[00:00:06] David: This is an interview with Mr. Ezra Zilkha. It is February 23rd, 2017. the interviewer is Henry Green, the cameraman is Duran Sklar and I am here helping. My name is David Langer.
[00:01:10] Henry: Good morning. What is your name?
00:01:14] Ezra Zilkha: My name is Ezra Goudouri Zilkha.
[00:01:18] Henry: And where were you born?
[00:01:19] Ezra Zilkha: In Baghdad on July 31st, 1925.
[00:01:24] Henry: So I first want to thank you for participating in the Sephardi Voices project.
[00:01:29] Ezra Zilkha: Well I'm happy to do it because if I can give the future, future generations some inking of what life had been, what it was for being a Baghdad Jew which I'm very proud of.
[00:01:49] Henry: Thank you. So let me begin with, tell me something about your family's background: your grandparents, your father.
[00:01:59] [Hold for sound]
[00:02:34] Henry: Lets begin with, can you tell me something about your family, your grandparents, your father?
[00:02:40] Ezra Zilkha: Well, of course, my family is a Baghdadi Jewish family. I imagine we've been there since all the Jews have been in Iraq, taken in captivity by Nebuchadnezzar II. [00:02:59] My father was the most important banker in the Arab world. He had his banks in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. We were expropriated in Iraq in '51, in Syria in '54, in Egypt in '56 and Lebanon we old in '57. [00:03:31] If I speak about myself for a moment I went to school in Lebanon. I went to school in Egypt. I went to school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and Middletown, Connecticut at university. When the war was over I went back to the Middle East with my family and my father realized in 1946 that we would be expropriated. [00:03:59] So we had to rebuild ourselves. Um, I trained in London at Hambros Bank who are our correspondents and then my father sent me to Hong Kong to trade in gold. Eventually, after I returned, I got married, he sent me back to, he sent back to Egypt for a year. [00:04:29] And when my son about to be born he wanted my child born in America, which he was, and then he wanted me to stay here. So I've been here, of course I've travelled a lot and so on. We had to rebuild ourselves and we lost...you know, expropriations and so on. But luckily we were able to remake ourselves because my father has great credit. [00:05:04] And the banks trusted us. So were able to trade in foreign exchange in gold and then uh, as time went on my brother Maurice who lived in Egypt come to live in France and he died very young, sadly. So I had to occupy myself to liquidate our affairs in France. [00:05:29] In the meantime my brother Selim, who was living in London then, created a company called Mother Care which became very successful. I was in New York, had to, to rebuild. I did a lot of different deals. I even created a bank which I sold. I was a director of an insurance company, I was a director of a precious metals company. [00:06:00] I became a trustee of my university, Wesleyan and chairman of the investment committee. I helped build the Lycée Français in New York by giving my guarantee. I, I was very fortunate that I was able to keep our name and reputation which was the most valuable asset that my family had.
[00:06:34] Henry: Your father's name, what is your father's name?
[00:06:37] Ezra Zilkha: Khedouri. K-H-E-D-O-U-R-I.
[00:06:42] Henry: And when was he born?
[00:06:44] Ezra Zilkha: Father exactly I don't know but he must have been, since he got married when he was...father got married in 1911 so he must have been, he must have been born 30 years before. But in those years nobody really knew the exact date. So father always thought his birthday was on January the 1st. [00:07:19] Ok. He has decreed that and that was it.
[00:07:22] Henry: So let's say he was born around 1880 or 1875, did he tell you stories about growing up in Baghdad? What it was like at the end of the 19th century?
00:07:34] Ezra Zilkha: Yes. I was very lucky because I was very close to my father. My mother had borne 10 children of which seven survived. People sometimes ask me, "Why did people have so many children in those years?". And I always reply, there was no TV. There was nothing else to do so there were lots of children born. [00:08:00] And so I was number six child of the ones that survived. I'm a boy and I was born after three girls so my parents went on a pilgrimage when my mother was expecting me to, to the tomb of Ezra the Prophet in the south of Iraq. And that's why my name is Ezra. [00:08:31] But I had a great tale of luck. I was very close to my father during the war, when we came to America, actually, let me explain that. It was customary for the children in my family to, to finish their education in Europe but, but the war had happened. [00:08:59] So in 1941 we flew down to South Africa because coming to America through the Mediterranean there, there was, you know, problems so we flew to South Africa since it was before Pearl Harbour we caught an American ship to come to New York, the President Hayes, which was a cargo ship but had some cabins. [00:09:31] And uh, it was, so we were two sisters, two brothers, father and mother. In my personal life my first nine months here I spent at a place called the National Hospital for Speech Disorders because I stutter and it was during the day, I was there for nine months and then I went to a prep school called the Hill School in Pennsylvania. [00:10:04] And then when to Wesleyan University. So rebuilding was really the most important thing my, my, in my life. And I just wanted to be sure that my reputation, my family's reputation could be carried on to my children and grandchildren.
[00:10:30] Henry: So if we go back to your father again, in the late 1880's, so he grows up in a religious home? A secular home?
[00:10:41] Ezra Zilkha: That's an interesting question. Of course father had been bar mitzvahed and my brother Abdallah had been bar mitzvahed but my parents tried to bar mitzvah my brother Maurice, by brother Selim and I. The Rabbi had a big problem because we all laughed at him. It was in the summer in the mountains in Lebanon. So the next thing they did, the next summer they brought us Palestinian, Israeli woman to teach us. [00:11:18] She was a lot of fun to dance with and so on and therefore we were never bar mitzvahed the three of us. Does that make me not religious? I guess not but I'm a member of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue here. I contributed quite a bit. I go on the high holidays. I go to respect the death of members of my family but I can't say that I'm a, I'm practicing. [00:11:50] I'm very much a Jew, I'm a Kohen but not uh, not very practicing.
[00:11:58] Henry: So your father, you come more from a secular family when you...and your father, how did he get involved in banking? How did he...
[00:12:09] Ezra Zilkha: Well his father was a very important merchant in Baghdad. And but he, he didn't much like school so he left school, he stopped going to school after telling his mother he didn't like school. That's the story. And he started a small office, 16 maybe, with a messenger and because his name reputation he was able to get a deposit and he started. He also traded in gold so because foreign exchanges and he went to Istanbul for that. [00:12:50] I remember the stories he would tell me where he would buy gold in Istanbul, send it to Baghdad. And I asked him once, how did you manage that it didn't get stolen on the way? Well, he said, I always promised the man who took it, who did the, that my next shipment would be larger. So he would come back and make sure that if he had to steal, he would steal more and then it stopped. [00:13:25] So I learned from father, you have to give hope.
[00:13:31] Henry: When I think back in 1900, your father coming from Baghdad, well, how did he, there weren't planes, there weren't...how would he get from one city to another city?
[00:13:45] Ezra Zilkha: Ok they all went to Aleppo by caravan.
[00:13:51] Henry: What does caravan mean?
[00:13:52] Ezra Zilkha: Uh...you know, sheep, people and so on, Bedouins with a tent and they'd, they'd get there and from Aleppo there was a railroad that could go to Istanbul. But it was, in but in 1925 when he went to Beirut the Nairn brothers, the N-A-I-R-N brothers, who were two New Zealand brothers who had fought in the Middle East during the war started a transportation company between Baghdad and Syria. [00:14:33] And so that's how father, in 1925 went and I guess when I went to Beirut in 1927 after my, my brother Selim was born we must have gone with the Nairn group.
[00:14:54] Henry: Your father, you said he moved forward in banking. Do you know how we actually began sort of setting up his business or his first bank? Do you know any stories about this?
[00:15:09] Ezra Zilkha: The way I imagine it, since he came from a prominent family, a trusted family, probably had people who, who trusted him with some deposits and he was able to grow it. I mean, that's the way I can imagine it. Because my grandfather was a man of means and had a very good reputation. [00:15:38] But he died very young. I never met him. The only grandparent I knew was my grandmother on my mother's side. Was a wonderful woman, great Baghdadi woman who dressed in Baghdadi style until she died but I don't remember my, any of my grandfathers. [00:16:08] I also must talk about my uncle Saleh who was my mother's brother whom I loved dearly. And we were very close and he, and I learned a lot from him. I can tell you more about him because my brother Selim married his daughter, my first cousin and then divorced. But that's another story.
[00:16:35] Henry: So your grandmother that you did know, that dressed in Baghdadi dress, what does that mean Baghdadi dress?
[00:16:43] Ezra Zilkha: She always wore a hat of sorts. I, I think I have photos of it. She always wore long dress and she was always reading the bible, the Hebrew, she was always reading in Hebrew.
[00:17:03] Henry: Did she wear a scarf or a veil?
[00:17:05] Ezra Zilkha: Yes. A scarf, a veil on...and we, of course, I talked Arabic to her and whenever I want to visit her she would give me candy. That I remember.
[00:17:16] Henry: Your language, what language did you speak to our parents in?
[00:17:20] Ezra Zilkha: My native language is Arabic, I still speak Arabic. I used to read nad write Arabic very well because that's the only language that I could correspond with my father. We did have teacher to teach us Arabic and then when we went to school [inaudible] French school and then English school.
[00:17:42] Henry: Why French school?
[00:17:44] Ezra Zilkha: Because in Beirut there was a very good French school. You know, it must seem strange but French was the language of uh...of prominent families in Baghdad. Of course Arabic basically but French too.
[00:18:06] Henry: So if you're, I'm trying to think because you're speaking Arabic, you speak French, English is not a language that is spoken or is it?
[00:18:15] Ezra Zilkha: Oh no. Ok, in my family I used to speak English with my oldest brother but with all, with my other brothers and sisters always French. And with my father, mother, always Arabic.
[00:18:30] Henry: Did you have help around the house?
[00:18:34] Ezra Zilkha: Oh yes. Plenty of that yes. I mean, luckily I grew up in very, in very comfortable circumstances even when we came here during the war. That's an interesting thing, story about my father. [00:18:57] In 1938 I was in France with my, with my father and mother. They used to take me on trips with them because Selim and I, my younger brother are only 20 months apart but of course we loved each other but we fought a lot. So they used to take me with them on their trips to Europe. [00:19:22] So in 1938 there were rumblings of war and we were in Paris, my father, my mother and I and so, so father cancelled the passage from Marseilles to, to Alexandria and we got a car and driver and lots of gasoline and went to Deauville in the north of France. [00:19:51] After a few days in Deauville the hotel was closed because there were rumblings of war. So we went to Cabourg, which is a village in, and then there was Munich I think we all remember Munich and where Chamberlain came back and said "Peace for our time".[00:20:12] So we caught the next ship from Marseilles to Alexandria but father got scared and transferred at the time, which was a lot of money, $300 000 to New York to his account but he gave his Beirut address. When we arrived in America the money was blocked because Beirut was Vichy [?] and of course it got unblocked and that's how we, we survived.
[00:20:47] Henry: The time you were living in Beirut as a child, you said you came at two years old, what area of Beirut did you live in?
[00:20:56] Ezra Zilkha: In Ras Beirut which was then, which was actually the last uh, stop on the tramway, not that we took the tramway very much. It went from uh, where the road went up to the mountains all the way to the sea and we lived by the sea in Ras Beirut. [00:21:24] And since we're talking about that, I remember also when we got the first electric uh...icebox. The Frigidaire icebox. I also remember when we had the first telephone at home in Beirut. It used to be one of the hung up telephones, which was unusual to have a...[00:21:48] And I even remember the number. It was 121. 121. And so we, we and, then in 19 - of course Selim my brother had asthma so he went to, to school in Egypt before me, in an English school and then I joined him the year after. [00:22:15] So in Beirut I had my French education where I went to Lycée Français de jeunes filles, which was a girl's school but there were two or three other boys. And then in Egypt I went to the English school.
[00:22:31] Henry: Why did you go to a girl's school?
[00:22:33] Ezra Zilkha: Because my sisters were there so it, it was easy. The car took them, they took me. That's the way it was.
[00:22:45] Henry: Did the, so you were living in this, what was your house like? Was it a large house? Was it uh...What was your bedroom like?
[00:22:55] Ezra Zilkha: Oh my bedroom I slept in the same room as my brother Selim. And uh, since I'm, I was always deaf on one ear, he always thought that I used to sleep very quickly which wasn't true. But yes it was a nice house. You know, um, later on as I grew up and got married and so on I became a collector of impressionist art and objects and things of that sort. [00:23:25] But then, you know a lot of Persian carpets, very nice modern furniture and then in Cairo it was the same because we had a home in Cairo, we had a home up in the mountains in Lebanon. We had the, we had an apartment in Alexandria and then Maurice had a house in the country near Alexandria.
[00:23:51] Henry: So in Beirut you would go to school and then in the summers go up to the mountains?
[00:23:58] Ezra Zilkha: Oh yes, yes we'd go to the mountains but everyday in the summer we would, we would, we would drive down to Beirut to go swimming. And then go back up for lunch but often my father would have me stay with him in town until the afternoon for whatever reason, I don't know but I...[00:24:24] So of course I was young and so on I would be able to eat things I liked and do things of that sort.
[00:24:33] Henry: Did your father uh, go to cafés? Did he play backgammon? Did he...
[00:24:41] Ezra Zilkha: Well, he did. He'd go to cafés. I'll tell you what I remember about cafés. So because I had a hernia uh, the doctor said, the American doctor, very famous American doctor his name was Dr. Turner. He thought I should get fat. [00:24:59] So my father made it a, a mission to make me fat. So everyday he would take me around six o'clock to a café and bring me all, all these, all these Lebanese mezes. And of course I got fat. And when I came to America they said I should get thin. So I got thin.
[00:25:28] Henry: Do you still have a sweet tooth for some of these mezes?
[00:25:32] Ezra Zilkha: Yes I do. Of course I do.
[00:25:33] Henry: Which ones?
[00:25:34] Ezra Zilkha: Hummus and ful [?] and all these Arab dishes. You know, essentially I am a Jew but I am an Arab. I feel it very, very strongly when I'm with my Arab friends I, I'm very much at home. I got a call from, from, from one this morning.
[00:26:01] Henry: So in Beirut...
[00:26:40] Henry: So um I thought that we could go back. I keep going back to Beirut because those are your earliest memories and you said you lived in a particular neighbourhood. So was this a Jewish neighbourhood?
[00:26:54] Ezra Zilkha: No, no. The Jewish neighbourhood was where the synagogue was, which was a very nice neighbourhood and the synagogue, I remember, it was nice. No this was called Ras Beirut, one of our neighbours, because in those years the Lebanon, I mean, Lebanon was a French mandate so one of our neighbours was a French Colonel who was head of the Gendarmerie. [00:27:23] Because you know the mandates were over in 1946 so, I mean, France really occupied Lebanon until then.
[00:27:38] Henry: So were, if it was an Arab neighbourhood was it a Muslim neighbourhood? Or Christian?
[00:27:43] Ezra Zilkha: No. I think...I think more...more Christian probably but you know, there wasn't, I don't know, in those years uh, being Jewish was just something being Jewish. We, I had friends that were Muslim, that were Christian.
[00:28:08] Henry: Did they come into your house?
[00:28:10] Ezra Zilkha: Sure, sure, sure.
[00:28:11] Henry: Did you play with them?
[00:28:11] Ezra Zilkha: Sure.
[00:28:12] Henry: Do you remember like activities, the club or...
[00:28:15] Ezra Zilkha: Yes there was a French called L'Union something where I used to go. The Lycée, Lycée Français de jeunes filles there were all kinds of people, Muslims, Christians not many Jews because there weren't that many Jews. But it was all and...yeah. I mean, did we think about it? Yeah, I mean we were different, we were Jewish. [00:28:47] But really from a social standpoint in Lebanon, Egypt I, we never felt a difference. There was a - until, until the creation of Israel the Jews in the Middle East were, ok, Jews not Muslim, not Christian but that's all. That's a...
[00:29:10] Henry: Did your mother have um, Arab friends also?
[00:29:14] Ezra Zilkha: Sure. Arab friends and Christian, Muslim, Druze and at the bank my father employed Christian, Jews and I remember one man that worked in the bank, his name was, that was in Beirut, his name was Anis and sometimes when my governess couldn't take me to the movies or something on a weekend he would take me. [00:29:43] Our driver, I remember, Sophi [sp?] very much a Muslim. He was actually Shia. You know the - why did I know about Shia? Because father told me there was a difference. But the Shia-Sunni issue, of course it always existed but it became violent really when Khomeini went back to Iran. But that's another story.
[00:30:17] Henry: So you're growing up in an environment you're saying in which there were the Jews, you came from a particular class, the Jews, the Muslims, Christians all were integrated in term of...
[00:30:31] Ezra Zilkha: Sure, and our father's clients were all races.
[00:30:36] Henry: All races.
00:30:36] Ezra Zilkha: All religions.
[00:30:40] Henry: If there was a festival like Passover or something like this can you remember a Passover at your house?
[00:30:47] Ezra Zilkha: Well I remember the bread was different that's about it. So...
[00:30:54] Henry: Did you, and during this period ever go to Palestine?
[00:30:57] Ezra Zilkha: Yes, very often for this reason that in 1935, '34-'35 they Anglo-Palestine Bank, which is now Bank Leumi decided to sell their assets in Lebanon. I guess they were getting out of the - and we bought. I mean my father's bank bought their assets and liabilities. [00:31:30] So he had to go to, I mean, quite often, it was only a two-hour drive to get Haifa and then to Tel Aviv where he would meet with the uh...management of the Anglo-Palestine Bank which became Bank Leumi. And he took me with him. Often father would take me out of school, take me with him. [00:31:55] Which was why sometimes my grades weren't very good at school but that's another story.
[00:32:03] Henry: An when he, so what Zionism in some way, did this, did you feel in any way Zionistic? Did Zionism affect the Jews in Beirut?
[00:32:12] Ezra Zilkha: No. The, no, not really. The only time we became aware of something like that is because my brother Abdallah married a, a woman from Palestine whose father, a the time you know, it was so important to get married to people that had some connection with Baghdad families because Baghdad families were what, were good. That's what my, and so my brother Abdallah married his first, his wife was from Palestine. [00:32:50] Her mother was Ashkenazi but her father was or is a Baghdad Jew, a Baghdad Jewish family.
[00:33:00] Henry: When your parents got married what was your mothers name?
[00:33:04] Ezra Zilkha: Louise.
[00:33:05] Henry: And her surname? Her maiden name?
[00:33:08] Ezra Zilkha: Bashi [sp?]
[00:33:09] Henry: Bashi. Was this a pre-arranged marriage?
[00:33:11] Ezra Zilkha: Of course. Of course, I mean, so this is the way it was. You got married that way and was mine pre-arranged? When I came back from Hong Kong my parents took me to a Baghdad wedding at the Plaza and I saw my wife. I asked my father, "Is it a good family?" oh he said, "Very fine." I said, "I'll marry her." That's the way it was. [00:33:42] Nowadays it is not the same but, and I'm not saying it's right but um, my brother Maurice on the other hand, he married a Greek girl but father was in America at the time it shocked him. But look, life goes on. My son has been married twice. Once to a French girl and once and [inaudible] very nice from Guatemala. Now an you imagine if my father had been alive he would have said, "What is Guatemala?" [00:34:17] Because for him, you're the Middle East, Europe, America, Mexico because we'd buy gold in Mexico but Guatemala? It was something that he would have found very strange but she's a lovely woman and he has a child with her.
[00:34:35] Henry: When you got married was there a dowry that was involved?
[00:34:41] Ezra Zilkha: Oh no, no, no. I never would have taken a dowry. I never, neither did my father no. This is not - but there were dowries. When my sisters got married they got dowries but uh it was below our dignity as a Zilkha, we didn't.
[00:35:04] Henry: So you're in Beirut, why did you leave Beirut?
[00:35:08] Ezra Zilkha: To go to school in Egypt and father had a bank in Cairo.
[00:35:13] Henry: And how did he get the bank in Cairo?
[00:35:16] Ezra Zilkha: He opened it. He opened - he had a name so he could get deposits, he could...
[00:35:22] Henry: So I'm trying to understand this, I understand that he's living Baghdad and people know him. And he's living in Beirut and people know him but no one knows him in Cairo.
[00:35:32] Ezra Zilkha: No, well, well, enough though. Enough to start a bank, which he did.
[00:35:40] Henry: So how does one start a bank?
[00:35:42] Ezra Zilkha: By having a name. In those years. By being called Zilkha. There was a name that people trusted him and that's how he...
[00:35:53] Henry: So what is banking then? Banking is a name? Is it not based on collateral?
[00:35:58] Ezra Zilkha: No, no, it was based on taking deposits and making loans and doing foreign exchange business and trading in gold. But that, it wasn’t as complicated as here where you became a trustee and looked after...it was banking, it was lending and borrowing and doing foreign exchange. [00:36:25] It was highly liquid.
[00:36:28] Henry: So let me give you one example then. So it's highly liquid. 1929 is the depression, there is no liquid anymore. There's not money.
[00:36:40] Ezra Zilkha: No, because some clients uh, couldn't pay their loans and father, I remember when he went back because this is an interesting story when he went back to the Middle-East after the war some clients that he continued to helping the depression came to his office to kiss his hand. This was a...as a matter of fact, if you look there's a, that' sin Cairo when he went back after the war, the dinner that he had in Cairo, people with Fez's and so on. [00:37:23] When he went back to Egypt, by the way, he came back by boat and my brother Maurice went to the boat with the launch to take a fez to my father so when he came down in Egypt, he was wearing a fez. And the first thing he did was o go to sign at the palace his name that he was back.
[00:37:49] Henry: The...you're saying in a sense that um, that the Zilkha name or that here your family involved in beginning banking. And the Zilkha name was one in which it's based on name, on trust on...
[00:38:10] Ezra Zilkha: On trust.
[00:38:11] Henry: On trust. So how would you describe banking in those days then?
[00:38:17] Ezra Zilkha: Banking was a man that people trusted who took their deposits and who intelligently loaned money to people who needed it. It was simple as that. This is not...
[00:38:33] Henry: So how would your father know that this person would be reliable?
[00:38:36] Ezra Zilkha: Ah, father he never, he never really read a balance sheet. If his reputation was good, his own reputation and our reputation, if three or four generations before that man had had an ancestor who has stolen money, his reputation was bad. [00:39:03] This is, you knew the stories of people. You just knew.
[00:39:09] Henry: So it's sort of like the honour of the family.
[00:39:13] Ezra Zilkha: Yes, absolutely.
[00:39:14] Henry: Generation to generation.
[00:39:15] Ezra Zilkha: Sure. And if there had been dishonour in any generation we knew that it would stick with us.
[00:39:25] Henry: How does the father pass that on to his son?
[00:39:29] Ezra Zilkha: Just by talking to him. I was lucky that during the war, when he was here, he was very lonely father when he was here but I used to come back for college every weekend to be with him, play backgammon with him. [00:39:46] And hear his stories. He would, some stories he would repeat but it didn't matter. I was listening because he was very lonely when we were here, during the war. But he brought us so we could go to school and my two older brothers stayed. [00:40:09] It was interesting they stayed, you know, when Egypt was about to, to be invaded by the Germans. Abdallah and his wife went to Palestine but Maurice stayed on to be sure. And then luckily there was the reversal, the battle of El Alamein and so on. So our, so we knew we were okay but, but I even remember a strange story once. [00:40:42] This was going on during the war and on a Saturday I was with my father. He said, you know, today we won't go by cab, because during the car we didn't have a car and driver because there was gasoline...we'll go by bus because we have to be careful with our money because if the Middle-East had gone...I never forgot that day.
[00:41:10] Henry: Was there not anti-Jewish in some way and therefore your father worried about his banks being identified as Jewish?
[00:41:20] Ezra Zilkha: The Jewish identification only happened when they started the creation of Israel. After that it was natural that a banker should be Jewish. There were other Jewish bankers in Egypt for instance that were very prominent. The Mushairis [sp?] were prominent. There was one that was much older the Suarez but they had declined. [00:41:49] But yes, in Beirut the fact that, I think my father's bank was probably the only, no the Safras had a bank but it wasn't as important as my father's bank.
[00:42:06] Henry: So here you are in an environment in which the majority of your clients would have been non-Jewish and our social status is one very much part of the society. SO does that mean that the friends you grew up with, were they Arab the friends you grew up with?
[00:42:30] Ezra Zilkha: They were everything. They were English; they were in Cairo English, French in Beirut. They were French, Lebanese, they were Christian, they were Jewish.
[00:42:46] Henry: Were you in their homes also?
[00:42:47] Ezra Zilkha: Oh sure, sure.
[00:42:49] Henry: And the common language would have been...
[00:42:51] Ezra Zilkha: French. In Lebanon, French. In Egypt, probably English.
[00:42:58] Henry: So you moved, as a child to go study English in Cairo in '38 you said?
[00:43:08] Ezra Zilkha: '37.
[00:43:10] Henry: '37.
[00:43:10] Ezra Zilkha: Yeah, Selim went in '36.
[00:43:12] Henry: And you stay in Cairo then?
[00:43:14] Ezra Zilkha: Yeah, but in summer we went to Lebanon.
[00:43:18] Henry: And in the summer you went back to Lebanon. And what area of Cairo did you live in?
[00:43:21] Ezra Zilkha: In Giza. In Giza right on the Nile.
[00:43:27] Henry: And did you interact with any of the Jewish community that was in Heliopolis or in Zamalek [?] or...
[00:43:36] Ezra Zilkha: Oh sure there were Jews, there were Christians, there were Muslims. No we didn't...this question of, of religion it's just, okay, we worship on Saturday and Christians worshiped on, if they worshiped, if we worshiped and Muslims on Friday. Not uh...[00:44:05] It was a communal life. No, it's, as a matter of fact, here in America do I think that this guy, my friend is Jewish or my friend is Muslim? No. When I came to America there was a problem, that's the first time that I knew because I was the only Jewish boy at the prep school that I went to . [00:44:35] Not that it mattered much because being foreign, me having an accent, having a thing, I was a curiosity and then I starred in a play and so on. I was a curiosity. At that time too, I remember a story when I went to college there a fraternity that wanted me to be a member called Beta Theta Pi. [00:45:03] But they said, you cannot be Jewish because no one who is Jewish can come from the Middle East. I said, "I am Jewish." Of course, I joined another fraternity. But and then, of course, as time went on here um...I'm a member of clubs that are supposed to be um, not accepting Jews. Like The Brook, like the Knickerbocker, the Racket um...but maybe it also has to do that as I advanced here, that my reputation was alright too so.
[00:45:47] Henry: Does the, when you think in terms of this period of '25 to when you left in '41, roughly, and then you went back post-war. Did you feel that you were coming back home again into a culture that...
[00:46:08] Ezra Zilkha: Absolutely, absolutely. I was feeling, I was going home. As a matter of fact I finished my last exam at Wesleyan and the war was over at noon I took a one o'clock bus and a week later I was on my way to London, on my way to Egypt. I was home. And then we realized it couldn’t be home anymore.
[00:46:37] Henry: What changed? I mean psychologically you felt at home but...
[00:46:41] Ezra Zilkha: No, no, psychologically very much at home. The clubs, all of that I was there but what changed was the - knew, we knew Israel would be created. So all the Jews in the Middle East were, had problems. You know, if you look at the populations of Jews in the Arab world, in Iraq there were 120 000 Jews, now there's maybe three or four maybe. [00:47:11] In Egypt there were 100 000, there's a couple of hundred. In Morocco there were 300 000 now there's 25 000. The Arab-Israeli was changed but you must never forget the Jews, in those yea were part of the community. We were Arab-Jews, that's what we were. But we spoke French and we, we had European manners and we, we dressed with the best tailors and all that but we were Arabs, Jews.[00:47:49] This is a - and that's what I feel I am till today. If you ask me, I am an Arab-Jew.
[00:47:57] Henry: What does an Arab-Jew mean.
[00:47:58] Ezra Zilkha: It means whose native tongue is Arabic, who's comfortable being an Arab who is a Jew by religion. This is...
[00:48:11] Henry: If, when you think in terms of your upbringing, and your culture then your sense of self is, you would say I'm an Arab? I'm Middle-Eastern?
[00:48:28] Ezra Zilkha: I'm an Iraqi Jew. That's what I am.
[00:48:33] Henry: So let's take Iraqi Jew ok, you're only lived in Iraq for two years.
[00:48:38] Ezra Zilkha: Correct but I'm in Iraqi-Jew.
[00:48:40] Henry: What does that mean?
[00:48:41] Ezra Zilkha: That means that I speak Baghdad Arabic, that I remember stories of Baghdad, I have the honour of a good Baghdad Jew. Ok so I speak French, I speak English, I'm a trustee of this and that but so what? I'm still, I am what I am. [00:49:02] I'm the first non-American born trustee of the Brookings Institute but I am me. [00:49:16] I feel, I feel very proud of what I am.
[00:49:22] Henry: And do you still speak Arabic anymore?
[00:49:27] Ezra Zilkha: I speak with my wife. I speak with people who speak Arabic to me. I speak three dialects. I don't read and write it very well anymore because when my father was alive and I was away from him I used to write him a letter a day in Arabic. [00:49:49] And it started, "My dear father, please accept my respects..." and it always ended, "Your obedient servant.".
[00:50:02] Henry: And what did he write to you?
[00:50:05] Ezra Zilkha: "My dear Ezra" that's it. And then it would end, "I love you" or something. In Arabic.
[00:50:15] Henry: Do um, when you came, you said you went to Hong Kong, London, Hong Kong and - did you feel in some way any kind of loss because of not being part of that world anymore?
[00:50:33] Ezra Zilkha: No I was young. Starting again. That's not, no, no. I was young. It was great to be young.
[00:50:43] Henry: What attracted you about young?
[00:50:47] Ezra Zilkha: That everything was a discovery. Going to Macao to buy import license for gold, going to Saigon to, and seeing the gold come from Europe that we had bought that would be put on a, on a...on a plane to go to Macao. It was all, it was fantastic.[00:51:19] To be able to do that and to have my father's trust to do it. He sent someone with me but really, really my father did want me to get sick so I could only eat in restaurants that, that this man had eaten at before and, and he made sure that I was protected when I went out with women and all of that stuff.
[00:51:49] Henry: So when you look back 92 years where do you consider home?
[00:51:54] Ezra Zilkha: New York of course. I had a home in Paris because that's what my wife liked but since then me, well I sold it seven years ago. But home is New York I mean, my, yes, I am home here.
[00:52:11] Henry: And do you consider yourself a displaced person or a refugee?
[00:52:16] Ezra Zilkha: No. Not anymore. I'd say at the beginning yes but now I belong to clubs and people know me and I know them.
[00:52:26] Henry: And what identity do you want to pass to your children?
[00:52:31] Ezra Zilkha: Identity? That they're the grandchildren of my father if they can. F.Because to me the greatest person in my life was my father. His reputation, his principles. I think of him all the time, every day.
[00:52:57] Henry: And is Sephardi, or Babylonian part of the heritage part of this identity?
[00:53:05] Ezra Zilkha: You know I think in the Middle East, generally, there were, the attachment to parents was great. Now I had an extreme amount of attachment to my father. My brothers generally didn't, I think maybe I was lucky to, that my father maybe had a weakness for me, for whatever reason. [00:53:33] Because I was born after three girls because they had to go to make a wish at the tomb of Ezra the Prophet. so I could be born a boy or whatever it is.
[00:53:45] Henry: And is that culture, is that heritage one that is more closed or open to what's happening in the Middle East today?
[00:53:58] Ezra Zilkha: That culture is finished. When I'm gone, when people like me are gone it's all finished. The, my children are...Francisized, Americanized they got, they don't speak Arabic and so on. And my grandchildren of course will be the same. No it's finished. [00:54:22] I just preserved. My brother Selim isn't as attached to the past as I am, as to the past, the beauties of the culture then. They, the respect, the thing to - that my father and my mother walked in a room I would never sit down until they sat down. It's all finished now. I don't expect it for my children and grandchildren.
[00:54:53] Henry: So are you the last generation of the Sephardi? The Iraqi-Jew?
[00:54:59] Ezra Zilkha: I think, I think yes. I mean, how many...there can't be too many people 92 anymore. That were born in Baghdad and so on. Maybe there are but it'll last another six, seven years and that's it. We're all - but of course I got European education and I...
[00:55:27] Henry: Can you say, my question was, are you the last generation? Can you be in the sentence by saying, "I am the last generation"?
[00:55:39] Ezra Zilkha: Yes, yes I am.
[00:55:40] Henry: But you need to repeat it so it's picked up on tape.
[00:55:43] Ezra Zilkha: I am the last generation. There are maybe people of my age so yes, I am. I don't know how many people still alive that were born in Baghdad and did that. Or in the Middle East. I'm attached to that part o my life even though when I go to the clubs I can be American or I can be or whatever you like.
[00:56:18] Henry: We're gonna have to do it one more time because there was a siren. Again if you could repeat I am the last generation.
[00:56:25] Ezra Zilkha: Yes. I am the last generation. Because being 92 I don't know how many more people there are, how many, how much longer I can live. But I am attached to who I am. I am attached to my background. I'm proud of it. Yes, I'm proud of it. [00:56:44] And I think as long as when I die I will not have dishonoured my father's name that is my biggest...
[00:56:56] Henry: What message would you want people to hear about, about your heritage.
[00:57:08] Ezra Zilkha: My heritage maybe the most important thing was...honour. Honour. That means if you want to be considered honourable don't do anything, or try not to do in life sometimes it's...there may be accidents or something but try to have your word. Do things right. I mean, now right is a very broad, broad subject but, yeah, do things right. Honour, honourable.
[00:57:50] Henry: Thank you.
[00:57:51] Ezra Zilkha: Thank you.
[00:57:51] Henry: Thank you very much.
[00:57:54] Ezra Zilkha: Now how did I do?
[00:57:54] Henry: I thought you did great.
[00:58:03] [room tone]