[54:30] I called Damascus, I said “Listen, what’s going on?” He said, “Toufik, if I have the paper you think I’m going to keep it to myself? I’m going to send it. Do I have it? I’m waiting.” Then I saw that the problem had become big now, I started to be scared for myself. Because I know, in Syria, if somebody failed, nobody’s going to ask about him. If, God forbid, anything happened to me, nobody’s going to come to ask about me, ask what he’s doing there. I said to my friend Abu Omar, “Can you do me a favor please, can you go to Damascus, and see what’s going on there with my daughters passport?” He said yes.
So he went there, came back, called me, told me to come, and I went. He says, “Wow, I didn’t know your daughter had that big position.” I said, “What’s the position?” He said, “That’s your friend, Riesa Assad. He made the report, to send to his boss, to tell him Toufik Kassab, he has big connections in Syria and outside Syria. For our Syrian protection, you should keep him here in Syria, and if you go to give his daughter a passport, he’s not going to go back to Syria. After he wrote this report, nobody could go to sign, to get your daughter her passport. So what he did, the chief there, he sent it to Hafez Assad, the President. Nobody’s going to take responsibility to sign.” I said, “Now, I have no other choice, what are we going to do?” He said, “Are you serious, you want to travel?” I told him yes. He said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to let you travel. Anytime you want to travel, you just let me know.” I said, “I want to travel tomorrow.” He said, “Okay.” He said, “Saturday night, nine o’clock, be ready.” I said, “What are you going to do? He said, “Don’t worry.”
Friday, I went there, he called two guys, they came, and he said, “Listen, tomorrow, I’m having this guy and his daughter”—I have another guy, a young guy, he was living alone also, his family was not here, and he’s asking me, “Please help me.” I agreed, so I said, “Also, I have another guy.” He said, “These two, I have a guy and his daughter, you have to take both of them and put them in Turkey. If anything happens to them, you know what I’m going to do.” Saturday night they call me, I have a car, I put them in my car, my sister in law, my daughter, and the guy, and the two guys were from the Mukhabarat. We went with them to the Turkey border, forty-five minutes. We went there, and I was talking to the guys. We reach the border, they say, “That’s enough for us, we’re going to leave here, and another hour, you’re going to reach turkey.” And it was night. So I went back, me and my sister in law, and I lost the way. One way, the way is closed. Going back, then, I suddenly saw two people stopped. Said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I have a friend, he asked me just to drive him there, and I drove him back to Aleppo.” He said, “No, this border is a lot of Jewish escaping from this point.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Yes, we are intelligence services,” I said, “Listen, my name is this.” They don’t know me, I’m Jewish, and I have this general’s name, that general’s name, I was screaming at them. They said, “Why are you giving us all these names?” I said, “Because you have to know who you’re talking to.” At the end they say, “You know what, we’re going to take the plate number, and we can see you tomorrow.” So I said, “Okay, take the plate number.” They said, “Go this way to reach Aleppo.” Alright. So I went there, went to Aleppo, and went home. Another two hours, I receive a call from my daughter. She’s in Turkey. I had a passport, and my sister in law, she also had a passport.
[59:50] From where? Her family, all her family was in America, and I couldn’t get her a passport because she’s the last one in the family. She has an ID, and all our IDs had “Jewish” written on the ID, so you cannot go to do anything because it says Jewish on the ID. By mistake, they gave her the ID that didn’t say Jewish on her ID. So when I saw her ID, I asked my friend in the Mukhabarat, I said “Listen, my sister in law, she doesn’t have any mention on her ID as a Jewish. I can go to apply from Aleppo for her passport as a Muslim, not as a Jewish.” He said, “Go try.” I said, “If anything happens,” and he said, “Go try, don’t worry.” Ok, so I went with her, and we put the register as Christian. Went inside, five minutes, and they gave her permission. And they gave her a passport, and she can go clearly. So, now, for my sister in law, I need a visa for America. I always had connections with the ambassador, the American ambassador. I was always visiting him in the consulate. And I had a good connection with him. So I went there, I gave my card, I went inside, and I saw that a new consul is there, she’s a lady. I said, “Where is the old guy?” She said, “Well, they had me come instead of him,” and I said, “Okay. My name is this, I’m the president of the Jewish community, I have connections with the ambassador, and I need a visa for my sister in law.” She checked the passport, she says, “This is not Jewish.” I said, “I know. She is Jewish, but she has a special story. I need a visa.” She said, “She’s coming back?” I said… She said, “If she’s not coming back, I cannot give a visa.” I said, “Call your ambassador, and tell him that I’m here.” She called him, and five minutes later he came. He was asking, “What’s going on?” I said, “I want to go. I want to go fast, because I have no time, I need a visa.” He says, “Listen, give him the visa, don’t ask him even, and just give him the visa.” She stamps the visa for my sister in law, and when we were traveling to Turkey, we took a bus.
In the bus, I sat in the back of the bus, and she sat in the front. I said, “We’re not going to talk to each other.” We went, reached the border search, everybody finished, and they called me, because I’m Jewish. They called me to search my wallet, search my luggage. Then, I was asking a small question of my sister in law, about my money, and the guy said, “I saw you were talking with that girl over there. What connection do you have with her?” I said, “Don’t worry, I was asking only where you are traveling.” And I had two, three pieces of luggage with me. And he said, “Wow, so many pieces of luggage. How long are you staying in Turkey?” I said, “I am staying one month.” “Too much.” I said, “You know, I’m going to need it.” He said, “Okay, go.” We went, went there on the bus, we passed the border, and then my sister in law, she came to sit next to me. The driver said, “Your place is in the back.” I said, “I’m going to go now. Just stop here, just stop for me here.” He said, “Where?” I saw that my daughter and the guard and my friend from Turkey were waiting for me next to the border. We left the bus, we went together, and it was a holiday at that time. So we went there, I had a connection with the Israeli ambassador there. So I went to see the ambassador, I said, “I need my daughter to go with me to America now.” He said, “It’s impossible. She has to stay here for a while, then we will send her to Israel. In Israel you can take her with you to America, but here, it’s impossible. You know,” he said, “the best thing to do is go to Israel, you can do many things in Israel for your daughter. But here we can do nothing.” So I stayed in Turkey like two, three days, then I went to Israel.
[1:04:38] In Israel, I had a big meeting with many people, I had lunch in the Knesset with many people. They were asking me for more information, and I had a file with me, a big file of all that I had done in Syria. I brought it through my sister in law, I gave it to her because nobody’s going to search her. I said, “I have a lot of info, a lot of things, but I can’t talk until I see my daughter here.” Why? “Because,” I said, “I know the Mukhabarat, what they can do in Turkey. They have a long hand, and maybe they can go and catch my daughter, to take her back to Syria. What am I going to do?” “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” They spoke to the Israeli ambassador to Turkey, and they took her to Istanbul to be far from the border.
So they came to ask me for more information about Syria, sent me four, five generals, and I said, “I cannot speak even a small word until I see my daughter here.” Then they said, “We’ll send a car, just to show Israel for one week,” and I said, “I don’t need anything.” So Steven Shalom and his wife were there, he called me over to see him in his hotel, and then his wife came, he took me for a couple days to the Knesset to see people, this and that, there was talking too much, I said, “I’m not going to say anything about Syria until I see my daughter, because this is very important to me.” Anyway, I met Netanyahu, we were talking and he said, “Why don’t you want to stay in Israel?” I said, “My family is in New York, I cannot stay in Israel,” and he asked why. I said, “This is a personal thing, I’m not going to stay in Israel.” He said, “You know what, if you stay in Israel, one year here, we can give you, around Israel, any country to be like a consul there, because we know exactly what you were doing in Syria.” I said, “Israel is not for me.” And I left. When my daughter reached Israel, they stamped her paperwork “Oleh Chadash”, meaning she cannot go to travel. When I saw that they put “Oleh Chadash”, I called Netanyahu again. I said, “Listen, I need”—what I did, before I called him, was I went to go get the visa from the American consul, but when they saw it, they stamped it with a red stamp, so she cannot get any visa.
So I called Netanyahu, I said, “Why are you trying to play games with me? I want to take my daughter with me.” He said, “If you give me a reasonable answer for my question, I’ll help you. Why don’t you want to stay in Israel?” I said, “Listen, my personality doesn’t get any orders from nobody. If I’m going to stay in Israel, if you let me do whatever position, I have to take orders from higher than me. I cannot do it this way. My order comes from myself. So I cannot stay in Israel.” He said “Okay, I’m going to help you.” He called the American consul, and they called me, told me, “Two o’clock, come over.” So I went there, and only the consul was there. Went inside… “You know what, for the first time, I’m going to do something against the United States, and I’m going to give you the visa,” and he stamped the visa. Next day, me and my daughter traveled. She stayed in Israel like, maybe twenty-four hours only. After that, before I left Israel, I stayed twenty-four hours, with the four generals, and I gave them all the information I had. I had a lot of information.
[1:09:30] Then, they called me after six months, they came here, told me, “We’re going to need you in Israel for a couple days.” I said, “Listen, for me, it’s enough. I have my family. I want to go to take care of my family. I cannot go to be involved in any other things.” So I started my life here, hardly, this and that, but thank God, we reached the right point.
What were you doing in the community in Syria that made everyone want a piece of you?
You know, I was… The truth is, everybody is the same. I was giving them all their rights. I remember something we had in the school, we had the rabbonim. The rabbonim were working from eight o’clock until one o’clock with regular school. In the afternoon, we were taught Hebrew, only Hebrew. So those people, they were working fifteen, twenty years there, teaching Hebrew. There were little salaries, but we have law in Syria. They have a right for any employee to get one month each year from his salary if he’s going to stop working. So before I leave, like four, five months, they came to me. “Tell us, we know you’re going to leave Syria. Who’s going to give us our rights?” I have a letter from them, I just saw it now. I said, “You’re right.” I called the accountant, I said, “Listen, calculate each one, how much he should get, if he stopped his job.” He calculated, he sent me the bill, each one like seventy thousand, sixty thousand Syrian pounds. I signed for them to get their rights. You know what they said? They said, “If you’re not going to pay us our right, nobody else is going to pay us.” And when I started to take care of the community, it was below, behind by like ten thousand Syrian pounds. When I left Syria, I left Syria—as I told you, I was making several hundred thousand dollars a year, I left Syria with one hundred twenty million Syrian pounds. In the safe. All else that I did, just to manage—because I’m a businessman, I know how to manage, from zero, and I was spending, I have all the lists here. I was spending the top. Many years, and it was like, we had, at least for poor people, monthly help. There was help for them, like twenty-five, fifty dollars a month, and I was giving them three hundred dollars. Why? Because I have income.
Where was the income from?
Income comes from the properties, income comes from, in the past, tuition. The school tuition, nobody was paying tuition. When I came, I said, “There’s nothing for free, you have to pay.” For the people that had money, I said, “You have to pay tuition.” I collected tuition, I had to collect tuition. You know what else I did, I forgot something—we had a piece of property in the middle of our area, a nice property. I decided, because in that time, it’s very difficult for our guys to go and get married because there’s no houses, the house is very expensive. So I decided, and put in the plan, to build up this property. Make fifteen apartments, and seven stores. I put the plan, and in Syria, you cannot find the materials, like cement, like wood. All those, I was getting through the Mukhabarat. Anything I want, I get the letter, and I go to take it right away. I built it in one year. Fifteen apartments. And seven stores and a basement. And I put the sign, in the synagogue, that if any guy from our community wants a house, he has to go to get engaged, and I will give him a house for free. In one month, I saw fifteen guys get engaged. And I took the money for the stores—the building cost us in that time, one million, six hundred thousand Syrian pounds. Key money, I took from the store, one million, seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds. I took the money back, put it in the budget, and we had the building for free, and with fifteen families there.
You mentioned revenue from the United States. How did you get money from the United States?
Through Steven Shalom. He was sending us ten thousand a month. In 1986, they invited me here, there was a meeting for all the presidents of the Jewish communities in the world. I came here. I had a speech in the Shul. I tell them, “I don’t need money.” And everybody was surprised. Because everybody who comes to have a speech, they were asking for money. I was the opposite. I said, “I don’t need money. I need the help from the United States to let our people go out of Syria.” So they were surprised. When I went back to Syria, I sent a letter to Steven Shalom, I told him, “You know what, don’t send us money. Leave the money on you, then we’ll see exactly what we can do with this money, because we don’t need it.” That’s the truth. I was collecting money, I had to spend whatever I had to spend, and I could leave a lot of money in the safe. Because we had a lot of money, so I made a book, each tree of the committee, one book, two of them, they had to sign to release the money. I made like six, seven books, to put all the money, in all the members of the community. And it was collecting interest at that time. So Steven Shalom, he kept in one year—twelve months—one hundred and twenty thousand dollars.
[1:17:10] From the community?
No, the help. He used to pay us, ten thousand dollars from the United States.
But where did he get the money from the States, was it from the government, or…
I believe it was from UGA.
UGA, got it.
Ok, so he kept the money, and this money was gone.
And was there—there’s a Canadian named Judy Carr, were you…
Judy Carr, I was—I had a big connection with her. As I told you, she was always coming to Syria. She was interested very much in the girls. She was giving me names of the girls, to work with them, to let them get the passport. So I finished a deal with the general of Assad in Damascus, between Halab and Damascus, each girl cost two thousand to get the passport. So every two, three weeks she was calling me to tell me a name of the girl, she had the names of the girls. So when she gave me the name, I would go to work, two, three months to finish, to get the passport, and she would get the passport. When she would get the passport, she would go to travel. So she would call to put in my account two thousand, and she helped a lot of girls. I don’t know how many, but a lot. And I was visiting here in 1982, I went to Ontario, Canada. I visited her, and I remember she had me for barbecue at that time. 1982. That’s now, thirty years.
When you went to Toronto to visit her, did you meet members of the community?
No, I met her husband.
And when you came to the US, did you ever meet any of the people, the girls that Judy helped bring in?
Yeah, I met them here, I met a lot of them here. Because they were living in this area, all of them from our community. And Steven Shalom, when they came one time, with the agreement with the government, he had an agreement to get the visa, the passports for fourteen girls. We put the name of the girls, some of them from Aleppo City, some of them from Damascus, and they all went together from Syria to the United States, and they came here and they got married. And they are very successful now, very good.
Did Steven work with Judy at all?
No, even Lilian.
Was Lilian involved in this at all also?
Lilian was like a helper to Steve. Steven was involved, Steven was—when he came a couple times to Syria, he helped a lot. And he spent a lot of money there in Syria, from his pocket, but he spent a lot of money, was giving people money like crazy. And he went to Aleppo, to Damascus, to Qamishli, it is another city, Qamishli, Jews there. We went with him to Qamishli. And in that time, Qamishli was like a very far city. It is maybe like six, seven hundred kilometers from Aleppo. So he said, “Listen,” he said, “Toufik, you have to take care of Qamishli people.” I said, “But it’s too far.” He said, “Even too far, you have to go visit them sometime.” So I remember one time, one family came from Qamishli to Aleppo, seven days before the holidays. And they came to my house, seven kids, with a husband and wife. They don’t have a penny in their pocket. I said, “Why did you come here from Qamishli?” He told me they were living in the small house, and the wind came and destroyed the house. So I said, “Okay.” And in that time, it was any Jewish family, if they escaped, and the house for the Jewish which was—they are not in Syria, the property owners are Jewish and not in Syria. So this property goes for the special office, this is for emigrant Jewish, there is a special Jewish office. They collect the rent from those offices, those stores, and they put it in the bank. Today, the office is there. So—but the Mukhabarat is, there are members of Mukhabarat, they don’t have houses. So they start to take the houses for themselves. I remember, this family escaped, and one of the Mukhabarat took the house. I know him very well, I saw this family, and they needed the house. I went to him, and I said, “Listen, I need your help for something.” He said, “What?” I said, “Listen, I need your house, the one you took like two weeks before.” He didn’t move in. I said, “I need the house for a poor family. That’s twenty-five thousand Syrian pounds for you, give me the keys.” He said, “That’s the keys.” I took the keys, I called my secretary, I said, “Listen, this family is in the holidays, they should live like they have been here over the last five years. You have to go buy them everything, furniture, clothes”—and the holiday was perfect. So they were coming from Qamishli. Qamishli, most of the people were very poor, coming from there. And there were a lot of people, from Qamishli, who were living in Aleppo City. We were helping them a lot.
[1:24:20] Were you not afraid during this period at all?
Afraid from what?
From the secret police, intelligence, your phone could’ve been tapped.
I’m going to tell you something. In that time, I was doing something. Now, I’m asking myself, “How was I doing it?” I’m asking myself how. Do you know, the ambassador, the American ambassador, was coming especially for me to Aleppo? He called me, and was going two, three hours, in the car, talking about our situation, talking about how we’re going to get help, and this is secret. I’m asking myself, “How was I doing that? How was I always going to the ambassador and his office? To the Canadian ambassador, to the French ambassador?” I’m asking myself now how I was doing that. In the school, the law in the school in Syria was that, even though this was private school, they should send a guy from the government to stay in the school as a manager. He has to control all of the school, from the government. Before I become responsible for the community, they were getting scare of this guy, and they can do nothing because he’s connected to the government, this and that. When I came, I saw this Christian guy was from the government, and was there. I was talking to him, and then I started to give him extra money. Instead of a thousand Syrian, I start to give him fifteen hundred Syrian pounds, just to do whatever I have to do. Because I have to show him, he’s not going to control all the school, I’m going to control all the school. Then he started to get greedy, he started asking me for more money. Then one day, I have a worker in the school, he tells me, “I want to talk to you.” He said, “This guy, he called a girl from the class and put her in his room, and he started to touch her.” I said, “What?” I call the girl, and she said yes. Next day I went to the office of who he comes from. I said, “My name is this, I have this guy in my school, and this guy tomorrow, I’m not going to see him in the school.” He said, “Why?” I said, “That’s the reason, listen. If this guy, he’s not leaving the school, you don’t know what I’m going to do.” Next day, he didn’t come to the school. He went to ask the big people just to go back, they told him he cannot go back, because this is impossible. From that time, I was deciding any guy from the government coming in to control the school, I could go mention whatever name I like. I know a guy who is a teacher, I can put his name. That is the manager that’s going to be in the school.
Why do you think you got so much power?
From the Mukhabarat. All my power comes from the Mukhabarat. Because Mukhabarat is on top of everything in the city.
But why would they trust a Jew?
Money. I was working everything with money, nothing for free. And I was giving from the top, down to the smaller ones there, gifts. Money.
And did the Syrians want the Jews to go?
No, they don’t want it. It’s kind of an agreement between the United States government and Syrian government, definitely. Because in 1991, Hafez Assad, the President, he put out the law for the Jewish people, they can have a passport to go, sell their property, to take their money and go, and nobody could ask them. This all goes with the kind of agreement, I don’t know what the agreement is, but definitely there is an agreement. And I said that, in my speech in the end last time, I said, “If it wasn’t for Assad having an agreement with the United States, there would still be Jewish people there. And imagine now if the Jewish community was there with this kind of fight and war there, what’s it going to be like?”
So you had property, you had assets, what happened to them?
All of them are there now, nobody can sell.
So do you still own them?
Still there, nobody owns them. Still there, as I told you, there is—It’s part of the community.
But you had private assets, did you not?
No. my private, I sold.
[1:30:10] You sold them. So let me switch the topic to Zionism. 1940, you were born, 1947 you’re seven years old, and in 1948 when Israel becomes a state, you’re eight years old. Do you have memories of Israel becoming a state?
Sure, I remember because it’s disaster… I had just told you what my family situation is, I remember that, how they got help, I remember that, how they were working, I remember that. And I told you at twelve years old, I started to work with my father.
But when you go back to when you’re seven, eight, did being Jewish and Syria being hostile to Israel, did that affect the community, the extent of the burning?
Yeah, it affected our life. Because of Israel, our life became the worst. Forget about the people, they hate us because we’re Jewish, but the government, I remember something, I have my sister. Her name is Rachel. She escaped in 1967, to Lebanon. In that time, when any Jewish member escaped, the Mukhabarat came to take the father for seven, ten days, put in him in prison, beat him up, ten days for no reason, punishment, just like that. So when my sister escaped, they took my father. My father was sick, they took him. Until twelve o’clock at night, because he’s sick, they returned him back home, and they ask him, “Next day, nine o’clock, you have to come back again.” When he came to home, he was asking me, “Take me to the hospital.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I don’t want to go back to them.” His face was unbelievable. I said, “Calm down. Let’s see what we’re going to do.” So in that time, 1967 we’re talking, I have no connection with nobody at that time. I know a lady, she was living in the area at that time, I know a lady, and she had a connection with the chief of the Mukhabarat in that time. I went to her, seven o’clock in the morning, I banged the door and said, “I’m your neighbor here, this is the problem, and the officer asked my father to go back at nine o’clock, and he cannot go back there because he’s sick.” She said, “Okay,” called the chief, and told him the story. He said, “Listen, tell him to come to my office at eleven o’clock. Don’t go, come to my office at eleven o’clock.” So I went with him at eleven o’clock, went to his office, he saw his face, he said, “You fell, that’s why your face is like that?” I tell him, “No sir, that’s the guy, the officer,” I gave his name, “They beat him up, they asked him to go again at nine o’clock in the morning.” He said, “Okay. You know what? Go home.” So when I became connected with the Mukhabarat, I stopped this. I had the power to do anything. When I—one day, they caught a lady, maybe sixty years old, she was escaping to Turkey. They catch her on the border, they bring her back to the Mukhabarat. They call me, I went there, and when I went to the room, I see the lady sitting there. I said to the chief, “What’s she doing sitting here?” He said, “She was escaping.” I said, “Please send this lady back home, I don’t want to see her here.” So he said, “Okay, go home.”
So, you were asking me a question now, about where I got my power from. I got my power from money, plus I built good connections with them. We were playing Shesh Besh, if you know Shesh Besh, so they were calling me after ten, eleven o’clock at night, “Come, we’re going to play.” So I went there one time, I was playing with who… with the chief of the investigation place, which is the hardest place. So I was playing, there were five, six officers there, and I was Jewish, I was by myself only. So I said, “What are we going to play for?” They said, “Up to you,” and I said, “Okay, we’re going to play for lunch, fish,” and they said, “Okay.” So we were playing, and he’s the vice president of the big chief, he’s Alawite. He came, he saw us, and I was playing. I won, six hundred, gave it to his guy and said, “Go bring us fish, and we’re going to eat here.” We eat, we finish, and I went home. Another two, three days, I was in the chief’s office, and this guy, his secretary, came. He said, “Sir, excuse me. I want to tell you something.” He said, “Now I know how Israel, he wins against all the Arab countries.” I tell them, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Sir, we are six officers in the Mukhabarat. And there is one Jewish guy. He ate, he won, and he’s Jewish, and we are six officers. Now I know how Israel is dealing with Arab countries.” So this was my position there. I went—friendliness, and money. Nothing for free.
When you grew up, did Muslims come to your house, or Christians visiting?
[1:37:30] Yeah. One story I have, I had the store. So one day I went to the store, like ten o’clock. I saw, I had one Muslim neighbor, he’s very anti-Semite, against the Jews. I know him. So he was there standing with his friend, like an old guy, he’s standing there. So when I open the gate, he says, “Can we talk to you?” I said, “Sure,” so they come in, and he says, “This guy is responsible in the mosque in our area. He has a son, a soldier, they took him three months ago from his place until now, and nobody knows where he is.” And, starts the father—he says, “Listen, I went to many people for help,” just to let me know, what’s his problem. Nobody was being in touch, nobody. So I said, “Okay. Where do you think he is?” He says, “He’s Mukhabarat,” and Mukhabarat is where I have the connection. So I said, “Okay, what’s his name,” and I call, the officer said, “Yes, we have his name here.” The father was listening to me, and he said, “Please tell him, maybe I can go to give him some stuff.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to send his father to give him some stuff.” He said, “Okay, when he comes there, have him give us his name.” He went there. I’m telling you, the place—if he went there, nobody can go there. People, they got scared unbelievable from this place, because it’s very scary. So he said “Okay, I’m from Toufik Kassab, I want to see my son,” so he says, “Okay.” They let him go inside to see his son, and sit with him. Next day, he comes back, he says “Wow, I can’t believe.” He says, “I tried with many officers, just to ask a question. They said no, we cannot be in touch with this kind of question, no doubt.” So then my neighbor said, “Listen, can you help him, just to release him, please do it.” I called the officer again and I said, “Tell me—thank you so much for letting his father see his son, but tell me, what’s his story?” He said, “Are you interested about him?” I said, “I don’t know him.” He said, “Okay, you want to come to the office tonight.”
So I went there, I said, “What’s his story?” He said, “Okay. That’s, he was friend with one guy, he’s in prison now, he was a friend in school. He’s from al-Muslimun, you know what that is, al-Muslimun, against the government. He was a friend in the school.” So I said “Okay, what’s the deal with this guy?” He said, “I could leave him here another six months, and I could release him today.” I said, “If you can do it, go do it.” He said, “Okay, tell his father to call tomorrow, it’s finished.” So, I came the next day, said, “Call your son, and speak to him tomorrow from his place, he’s going to be out.” After I tell him that, my neighbor said, “Oh, you know what, the father doesn’t have money, how much is it going to cost?” I said, “Listen, I respect you because you’re in my place here. I did that just to show you, you shouldn’t be anti-Semite that much against the Jewish.” And I tell him, “Listen, I don’t need nothing from you. Just, when you’re going and coming from here, tell me hi and bye, that’s it.” I did that, why? Just to let the Muslim people respect us, not for any benefit. So in our area, when I had the store there, he’s always— there is a big violation for the stores, the high prices, this and that, and the violation is one month in jail. So all the officers, when they’re coming there, come in for any such store, ask them for an ID, and they were running to me just to help them. They’re coming to me, so everybody knows me, and I would go tell them, “Leave them this time for me, finish.” So what I built there in Syria, it’s a very big name. All over, that’s why the chief of Mukhabarat preferred to let me leave. He saw me, saw that I was reaching high and high and high. And I’m Jewish, so as I told you, in the end, if anything happened nobody’s going to go to ask about me.
When you came to the States—can you talk about your family in New York? Was it difficult resettling, was it hard?
I didn’t know English, I didn’t go to school, and I had a family, and I have a lot of friends. Before I came to the United States, I came two times as a visitor. One of my friends is very rich, and he said, “Toufik, stay here with your wife, I’ll go to bring your kids here, and you don’t have to go back to Syria.” I said, “What are you talking about? I have my business there, what am I going to do here?” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I said, “Eddy, I have to prepare myself, I cannot come like that.” He said, “Alright.” When I came here in 1989, he invited me for a lunch, and we went to his office. “Eddy, what am I doing now,” I tell him. “It’s the first week I’m here, the first week.” He said, “Best thing is to find somebody to be partners with, sell dresses and this and that.” Meaning is, nothing. When I came to visit here, “bikur cholim”, they invited me here, the president was Etom Yalom. They invited me to a special meeting to discuss with me the Syrian Jews. There were like ten members there. And I went there, I said “Okay,” I spoke about our situation, and they said, “We’re going to give you twenty-five thousand to spend in Syria, wherever you like.” I said, “I’m not going to take money.” I said, “I’m giving you the money. Take the money and spend it wherever you need it.” I said, “I have money. I don’t need money.” Then in the end, they said, “Okay, you know what, if you’re not going to take the money now, let’s put a code. Give us your account here, and call us, and give us the code, and we’ll put the money in your account.”
I never called them, because I don’t need money. When we came here, I said, “Let’s go to visit ‘bikur cholim’”. I went to visit the “bikur cholim”, and they told me, “Toufik, go take care of your family, stop doing those things because what’s very important now is your family.” Alright. I had three, two daughters and one son, they had to go to school. Before I reached here, they went to Shahadah Torah School. When I reached here, the first day, the second day, they called me. I went there. They said, “Listen, you have three kids here, you have to pay us fifteen thousand now for the three kids.” I said, “Rabbi, fifteen thousand American is eight hundred thousand Syrian pounds. I just came from Syria, you ask me to pay you eight hundred thousand Syrian pounds, which is enough to buy a big villa in Syria.” He said, “Listen, don’t talk too much, you can go to put your kids in public school.” I said, “You’re talking to me and telling me to put my kids in public school?” I said, “Do you know what I was doing in Syria?” He said, “I don’t want to know.” I said, “Okay.” In Syria, in the school, we make an appeal after eight o’clock, within five minutes of that time, the management knows which student is not in the school. We have to send somebody from the school to bring the child to the school. And you’re asking me to go to put my kids in public school?
[1:48:00] Judy, she called me. Tells me, “I want to send you tickets, to come to Ohio, Cleveland. To have a speech there about the Syrian Jews.” So I let somebody write me a letter, a speech, for a speech there. I put in there, I said, “I really am finished from Syria. But we came here for the healing. I couldn’t find school for my three kids.” In the whole audience, there was like four, five hundred people. They came to me asking, “What are you talking about?” I said, “That’s the truth.” So I came back from Cleveland here. Steven Shalom called me. “Tell me, Toufik, what do you need?” I said, “Nothing. Still, I need nothing.” “You’re going to see me.” He came to me. Took me to Magen David, Magen David. I think, “Wow, this is the head of the community.” They took all my three kids, they put them in the school. The first three months, Gina, my daughter—the rabbi tells me, “You know her English is not that much, and she cannot follow her friends in the class. I believe it would be much better to let her go to work.” They sent her home. Golda, the first year, she graduated. Eighth grade. I went to register her in ninth grade, and they said, “We don’t have a place.” “What are you talking about?” “We have no place for her.” I put her in another school. The last one, my son jimmy. He graduates from first grade, has to go to second grade. In the summer, they send us out for psychologists, say we need psychology. I said, “Okay,” we go there, we pay six hundred dollars, we get report, “Nothing is wrong with your son, all he needs is in the summer time, two times a week, half an hour every day, two times a week, to let them learn a little bit of English.” That’s it, that’s the report. I went back to the school, and they said, “We don’t have a place for him.” I said, “You sent me to the psychologist, that’s the report. Why did you make me go spend six hundred dollars? That’s the report, nothing wrong with the kid, just—and I’m going to teach him English in the summer.” “Nope, we have no place.”
I took him to another school, he graduated from eighth grade, and now he had to go to high school. I know Bialufe, he was the principal of a high school. I know him, he knows me. I call him, I say, “Rabbi, my son, I’m going to put him in high school.” “Ok, don’t worry, don’t worry.” The school is open Thursday, I didn’t get anything. I went to him, I said, “Listen rabbi, is my son going to school or not?” He says, “Yes. I want to ask you a question.” I say, “What?” He says, “Are you going to pay full tuition?” I say “Yes,” he says, “Okay,” and calls someone in right there. “Register him, put him inside.” That’s the story. When I started, I said to myself, “I asked a couple friends, and nobody wants to give me any help. You know what, they were looking just to see me working just as a worker.” And for myself to go to work as a worker is very big for me. I said, “I had some money.” I said, “You know what, I’m going to spend my money just to learn, how I’m going to live in the United States.”
[1:53:00] So after another, maybe two weeks, I was in Flatbush. I saw a Store For Rent sign. I called the number, the guy, he knows me, his name is Emil Sabal, and he’s the owner. “Oh, I know you, okay.” He said, “Seven thousand a month for rent.” I said, “Okay.” He says, “But now is June. You’re going to take the store in January, because the guy’s lease ends in January.” So I have six months. I sign the lease to him, and I give him security, I give him the rent, I was waiting. But six months for me is too much, what am I going to do? So I was walking with somebody in the Bronx. I see a store is for rent, the street is a nice street, I called and he was also from our community. He said, “Five thousand a month,” and I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.” He said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to have a jewelry, retail jewelry.” So I opened in retail jewelry, my son came to work with me. And I hired somebody who speaks Spanish, because the area is a Spanish area. So I started, I don’t know anything about gold, nothing. A friend of mine was selling gold, I tell him, “Listen, I want to go to buy but if it doesn’t sell, I go to return them back, or to change to something else,” and he says, “Okay.”
So I started there, with zero knowledge. Zero. In three months, I started to know everything about the gold, and I start to succeed. Three months. Another three months, the guy from Flatbush, he called me, tells me that the store is ready. I go over, I start the store, I leave my son in the Bronx. And I open the jewelry store. I had robberies three times. They came with machine guns, and they took everything three times. I started the game from zero. And I said, “I’m going to live here. There is no other choice.” So—and then I started to make money, and business was good. One of our neighbors wants to sell his building. Ok, we’re there, I like the building, so I bought it. I got a mortgage, I bought the building. It is a store and two apartments, alright. Next year, another building there, very nice location. I was surprised, he came to me, said, “Well, let’s sell the building.” I said “Alright,” but didn’t have any money. I used the credit cards, fourteen credit cards just to have money. And I got a mortgage, and I bought the building. Another couple years, I decided to finish with the jewelry, and I opened my office, and thankfully, I’m in good shape with the real estate business. But I’m talking about twenty-four years. Twenty-four years, it feels more than one hundred years, I believe.
And how did you keep—or did you keep Sephardic tradition in your house?
The same tradition we had in Aleppo, same. Nothing changed. The food, the tradition is the same. Not only me, all the community.
And your children?
All the same. Same, same same. I could tell you, one hundred percent.
So Golda here can cook Sephardic Syrian food.
One hundred percent professional. Gina, I can call her the queen of matzah. Do you know matzah, what it means? The queen of matzah. Last Saturday it was by her, unbelievable. Professional number one. Golda, professional in many kinds of food, the same tradition.
And do you go to synagogue every Saturday?
Did Jimmy have a bar mitzvah?
And did Golda have a bat mitzvah?
Golda, she has five boys. Teddy is a twin with his brother. Two years ago, we had a bar mitzvah here. And in one and a half years, I went three times to Israel for bar mitzvahs for my grandkids. And Baruch Hashem, I have twenty great grandkids.
Do you go to Israel frequently?
No, I went in the past one and a half years, three times.
Do you go every year to Israel or…
No. Since I left Israel in 1989, I didn’t have the chance to go there. But now, because of the occasions, I went to Israel three times in one and a half years.
And are you involved in synagogue or community life at all?
No, no, no.
So let me ask you a few final questions. What do you think is the most important part of your Sephardic background?
[1:59:00] You know what the good thing is, it’s our tradition. Now, we’re living here in this area, let’s say. And all Sephardics, most of them, they know each other. We went to the same Shul. There is a couple Shuls, but all the community is all together. Which is now, I believe—I went to Israel. Israel, there isn’t a lot of Syrian Jews. I couldn’t see anybody there, because one of them is in this town, one of them is there… there is no community there. Here, there is, and the best thing is, I believe, is all the Sephardic Jews all living together in the same area. This is very important, to keep tradition, keep the history, keep the families together, that’s very important.
How do you see your identity? How do you identify?
In any way. How do you see your identity?
I believe compared with the other communities, with the Ashkenaz, with any other communities, the Sephardic, especially the Syrian, they—I don’t know, very strange thing, I’m telling you. I went to a lot of countries in the world, I couldn’t see it. Brazil, I went to Brazil, is maybe close. But go out from New York, you’re not going to see community like the Syrian Jews community here.
Where do you consider home? What is home for you?
My home? Right now, it’s definitely America, not another country anymore. Because, when I started to live now, my life is, I saw—I could live in very good shape here in America. So never am I going to change or think to change.
How do you see yourself? As a displaced person, as a refugee as a migrant, how do you see yourself?
No, no, no, I’m a citizen here, I couldn’t see anything else. Refugee, I used to be, but not anymore. I’m a citizen, I can do anything I want, nothing to bother me.
So my last question would be, what message would you like to give to anyone who would listen to this story? What’s the message you want to tell them?
The message is, if I could go back to my life, the very strange thing is, I grew up to help people. So my message is for anybody, if you can go to help, if you have any chance to help, you shouldn’t stop yourself. In the end, you’re going to get it back. In the end, definitely. Any help, you’re helping people, you’re going to get it back. That’s what happened to me. See, I told you my history, and I believe, I succeeded just because I helped the people
Well thank you very much for being interviewed for Sephardi Voices. We really appreciate it.
Very welcome, anytime.