Proofread by: Rebecca Lash
Transcribed by: Temi
Interview date: 11/15/2017
Location: Montreal, Canada
Interviewer: Lisette Shashoua
Total time: 1:15:51
Notes: Some background communication has been omitted from this transcript.
Gabrille Elia Tawfik: Born in 1944 in Kobe, Japan. Raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Arrived to Paris 1963. Arrived to Toronto, Canada 1965.
Lisette Shashoua (00:00:15):
Uh, hello, Gabby. Thank you for joining us today and thank you for giving the Sephardi Voices the interview. Um, I would like to start by asking you, if you could please give us your name, your place of place and date of birth and, uh, [LS: okay] Where [inaudible]
Gabrielle Elia (00:00:41):
So, uh, my name is Gabrielle at birth and, uh, Elia is my family name. I was born in Kobe, Japan. And what happened is that my parents were in Japan because my father was in the export business. And then they got caught during the second world war. [LS: what year was that?] And, um, they were there. Uh, my father was there before the war, but then, uh, when he got married, the, uh, they, uh, were in the Suez canal going towards Japan in 39 when the war broke out. And so they got stuck in there and they couldn't leave and they stayed, uh, even though, uh, even after, uh, wards, when the, the American occupied Japan, uh, [LS: which was what year?] in 48, in 48, my, uh, my mother and my brother and I left and went back to Lebanon and my, my father had to finish off all his work and then he followed us.
Lisette Shashoua (00:01:49):
Can I ask you what year you were born? . So that was just before the war. So you were still stuck there till 48?
Gabrielle Elia (00:01:58):
Yeah, we were stuck till after the war. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:02:03):
Oh, okay. Can you please tell us about your family background, your grandparents, your parents, anything you remember of that part and of growing up in Japan, maybe?
Gabrielle Elia (00:02:16):
Oh, growing up in Japan. I don't remember too too much except that because I was four years old when we left, uh, I, my first recollection is seeing my grandparents in Lebanon and the horror on my mother on my grandmother's face when she realized that she could not communicate with us, her first grandchildren, because we spoke only Japanese and English at that time. So it took a while before we started speaking Arabic and French and forgetting about Japanese and English, [LS: you totally forgot Japanese?] Totally. Even English, I had to start from scratch to learn it. Like I've never known it before. So it's always a problem for me to say, what is your mother's mother tongue? I don't know what my mother tongue is, [laughs] but anyway.
Lisette Shashoua (00:03:13):
And do you have any anecdotes or vivid memories of your parents to share and when you first arrived to Lebanon?
Gabrielle Elia (00:03:22):
Uh, yeah, actually we had just left, uh, a country at war and we arrived in Lebanon and the Lebanon started to become a country at war because it was 1948 and it was after the creation of Israel. And, uh, one of my, uh, early recollections of that time is that somebody put a bomb in my grandparents' building, right where we were sleeping, my brother and I, and I still remember touching the crib, the crib was metal. And it was very, very hot in my mother running like mad to pick us up and get us out of there. She, and she broke down in tears because we had just finished, uh, when we left, uh, Japan in ruin and, and through the war, and then started again, something else in Lebanon [LS: and the bomb exploded?] Exploded on the stairs downstairs. We couldn't go up or down the stairs, quite a few, uh, steps were missing at that point. Yes. [LS: But the apartment was still okay] The apartment was okay. It was down in the stairs. Yeah. And we don't know who or why or what. I mean, it is, it was related to 1948, the creation of Israel and in an Arab country and all that
Lisette Shashoua (00:04:51):
was the building, the [inaudible]
Gabrielle Elia (00:04:53):
it was a two story building. And this was on the stairs downstairs.
Lisette Shashoua (00:04:59):
[and both people] occupiers were Jewish.
Gabrielle Elia (00:05:01):
Yes, yes. Yeah. You can say, Oh, that's true. [inaudible] Okay. Well, yeah, the building had two, uh, apartments and, uh, there were two Jewish families, uh, my, uh, grandparents on the first floor and my, uh, and, uh, Jewish neighbors on top.
Lisette Shashoua (00:05:27):
Okay. Um, now, um, do you know how your parents got married? Could you talk about them?
Gabrielle Elia (00:05:34):
Okay. So, uh, to, uh, answer another question first, uh, about the, uh, both sides of the family. My, my mother, my mother's father's family comes from a small, uh, mountain town of Lebanon called [Deir al-Qamar], where the Jews started out in Lebanon. And, uh, my, uh, on my, on my mother's side of the family, her mother came from Damascus on my father's side. Both sides came from Damascus into Lebanon. So, uh, Lebanon was part of the greater Syria at the time. So, uh, people would move in and out of Damascus, Beirut, uh, like, um, without going through any borders
Lisette Shashoua (00:06:31):
What year did was Le- upto what year was Lebanon part of Syria?
Gabrielle Elia (00:06:34):
It, uh, it was until the French mandate, the French mandate, uh, came after the shortly after the second world war and the French decided to, uh, cut up the, the country and the created, uh, the state of Lebanon, uh, yeah, the state of Lebanon and a few States in, within Syria. Uh, okay. So, uh, what else can I say now? [LS: so your parents came from Damascus] from Damascus on my father's side. Yes. And my mother's maternal side. Yeah. But on my mother's maternal side, I still remember my mother's grandmother, uh, came from Jerusalem and she spoke only Ladino. She married somebody in a, in Damascus who spoke only Arabic. And between them, they managed to have four kids. I'm not sure how they actually communicated, but it seems to have worked out. [LS: she never learned Arabic?] She never learned Arabic. She spoke only Ladino [overlap] and he never, no, no, no. And I still remember her quite clearly because I was 14, 15 when she passed away. Yes.
Lisette Shashoua (00:08:03):
Okay. If you could give me your father's name, uh, where and, and what his profession was please.
Gabrielle Elia (00:08:10):
Okay. So, uh, my father Albert Elia, uh, was born in Damascus and, uh, he, uh, studied at the Alliance in Damascus. And then when he came to Beirut, uh, uh, he went to the Lycee, Lycee Francais in Beirut. He continued his studies there. He loved Arabic, uh, that was his main language and he loved it. He loved languages anyway. So he spoke French, he spoke English and he spoke Japanese as well, uh, quite fluently. So whenever, uh, my parents did not want us to understand what they were talking about. They spoke in Japanese at home for years. Yes. And that's how it's worked out. So, uh, what he was doing, uh, in Japan, he was, as I said, he was exporting goods to, uh, towards uh, Lebanon and, uh, and Baghdad actually, he had spent some times in Baghdad, so he was the exporting, uh, China ware, silk things, um, silk, uh, toys. He was in a bit of everything from Japan, made in Japan. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:09:35):
And your mom's name and uh, where was she born?
Gabrielle Elia (00:09:39):
Yeah, wait, uh, then, um, when we went back to, to Lebanon, he continued with his, uh, import export from Lebanon. But, um, at one point, uh, there was, uh, a big problem and, uh, he was arrested and, uh, put in jail. It was 1961 because, uh, he was at that point, a secretary general of the Jewish community in Beirut. And he got arrested in 1961 and he, and, uh, they took away his passport, so he could not travel anymore. And, uh, uh, so, uh, okay. I mean, there's a whole story behind it. [overlap] Okay. Okay. And then as a, uh, the, uh, they arrested him in 1961 and, uh, he was put in prison for, uh, for a while. Uh, when he came out here, he was, uh, still working as a secretary of the community. Yes.
Lisette Shashoua (00:10:58):
Yeah. So, uh, we're gonna go back a little bit, um, your mom's name and how did they meet your parents?
Gabrielle Elia (00:11:06):
My father was in Japan and, uh, there was a very nice, big community, Jewish community in Kobe, Japan of importers exporters coming from Syria mostly. And, uh, he had spent a number of years, so he went back to Lebanon to get married. And, uh, it just so happened that, uh, they made him, uh, they introduced him to my mother and, uh, and then they, they got married pretty quickly. And, uh, as I said on their way back on their way to Japan, right in the Suez canal, the war broke out. It was 1939 that summer of 1939. Yeah. [LS: And your mother's maiden name?] My mother's maiden name is Srour [ph]. And her name is Lily and Lily Srour. She didn't work. She got married extremely young. She was 18 when, when they got married and, uh, she had the three children. I had a sister, an older sister in Japan, but, uh, she didn't manage to go through the war. She had, uh, she, she passed away very young, five years old. She was [LS: what happened?] dysentery during the war. Yeah. There, there was no, uh, not enough, um, medical supplies and, uh, yeah. Five-year-old yeah. [LS: sorry] So, uh, but once they, we all came back to Lebanon. I had another sister who was born in, uh, in Lebanon, 1948, 49. [LS: What's her name?] Shelly. She, she lives in Brazil now. She's in Sao Paolo. Yep.
Lisette Shashoua (00:12:59):
Okay. Do you have any earliest memories that you have? What else, where you grew up, uh, social circles you belonged to, [Jewish] friends?
Gabrielle Elia (00:13:09):
I started the school at the Protestant school, uh, uh, in the neighborhood, [LS: In Lebanon] In Beirut, Yes. And, um, by then I was able to, uh, to speak Arabic and French enough to communicate. And, uh, in, in 1950 there was a bomb that was placed at the Alliance school and it blew up. So, uh, when they rebuilt it in 1952, I went to the alliance school starting in 1952 in the new building. It was in the neighborhood. [LS: was anybody hurt in that bomb?] Well, the principal who was sleeping in the building passed away with the guard and it was during the night, it was planned to go on a little later on about eight, nine o'clock so that the school would be all there. But at that point, uh, something happened there, there was a huge, big electric storm and it triggered the bomb earlier. And so it is through the night that it happened [LS: and the whole school was] the whole school was in shambles. I mean, it was all demolished. It was a huge, huge bomb, bomb at the time. Yes. Yeah. I saw the, by the time, I mean, they, they came there, there was only rubbles and they had to do, it was a shock for everybody. Yes. It was 1950.
Lisette Shashoua (00:14:47):
Now Do you have any non Jewish friends? Jewish? Who are your friends?
Gabrielle Elia (00:14:50):
Yeah. Okay. So I started at the Alliance, the finished, uh, the Alliance was, uh, went on until the, the breve [ph]. And then after that, I went to the Lycee Francais. So at the Alliance was mostly within the community Jewish, uh, kids and, uh, and in the neighborhood, but at the Lycee we had friends who were Muslim and, and Christians, and, uh, I still have a very good friend of a classmate of mine who lives in Montreal. And I met her again. I keep meeting her here and we're still very, very much in touch. And she's Christian, the Muslim friends because I left in 65 and then the war broke out in Lebanon in 75. I did not keep in touch with them. Uh, things, you know, happened. And, uh, I don't know. I, I try to get news, but it's very hard after the, that happened. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:15:56):
You remember anything else about the school, if you had a sports club? Uh,
Gabrielle Elia (00:16:01):
Well, we had the social club, uh, within the community and we were, uh, yeah, we, we used to go quite often to that, and it was a happy go lucky type of, uh, life in Lebanon for us, for kids. Uh, but for our parents, they were living day by day, trying to find out what's going on and whether they should stay, it was always a question of, uh, having your suitcase always at the ready, just in case. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:16:40):
Okay. Um, the neighborhood you lived in, was it all Jewish? Was it
Gabrielle Elia (00:16:44):
no. The, the neighborhood was, uh, was mixed and, uh, we had very good neighbors, uh, and, uh, everybody knew everybody else and we had no problem with, with the Lebanese. It's later on it's, uh, the Palestinians who were starting to get more radicalized and, uh, created a lot of, uh, the political trouble that Lebanon is in.
Lisette Shashoua (00:17:17):
Um, do you have memories of food, the food you used to?
Gabrielle Elia (00:17:21):
Well, food is always a big, uh, item because a life is a very social life. So there's always a Lebanese food is, is great. And the Lebanese are very well known for their, uh, uh, gourmet style restaurants. And, uh,
Gabrielle Elia (00:17:46):
I don't know. We were thinking about, uh, how in Jewish families everyday seemed to be pretty much uniformly [inaudible] on Friday night, we had, we had to have a rezzo hamoud [ph] It had to be on Friday night. It was the food of that evening. On another day, it was lentils and rice on another day. So, uh, it was, uh, funny, but, uh, yeah, all the reunions meetings were always around a table and, uh, religious, uh, occasions, the, any, any celebration was always bound to be accompanied by a nice buffet and, uh, food, good food [laughs]
Lisette Shashoua (00:18:40):
How about, uh, the religious, uh, uh, holidays, Shabbat, Passover?
Gabrielle Elia (00:18:47):
Okay. In Lebanon, the Lebanese were not even, uh, the people who came from Damascus were not terribly religious or observant, I'm saying. Uh, so, uh, we, for instance, never went for a, to Shabbat the synagogue. It wasn't part of our, our routine, but later on, when the people in the Jewish people came from Aleppo, the Haladi [ph], they came and they were extremely observant and they kind of gave us some of that. But I mean, I still don't know don't go much to the synagogue [laughs], but, uh, it doesn't make me less of a Jew, but this is how it works. Uh, that yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:19:42):
Uh, clothing, the clothing were European?
Gabrielle Elia (00:19:45):
very much so. Yeah. We, after, after, yeah, after the French protectorate in Lebanon, everything was very much in tune with Paris and the fashion in Paris and the magazines from Paris. And we used to have the, um, every season changing, uh, every time that the season changed, we had a, there was a seamstress coming to the house and making new dresses for all the girls in the family. And, uh, we, uh, followed what there was no pret a porter in those days. So, uh, we followed, we tried to follow whatever was in fashion in, uh, in France very much so
Lisette Shashoua (00:20:42):
any special memories of say Passover, Brit Milah, weddings?
Gabrielle Elia (00:20:47):
Yeah. Well, Passover is not like it is here, anyway holiday we always went to my grandmother. It was a huge gathering the table. I have a picture of the table for the Seder was just unbelievable. I don't know how many people, we were maybe 45, 50 people, uh, for, for that. And everybody, all the women did their own share of, uh, of the cooking, but it was the big, big Seder. So here, I mean, just the direct family, very, very close knit there. It was all the whole family at large,
Lisette Shashoua (00:21:32):
any superstitions unique for the family for like your home?
Gabrielle Elia (00:21:41):
Not that I can think of. No.
Lisette Shashoua (00:21:45):
Uh, no. Um, Jewish organizations when you were growing up, were there any,? yeah, well, the, the, the community was very, very well, uh, uh, set up and, uh, very, uh [coughs], excuse me, because, um, like um in Lebanon, there are lots of minorities, religious minorities, and each minority, for instance, the Jewish community had to have a certain number of things that they dealt with. So they dealt with anything that has to do with, uh, marriages divorces, uh, eh, even justice. They did their own, uh, they had their own, um,
Gabrielle Elia (00:22:45):
well, we didn't really have big felony or murders or anything like that, but we dealt with everything within the community. So the community was well set up, extremely well organized and they took care also of the education, all the schools that were under their jurisdiction as well. Uh, I was very close to all that because my father was in the, I mean, he was the secretary of the, uh, of the, uh conseil communale and so I knew what was going on and it was quite well set up [LS: can you tell us about it? About what your dad was involved in, what he did?] Um, well, I mean, uh, yeah.....
Lisette Shashoua (00:23:55):
can you tell me please what your dad did in as a secretary of the Jewish community?
Gabrielle Elia (00:24:08):
Okay. As the secretary of the community, he took care of everything that had anything to do with health, education and, uh, social, uh, religious, uh, issues. And, uh, and, uh, as well as, uh, together, obviously with the rabbi, with the president of the community, of any, uh, uh, cases where they needed to, uh, justice, uh, to financial health. Yeah. And medical, everything. He took care of it. I mean, uh, yeah, he had to decide, [LS: there were no divorces then?] there were some, very few, they tried to get the couple back together as much as possible. Yeah. But, uh, things happened. Yeah. They were very, very few.
Lisette Shashoua (00:25:06):
How, uh, how many years was your dad Secretary of the Jewish community?
Gabrielle Elia (00:25:16):
Good question.25 years maybe.
Lisette Shashoua (00:25:19):
Now, this was a religious Jewish community. It was not a Zionist organization
Gabrielle Elia (00:25:23):
No, definitely not. Zionist. It was not a Zionist organization. And at school they made sure that even though we sang in Hebrew songs, but nothing was pro Israel, they never wanted to be openly pro Israel.
Lisette Shashoua (00:25:42):
And the family views about Zionism?
Gabrielle Elia (00:25:45):
Well, we were very much pro Israel, not necessarily pro, Zionist, but pro Israel. But, uh, my, my father had a very, uh, good friends on the other side of the border. Everybody had family on the other side of the border. I had an aunt in, uh, in Israel, but, uh, after 48, we were not able to directly get in touch with them. So if you wanted to get in touch with anyone like that, it was either through Cyprus or, uh, uh, go to Istanbul or go to Rome or any Paris or anywhere else, but no direct contact. And, uh, shortly, uh, because the, the situation was getting worse and worse for Jews in Arab lands, in Muslim lands, uh, especially, uh, Iraq, lots of Iraqis came to Lebanon and, uh, but they thought they would just spend, most of them spent very little time and then they went elsewhere.
Gabrielle Elia (00:26:53):
But the Syrian Jews from Damascus came and from Aleppo, most of them, a lot of them stayed for a, for a while, stayed a lot longer than they thought. And then they ended up leaving to go to, [LS: what do you mean by a lot like a few years?] Some of them stayed a few years. Some of them stayed and started a job and started working. Uh, yeah, because Lebanon was the only Muslim or Arab countries. Uh, they had 50%, uh, a bit more than 50% Maronite Christians. So they, uh, they did the allow Jews to stay and work. So they gave them a kind of a permit to work. So it was tacitly understood that, uh, they came without papers and, and so they were a stateless, but they allowed them to work [LS: And uh, were you given Lebanese citizenship or passports?] The, yeah, I, I have, uh, my identity card and the pictures. And you can see that, yes, I had the passport.
Gabrielle Elia (00:28:10):
We, my family was Lebanese. We had Lebanese papers ever since the French protectorate. Uh, but, uh, the, uh, Syrian Jews who came later on and the Iraqi Jews who came later on, uh, they were stateless, they were considered stateless, but they were given a permit to work if they wanted to. And they were given a laisser passer to leave the country if they prefer to go elsewhere. But without returning, so it was a one way ticket and one way it was out, but a lot of them managed to get papers through Iran in those days. The Shah's Iran was very understanding and, uh, gave, uh, uh, quite a few passports to, uh, Iraqi and Syrian Jews [LS: Iranian passports] Iranian passport to Iraqi Jews and to, uh, Syrian Jews [LS: you know all this because your dad was] Absolutely. Yes, I [LS: can you tell us now about your dad?] Okay.
Gabrielle Elia (00:29:24):
So, uh, uh, my, my father, because of his position and as the secretary of, uh, of the Jewish community was well known. And, uh, as the, in Syria, the, uh, in Syria, mostly in, uh, uh, Damascus and Aleppo and Latakia, Latakia is another city in Syria that they had a lot, uh, quite a thriving Jewish community there. So these were the three big spots there, uh, where Jews were not welcome anymore. And so they started a lot of them came right at the beginning and they managed, but those who decided to stay their lot was getting worse and worse. And, uh, it was becoming impossible for them to leave. So the families sent their sons out, uh, all, uh, teenage sons. And, uh, they ran away from, uh, Aleppo, from Damascus into Lebanon through the mountains. And, uh, the only names that, that, uh, the contact name that they had was my father's.
Gabrielle Elia (00:30:51):
So, uh, for them, he was, uh, he spelled Liberty. He was freedom personified. So as soon as they managed to go through, most of them managed to go through the mountains and get to Beirut eventually. And he would place them in families and, uh, uh, around the, the neighborhood that is around the Jewish neighborhood. And, uh, then, uh, as soon as they were quite a few of them, they managed to get them through the southern, uh, border with Israel because at that time it was still quite porous, so they could send out a lot, but, uh, things were tightening up now and in the sixties, uh, and, uh, they decided to settle, uh, Palestinians down in the southern parts. And so that way was close to them. They, it was not available anymore to send those Syrian Jewish boys out. So they had to find other ways other means.
Gabrielle Elia (00:31:59):
And, uh, so, uh, my father was supposed to take care of all these things and, uh, arranged for them to go through, uh, Istanbul through Cyprus, through Rome, back to Israel. And, uh, towards the end in 1971, he actually had a group and he was waiting for another group of youngsters to come and they never made it. And so the community, uh, uh, decided that the group that they have has to go immediately before, uh, they get caught. And so the Lebanese army sent trucks for them, loaded them and took them through this, the Southern border. It was just an amazing thing. And my father actually was part of the, uh, of the trip, but obviously he didn't go across. He stayed there and, uh, he just saw them, uh, just go through. Cause they were so afraid. The others who didn't make it, I mean, got caught. And, uh, and their families had to pay for it, for that.
Lisette Shashoua (00:33:17):
Were they able to leave, the others?
Gabrielle Elia (00:33:20):
No, they were caught, they were caught and they were put in prison and questioned. And they all said, well, the the only name we know is Albert Elia. And, uh, so that was in 1971. And then, uh, shortly after somebody told my father that he's being followed in the streets wherever he went and all that. So he went to the police and he told them, and they sent somebody, a guard to accompany him for a week. So he would come to the house and knock at the door. My father would go, he'd follow him. He would go with him, just be there until he reached, uh, the office at the synagogue. And, uh, that lasted a week, the Monday after the, uh, the police thought, you know, there was nothing there. I mean, it's all very, uh, nice and quiet. Uh, and so my, my dad was not aware that they had stopped the guard from coming in to help him out.
Gabrielle Elia (00:34:29):
So he couldn't wait any longer. He had, uh, lots of things on his mind, lots of things to do at the office. So he went out and, uh, that was the end of that. Uh, somebody picked him up, uh, right outside the door. And, uh, we learned later on that it was the Syrians who had grabbed him, kidnapped him, abducted him and taken him to Syria. And, uh, yeah, I was, I had been in, uh, in Beirut in 1971 that summer, two weeks ahead. And, uh, things were quiet. Everything was kind of, okay. I could feel the difference though, in, in the mood, uh, we went for instance, to, to a restaurant with my, my family, my, my dad, my mom, even in the restaurant right behind us, there were people sitting there young, uh, militia men, cause they're not part of the army. And they, they were all armed to the teeth with their Kalashnikov and Kalashnikov was like your everyday word in Lebanon in those days in the seventies, Russian Kalashnikov, that's a huge gun, you know, why do you need to carry a Kalashnikov with you when you're going for a dinner outside? anyway.
Gabrielle Elia (00:35:49):
So that's a [LS: and they were dressed up in militia?] Militia, yeah. Yeah. Very sure of themselves. Yeah. They were self proclaimed protectors of, I don't know what, and a [LS: were these people Palestinian, you think?]
Gabrielle Elia (00:36:16):
they were, there were so many different types of, uh, of groups. Nobody could know whether they were Hezbollah, they were Palestinian, they were Iranian, it's we didn't, we didn't know. We never stopped to ask questions anyway. And then that's why, uh, I mean, a few years later in 1975, the, uh, civil war broke out in Lebanon. And my, my mother, uh, never wanted to leave Beirut because she kept on thinking, okay, he's going to come back. He's going to come back. But, uh, in 73, uh, already, I mean, uh, she said, no, don't come and see me here. We're going to meet elsewhere. So we met in Greece. She didn't want me to go to Lebanon. And, uh, shortly after that, she had to leave because her, uh, building got bombarded with the war and all that. So she left with just her suitcase. And my sister also left with her suitcase. My, my mother went to made her way to Israel and they received her very nicely and they gave her an apartment. And, uh, she lived there for a number of years.
Lisette Shashoua (00:37:33):
No, I'm going to backtrack, your dad. He was taken in 71 and the police and the police,
Gabrielle Elia (00:37:45):
the police didn't show up that day because they had decided that [overlap], no, that was it [LS: nobody told him where, what?] well afterwards. So I had been to Beirut before, and then I was just back and happy to be, to have seen them and everything. And my uncle calls me, he says, is this true? Albert? Well, your dad is, uh, has been abducted? I said, that's the first I am hearing about it. Give me more news! And then I had to call my mother and she said, well, I was hoping that you couldn't have heard so fast and that he'll be back in the meantime. And we would call it quits and all that. So I jumped on the first plane and went back to, uh, to Lebanon. And I was so sure of myself. I mean, I'm Canadian and, uh, it's, um, things don't just happen like that [laughs] around me.
Gabrielle Elia (00:38:45):
But, uh, so I went there and I, I told the, the president of the community, I said, I've got to see the president of the Republic. You know, the Lebanese Republic. I have to go and see him. And actually he managed to get me a visit. And, uh, I went for a visit with, uh, Suleiman Frangieh at the time. And the, [LS: who was Christian?] Yes, they have to be Christian in Lebanon. The president has to be Chris. No, until, till now that the constitution is that the president has to be a Maronite. The, uh, prime minister has to be a Muslim, uh, uh, Sunni and et cetera. So each rank has a different Christian, [overlap] no Muslim [overlap] he's prime minister. Yeah. Yeah. [LS: So you managed to see, tell me about this encounter] Uh, that was quite the, yeah, that was quite the encounter. He said, yes, of course. Uh, he, he would receive me because in the name of my father who, uh, whom he knew quite well and, uh, admired his erudition
Gabrielle Elia (00:39:59):
and, uh, and he, he knew him personally as being such a, a great, uh, humanist. But, uh, he can't do very much himself as a president of the Republic because these were groups from outside the country who abducted him to take him outside the country. God forbid he would say the word Syria. Anyway. So, uh, then after that, uh, on my way back, I went to France and I insisted to go and see somebody from the government. So [French- inaudible] is in the ministry of the exterior and they received me, they received me. They, they accepted to see me to hear my story. And they said, well, they'll do whatever they could. And of course, we're talking about Syria and they knew about this problem before. And if, uh, I wanted news, they'll try to give me news as soon as they can, but they can't. They couldn't at that point because they were told that they've never heard in Syria by Syrians, that they've never heard of Albert Elia. They don't know who he is. They denied his existence. They obviously, they didn't say they had abducted, abducted him. And, um, the French being the French, they said, well, we can do only. So, but you're not even a French citizen, but we're trying our best [laughs].
Gabrielle Elia (00:41:40):
I said, okay, anyway, so, uh, it didn't stop there. I went around also, I went to the Capitol for, for a big meeting with the Senator Jackson at the time,
Lisette Shashoua (00:41:55):
the capital Ottawa here?
Gabrielle Elia (00:41:56):
no Capitol is in Washington, DC. [LS: Wow. Yeah] Washington DC. And, um, no, I was in touch with the whole world, uh, trying to do something, trying to find something. But, uh, yeah,
Gabrielle Elia (00:42:17):
but I don't think he lasted very long anyway, in, uh, in the hands of these Syrians.
Lisette Shashoua (00:42:28):
I'm so sorry.
Gabrielle Elia (00:42:28):
I, it was for 25 years. I couldn't even utter his name. I couldn't tell his story for 25 years until my mother passed away. And then we ended up putting his name on her, uh, and her name together on the same, because we don't have a body. So that's the only time then I started feeling well, I mean, I've got to tell the story. I've got to let my children know about it. And it is very important that this doesn't just get forgotten.
Lisette Shashoua (00:43:05):
I'm sorry. What? Okay, so I'm going to re- I'm going to go back again. When did you leave Lebanon?
Gabrielle Elia (00:43:12):
I left in 1965. This happened in 71. [LS: and you got married?] I got married in 66.
Lisette Shashoua (00:43:22):
In 66. Yeah. In 71, I guess I met you in 72.
Gabrielle Elia (00:43:30):
Probably I was here. Yeah,
Lisette Shashoua (00:43:32):
yeah. Yeah. I didn't know anything. I don't know if anybody did
Gabrielle Elia (00:43:38):
Of course they did. The Lebanese. Yes. Yeah, no, no. The, no, the Lebanese war, uh, obviously, uh, in touch with other Lebanese and, uh, no for sure everybody knew, because, uh, that, that's the point where the Lebanese, uh, Jewish community just fell apart in 71, because if they can come and pick up anybody and just do their, their own thing, nobody is going to be safe. So in 67, after the, uh, the seven, the six day war, uh, with, with Israel, a lot of the Jews left without in 67, but [LS: the persecution had already started?] no, there was no persecution in Lebanon. There was no, but there was no future, no future for it, for themselves. No, no safety. Uh, the Lebanese government was so weak. So after 71, they were other, uh, abductions also of Jews. Quite a few of them got abducted. And most of them [LS: Also by Syrians?], No by different groups, some of them were Hezbollah.
Gabrielle Elia (00:44:57):
Some of them were PLO. Some of them were in different, well, it was a free for all for in Lebanon. And after 71, uh, everybody decided to, uh, to leave and there was nothing left of the community [LS: and they left everything behind?] They left everything behind [LS: Their homes? Their properties?] Their homes, we didn't, for the most part, they were few with property. Most of those who had property was down in the southern area of Saida. And a few Jews had property like buildings and all that because they, they had always at all time, uh, their suitcase ready, and they didn't want any, any attachments, uh, other than, uh, just pack up and go [LS: they werer smarter than the Iraqis] well, because they learned from them. They learned from, uh, from the Iraqis, from the Egyptians, from the, uh, from the Syrians. I mean, Lebanon's the Jewish community rose after the 1948, when all the other, uh, communities were dwindling to nothing because the government was open to to them. They welcomed them to stay and helped them to leave if they wanted to
Lisette Shashoua (00:46:24):
And they helped them uh, yes. To leave to Israel.
Gabrielle Elia (00:46:27):
Yeah, no, well, not directly, but yes. [LS: well at least those children who were the Syrians, they helped them through your dad] Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh, yes. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:46:37):
Okay. Were you when you were in Lebanon, uh, did you belong to clubs or any non Jewish organizations like, uh,
Gabrielle Elia (00:46:49):
no, but through the Lycee, we used to go to a cineclub, uh, to this kind of things, but, uh, not really. I mean, I I was still quite young to go out and all that, but, uh, no, we, we usually stayed within our group, within our families, within our neighborhood.
Lisette Shashoua (00:47:11):
Okay. Um, what I'd like to know now you left to study. Why did you leave Lebanon? And in 65,
Gabrielle Elia (00:47:18):
in 65, I left, but I had gone already in 62, 63. I went for one year to, uh, France, to Paris to get my diploma to teach. And because they, the Alliance had sent me there, I ha I had to, uh, teach at the Alliance for three years, but I did not. I taught for two years, and then I left and they, they accepted to let me go because things were already starting to, uh, to look sad for a young, uh, people, uh, Jewish or otherwise in Lebanon. And so, uh, my, my brother had come here in 63 to Montreal and I followed in 65 here. [LS: And when did you get married?] In 66. Shortly after Yeah. Yeah. Got married in 66. Yes.
Lisette Shashoua (00:48:22):
And you had children?
Gabrielle Elia (00:48:24):
Uh, I had children way later. I have three, uh, girls, three wonderful girls. And, uh, we were in Toronto. They, they were born all three of them in Toronto. Then we came to Montreal. They went to, to school here and, uh, went to McGill. Uh, and then, um, my older two, uh, left and one of them is in Ontario, uh, married. She has twin boys, [LS: what's her name] Jessica, and, uh, the second one, uh, left first to do her study con uh, continue her studies in medicine at Dartmouth college in Vermont, and then got married, [LS: her name?] Vivianne. She, um, she left, uh, yeah, they left shortly after. And then, uh, she's at Stanford university, uh, working at the hospital as an anesthesiologist and researcher she's MD-PhD. So, uh, she and her husband live in Palo Alto. He's, uh, he works for Apple and, uh, they have two boys and my youngest, uh, thank goodness Andrea lives here in Montreal. And she has two, uh, uh, great kids, a girl and a boy and, uh, voila, uh, so I am blessed with six grandchildren. [LS: How often do you see them?] I try to see them as much as I can, especially now, before they start schooling. And, uh, and before they grow up, so I travel quite a bit, quite a few times a year.
Lisette Shashoua (00:50:10):
Gabrielle Elia (00:50:17):
So tell me about your mom, how she settled afterwards. She went to Israel. Yeah, my, my mother [LS: she never came here to live?] settled not to live no. She came for visits, uh, quite a few times, but she couldn't take the winter here and she, she wanted to be on her own. Uh, like, uh, at least she had her own apartment. She had her friends, the, in Israel, [LS: what was her name?] Lily
Gabrielle Elia (00:50:48):
And uh, so she traveled quite a bit between my, uh, sister who lived in Geneva and myself in Montreal. And my brother was in Vancouver, [LS: And your brother is?] Eddie
Gabrielle Elia (00:51:07):
Yeah, and uh, so she passed away in 95.
Lisette Shashoua (00:51:14):
She never got over your dad. Did she?
Gabrielle Elia (00:51:17):
Well, I mean, she had to, uh, to accept it the way it was. It took a while. Yeah. It took a long time. First. She, she didn't even want to leave Beirut, but, uh, things forced her, uh, the war in, uh, I mean, living in Lebanon in the seventies was not easy at all until the war broke out. It was really, there was the 73 war, but I'm talking about Lebanon and the mood in Lebanon. The, uh, the whole atmosphere in Lebanon was getting, getting worse and worse. There's so many factions left right and center. And each faction has its own militia. And, uh, everybody thinks they're the boss around. So it wasn't a healthy place to live in.
Lisette Shashoua (00:52:11):
Can you give us an idea what happened in the civil war in Lebanon?
Gabrielle Elia (00:52:16):
Nobody can tell you, nobody can explain anything like that [laughs]. The civil war was such a mess because every country wanted a part of Lebanon. They wanted to have a say in the way the, the country would move. So the Iranians, the Hezbollah, the PLO with the Palestinians, even within their own factions, there are divided. And then when the war broke out, there was so much blood on all sides. Nobody knew anything anymore. And, uh, within the Christian group, also, there were too many factions and you didn't know who was who anymore? [LS: what year was the war?] 75. [LS: 75] Yeah. [LS: And how long did it last?] 15 years. [gasps] Yeah. Yeah. Close to that. Yes. About 15 years.
Lisette Shashoua (00:53:21):
So it finished in 90,
Gabrielle Elia (00:53:24):
something like that. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's still ongoing for all. I know, you know, because the factions are still there. The parliament is just, I mean, it goes with the whim of the people behind it and, uh, behind every, uh, deputy or it, who knows. [LS: So there are no winners and there are no losers]
Gabrielle Elia (00:53:50):
Well, everybody's a loser. Every everybody's a loser. The country itself is, is losing out. And now they they've been taken over by all the, uh, Syrian, uh, millions of Syrian immigrants who took over the whole Bekah Valley. And, uh, you can't watch them. You can't help them. You can't do anything. So Lebanon can't do very much unless they have help from abroad.
Lisette Shashoua (00:54:20):
And are they getting help from abroad?
Gabrielle Elia (00:54:23):
Well, different groups help different, uh, parts of, yeah. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:54:34):
Okay. Can you tell us what it was like coming to Canada?
Gabrielle Elia (00:54:40):
For me coming to Canada was a very easy decision. My brother was already here and from Lebanon, I had made inquiries and got a job already right away with the Protestant school board to teach. I had already taught for two years in Lebanon. So I had a bit of experience and they wanted the teachers. So I had right away, uh, my, my job before even I, I went on on the plane and or landed here. So it was very nice. It was, [LS: how old were you?] I was 22, 21, actually 21. And, uh, it went very nicely except for the first winter. The first few winters were very, very tough. I wasn't, I wasn't driving at the time. I, I didn't have a car. It was tough to rely on public transport, but, uh, we found lots of, uh, friends and then eventually I got married also. And, uh, I joined in with the Iraqi community. I got married here at the at the Spanish with Rabbi Frank. It was already a very nice synagogue at the time. And it still is now
Lisette Shashoua (00:56:07):
um, when you arrived, uh, did you come as an immigrant?
Gabrielle Elia (00:56:12):
Yes. No, not an immigrant. An immigrant,
Lisette Shashoua (00:56:15):
Did you recieve any help from any organizations?
Gabrielle Elia (00:56:17):
No, no. I had, as I said, I had my job already lined up and I came in the, and then by September I started working. So I was fine. No, nobody, I didn't require any extra help. And, uh, my brother was already here, so he had the, uh, room, uh, in, uh, in an apartment with a Danish lady. And so she happened to have another room for me. So we were together and, uh, it worked out very nicely or it was right on Sherbrooke street downtown. So yeah, until I got married, then I moved out of there. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:57:01):
Did you have any first impressions about Montreal Canada?
Gabrielle Elia (00:57:04):
I loved it, but I thought I, yeah, I thought I was going to join the French speaking group, but then I was with the Protestant school board and, uh, they said, well, since you're Jewish, you have to go, you have to teach in a, in a pro in the Protestant school board, the Catholics. And so, uh, I started the teaching French and then, uh, Baron Byng uh high school was, uh, the only French, uh, uh, high school here. So I went there and I thought, uh, math and science are my subjects. So I taught in French, math and science with English books at the time they didn't have books for us and we couldn't take the Catholic school boards books. So we had to make, do with that.
Lisette Shashoua (00:57:57):
And tell me, once you got here, how you, uh, uh, advanced, uh, professionally, uh, if you joined a synagogue or your social life here?
Gabrielle Elia (00:58:06):
I joined the synagogue. I got married at the synagogue. So the social life was mostly through my husband's friends. So I was mostly with the Iraqi, uh, group. And, uh, after 67, after the six day war, the Lebanese started coming. So I was for two years, uh, I came, I was one of the first Lebanese Jews here. Uh, and in 67 they started all coming, uh, leaving the country and then coming, some of them came to Montreal. [LS: How about Andree?] Andree came just a month before me because she had met somebody who, uh, and then she came and she got engaged and to be married. So, but she knew that I was coming. So that's why she said, okay, well I know
Lisette Shashoua (00:59:03):
you were friends from Lebanon
Gabrielle Elia (00:59:04):
Oh yeah. We were friends from the, uh, from school from way, way back. Yeah. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (00:59:17):
So then did you leave anything behind in Lebanon or you managed to have to bring everything you owned with you?
Gabrielle Elia (00:59:25):
Oh, well, I mean, I had left all my photos back. So, uh, a few years back in 2011, uh, I published a book and I wanted to illustrate it as well. So I didn't have enough, uh, pictures of the community. It was about the Jewish community of Lebanon. And, uh, I had to, to go around, try to find from other people, their photos, because I had very, very few left and I managed to get, uh, myself about 2000 pictures and to sort through them and all that took me about five, six years of research to get the book together. But I thought, uh, I brought a, uh, a copy of it if you wanted to see it, but [overlap] the cover. Yeah, you can. And it's called, uh, in English, or I have it in French. I wrote it in French and translated it into English.
Gabrielle Elia (01:00:29):
It's called The Tightrope Walker because our life in Lebanon was exactly like being on a tightrope, one day it's okay but then the wind shifts a bit to the left and then you go, he tried to straighten out to the right a bit. And then the next day it goes from the other side. And so we were constantly, as I said, ready to leave it. I mean, although it was lovely a place, the country is beautiful, but we were not sure of our future. So when I called it the tightrope Walker Chronicle of, uh, Lebanese Jews between 1925 and 1975, 1925- les funambules- which is a direct translation, 25 was the year our synagogue was built. And 75 is when it got destroyed demolished by bombing, yeah, yes, it's very sad, but they've, uh, they've redone it. They managed to get a lot of money from a lot of, uh, Lebanese Jews around the world to refurbish it.
Gabrielle Elia (01:01:49):
But, uh, there isn't even, I mean, a minyan of Jews to do a prayer. So it's more like a museum piece just to say, well, we were there at one point, [LS: how many Jews are left in Lebanon?] Maybe, as I said about a minyan, maybe for that, some, uh, women who married the non Jews stayed behind the, uh, some men decided to stay because they love it there, no matter what, but, um, very, very few and I, less than 10. Yeah. Yeah. [overlap] But um, about the numbers of, uh, of Jewish Lebanese, it's really hard to pinpoint exactly the number of Lebanese Jews. They were at any one point. We never were more than 10,000, but they were never the same 10,000 because it was a transient type of, uh, community. People just moved in and moved out. They came, some of them stayed, a lot of them just went out. So at the maximum, we were never more than 10,000.
Lisette Shashoua (01:03:18):
We will, uh, take, uh, uh, maybe we will scan [inaudible]. Maybe we'll scan the book of the cover. Yeah. You didn't give it to them.....
Gabrielle Elia (01:03:47):
Yeah. This is the book I wrote. Uh, I published it in 2011, but it took five, six years of work to put it together. And it's meant to be a, our life as a community in Lebanon, in Beirut, uh, and between 1925 and 1975.
Lisette Shashoua (01:04:13):
And this is the picture of the synagogue?
Gabrielle Elia (01:04:15):
That's the picture of the synagogue in its heyday. And this is the picture of the synagogue without the roof, without glass, all the glass is broken. The building got looted, uh, and demolished, uh, for the most part, but now they've renovated the whole thing. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (01:04:40):
And there are hundreds of pictures inside.
Gabrielle Elia (01:04:43):
There are quite a few pictures. Yeah. I wanted it to be like a photo album as well for the community, because our, I mean, very few people came out with pictures, so I wanted something that everybody could share.
Lisette Shashoua (01:05:00):
Beautiful. Thank you.
Lisette Shashoua (01:05:21):
Now. Uh, tell me, um, do you preserve any of your Sephardi heritage or your middle Eastern traditions, celebrations, prayers, et cetera?
Gabrielle Elia (01:05:34):
Well, as much as possible for instance with my daughters now that they're not at home, I try to let them know way ahead of time for, to come for the Seder. And sometimes they manage to come and for Passover or for Rosh Hashanah. So this seems to be important to them, to me obviously. And, uh, it's more a celebration of being together as a family and, uh, and following certain, uh, uh, traditions that I suppose are Middle Eastern.
Lisette Shashoua (01:06:16):
And, um, uh, are the girls married to Jewish partners?
Gabrielle Elia (01:06:22):
Well, my youngest is married to, uh, uh, Jew uh, my, my second one married, but the marriage was, uh, uh, with a rabbi, but he's not Jewish to the, uh, her husband is not Jewish and, uh, both my daughters married non Jews, but, uh, with a rabbi present. Yeah, [LS: and they're bringing up the children?] they, they are trying to, it's not very easy, but they're trying to bring them up according to Judaism. Yes.
Lisette Shashoua (01:06:57):
Okay. How would you describe yourself in terms of your identity? What is your identity?
Gabrielle Elia (01:07:04):
Well, I am a Lebanese Jew first and foremost, and a Jewish, uh, but very liberal. And, uh, I adapt quite well everywhere else. Uh, in Montreal, I was teaching for years in a, in a non Jewish school, the Trafalgar school and, uh, in the Protestant school board. And, uh, that's mostly it.
Lisette Shashoua (01:07:37):
Do you consider yourself a refugee? A migrant?
Gabrielle Elia (01:07:39):
no, no. Uh, no. I think, uh, I, I, uh, immigrated to Canada and, uh, just embraced the, um, Pierre Elliot Trudeau's ideals right away in 67. And, uh, I was really taken by his vision of multiculturalism and, uh, the way he, uh, he ha he wanted Canada to be.
Lisette Shashoua (01:08:08):
And where do you consider home?
Gabrielle Elia (01:08:10):
Now, Montreal. Montreal is my home, although I lived 10 years in a, in Toronto and a couple of years in Melbourne, Australia, but Montreal is my home in spite of it. Yes. In spite of my, or the winter. Yes.
Lisette Shashoua (01:08:30):
Um, and the identity you would like to pass to the children, grandchildren?
Gabrielle Elia (01:08:34):
Well, the hopefully then continue with the Jewish traditions from wherever they can. I mean, very liberal for sure, but hopefully they'll keep their Jewish traditions going.
Lisette Shashoua (01:08:48):
And what languages did you speak to your children
Gabrielle Elia (01:08:51):
in English mostly because they were born in Toronto. Their friends were English speaking, so it was English right there. And then even when, when I got married also, I started with English. Uh, David spoke French, but I was teaching in English schools. So, I mean, I needed to, uh, I needed to know the, uh, the language better. So it was mostly English, but my, my daughters, all three of them speak French as well.
Lisette Shashoua (01:09:25):
Mmm. So what impact did this migration experience have on your life?
Gabrielle Elia (01:09:34):
It was a totally different world, uh, that I had embraced. And, uh, at the beginning I thought I would go in with the, uh, French speaking groups, but, uh, because of my, my work and job at school, the, it, it turned out that we were more and more into the English speaking crowd and the English community, the Anglophones. So, uh,
Lisette Shashoua (01:10:04):
have you been back to Lebanon?
Gabrielle Elia (01:10:06):
I went back. Yeah. I came in 65. I was back in 67, 67, 68, 69, 71. I went a few times, [LS: but the last time you went was for your dad] so, yeah, well, it was before and again, after [LS: and you didn't go back after] no in 73, I was going to go back, but my mother said, don't come, we'll meet elsewhere. So we met in Greece. Yes. [LS: And your mom left in 75?] Uh, yes. [LS: After the war had] it had just started. Yeah. Yeah.
Lisette Shashoua (01:10:44):
What was it like to go back when you were going back?
Gabrielle Elia (01:10:47):
As I said, it, it really, it felt different. It felt that it wasn't Lebanon anymore. It's felt like it's starting to belong to everybody else. And the Lebanese don't have much say in the matter. And in fact, they didn't have much, same to mother. Everybody seemed to, uh, to want a piece of the country and they gave the southern part to Palestinian groups. And, uh, and of course they didn't stay there. They came into the big cities and, uh, they took over
Lisette Shashoua (01:11:28):
You're talking about Hezbollah. [GE: Nope. Talking about Palestinians] and Hezbollah is, and what are the Hezbollah?
Gabrielle Elia (01:11:36):
Because even in Jordan at the time, they didn't want their own, uh, brothers. And, uh, they, uh, they had, uh, decided, okay, all the Palestinians must go. And so they came to yeah.
Speaker 4 (01:11:53):
And who are Hezbollah in that case?
Gabrielle Elia (01:11:56):
Yeah. Well, I think pardon? They are part of, uh, Iranian backed, uh, groups, factions, [LS: Palestinian or Syrian?] Nope, Iran, Iran.
Lisette Shashoua (01:12:10):
They are actually Iranian people.
Gabrielle Elia (01:12:12):
Well, they, they are following Iran, Iran's uh politics.
Lisette Shashoua (01:12:22):
Okay. Last question. What message would you like to give to anyone who might listen to this interview?
Gabrielle Elia (01:12:29):
Well, I would say if you have a story, it doesn't have to be very, uh, involved, but if you have a story about your life, wherever it was, you have to tell it, because with you, that's the end of the line. And, uh, I mean, I am not shocked that in Lebanon, the young people don't even know that there was at one point at what, at one time, a Jewish community, they are quite surprised to hear it. And, uh, I wrote the book because I want to make sure that we leave a trace of our stay, passage in Lebanon. And, uh, it was such a beautiful community, very well, organized, sophisticated. And, uh, it, it does not deserve to die. These were people who, whom I knew very well, and I know that they gave the best of themselves to give us children in those days a better future, but, uh, politics, uh, reared, its ugly head.
Gabrielle Elia (01:13:42):
And, uh, we got, uh, all over the place, uh, all over the country or all over the world. So we have Lebanese Jews in, uh, in Canada, in the US in Mexico is, uh, Panama in Southern, um, uh, South America everywhere. But, uh, in France, in England, everywhere, Hong Kong, you name it, Les Juifs [inaudible] est partout dans le monde entier. Oui. Dans le monde entier. Mais je ne veux pas que ca s'oublie. It's a story that needs to be told and people have to be aware that we existed. We were there, we were happy. We lived our life fully. And, uh, it is, uh, something that needs to be told again and again, I think,
Lisette Shashoua (01:14:48):
thank you very much, Gabby. Thank you for this very moving story. Sorry you had to go through so much in your life
Gabrielle Elia (01:14:59):
it's part of living I suppose, but, uh, yeah. Life uh, does give you a sometimes knocks on the head that, uh, nobody deserves.
Lisette Shashoua (01:15:13):
Yeah, I'm sorry. And we are very privileged and we thank you for joining us today and for giving us your story. And hopefully you have a lot of happiness with the grandchildren and God bless the children. [GE: Thank you] Thank you.