When Moshe and Bethany Roditi registered for the recent Jewish Community Center of the North Shore trip to Eastern Europe, they were eager to soak up everything the trip had to offer: in-depth learning about the area’s rich Jewish history, interesting architecture and cityscapes of some of Europe’s top cities, and an opportunity to bond with a group of like-minded individuals open to sharing life experiences. Little did Moshe expect to have one of the most profound experiences of his life during the visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Moshe grew up in Egypt, in a Jewish neighborhood that featured seven Sephardic synagogues within five blocks of his home. Living with three older brothers, a sister, and his parents, the men of the family were often called upon to rush over to synagogue – located just across the street from their home – to complete a minyan. There were 90,000 Jews living in Egypt around the time Moshe was born in 1949, and the family enjoyed a vibrant Jewish life within their community. Tellingly, however, Jews in Egypt were never granted full citizenship, regardless of how long they had lived there.
The family’s peaceful existence was shattered in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy, soon becoming the country’s president. The independent lifestyle enjoyed by prominent Jews like Moshe’s father, a corporate CEO, and his family was abruptly stripped away. Jewish families were forced to leave their homes for a more remote area of the city, children were forced out of public schools, and Jewish companies were nationalized – putting Moshe’s father out of work and thrusting the family into chaos.
Propaganda against Jews became intense throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with periods of relative calm interspersed with street riots and extreme anti-Semitism. Most Egyptian Jews left for Israel or Europe.
Many of Moshe’s paternal relatives fled the country, but his mother’s side resisted the government’s crackdown and opted to remain in Egypt. For those Jews who remained, life became truly bleak. Their assets were frozen as the country became increasingly nationalized, crushing their ability to provide for their families.
The situation came to a head during the Six-Day War with Israel in June, 1967. On the first day of the war, federal agents invaded the family home and forcibly removed Moshe’s father and older brothers. They were transported to an Egyptian prison camp along with about 500 other men, aged 18 to 65, where they were jammed into tiny 2-by-5-foot spaces and forced to sleep on the floor, with little food or water. Moshe stayed in the family home with his sister, mother, and grandparents, not knowing whether his brothers were dead or alive. He remained hidden, terrified of becoming the state’s next prisoner the minute he turned 18.
With help from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Moshe’s brothers were eventually located, and were able to obtain Spanish passports and leave their treacherous situation behind. In time, HIAS also was able to secure Italian passports for Moshe’s family. They were allowed to leave the country with only a single suitcase and the equivalent of $10; the remainder of their assets, including their homes, jewelry, bank accounts, and personal possessions, were seized by the Egyptian government and lost to them forever. In 1969, family members were granted visas to enter the United States, where the family was finally reunited.
This September, as Moshe saw the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau firsthand – the crammed sleeping berths, tiny standing cells for prisoner torture, shooting wall of death, and gas chambers ‒ the trauma of his childhood came flooding back. When he saw the concentration camp’s museum’s display of piled suitcases, each with a Jewish last name written in block letters, he was overcome with emotion.
Today, Moshe lives worlds away from that traumatic childhood. He is deeply loved by Bethany, his wife of 43 years, his highly accomplished daughters, Rachel and Michelle, and his granddaughter, Dani. He holds degrees from Northeastern University and Babson College, and has enjoyed a prosperous career as a mechanical engineer and financial executive with Digital Equipment Corporation, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard.
“Despite the trauma the trip caused me, I’m glad I was to witness the place where so many Jews lost their lives,” said Moshe. “The experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau made me even more convinced that the devastating story of 1960s Egypt must also be told.”