Victor Hettena’s Memoirs (Unedited Version)
AS OF June 2003
This is the story of my life beginning in Cairo, Egypt, traveling through France, and settling in New York. It is my great hope that those who read my memoirs will realize how important my family is to me, especially my late wife, Mimi.
My childhood began in Cairo, Egypt. At home we had no electricity. We used to have lamps with petrol and we had to do our homework with poor light. We all were wearing shorts. The first suit I wore with long pants was at my Bar Mitzvah. The teachers were very severe and some of them used to use a ruler and hit us on the knuckles of our fingers, others used to squeeze the bottom part of our ears. All school children used to wear a black “tablies” on top of their shirts and a small white collar around their necks. Tablies is French and it looks like an apron covering the front and back of our body before reaching the knees. We were not allowed to play in the street; we had friends only at home. Food was excellent – Middle Eastern – a lot of rice, dairy products were very rich, and the poultry and meat had a lot of fat.
My Bar Mitzvah was celebrated at the age of 13 ½. My dad won a lottery at work, a lamb. It was alive and the maid fed him for a whole month. Then the rabbi “shohet” came to slaughter the lamb. He had to check the liver and other parts to declare that the animal was kosher and able to be cooked. My Aunt Nellie knew how to pull out the nerves and organs from the bottom of the lamb in order to be allowed to eat the tender pieces. We had special cooks that came to our house to prepare the food; cakes, fish, goodies, etc… We had invited many people to my Bar Mitzvah.
In Marseille, France we stayed 11 months and when we arrived by boat in New York I fell to kiss the ground. Before getting off of the ship the customs inspector checked the luggage and found that my mother had about 4 or 5 apples. He said to her that he will have to destroy the apples. My mother replied that we will eat them all at once before leaving the ship. My parents and mother in law packed all kinds of spices, red and black pepper, salt, cooking oil, sewing needles, soap, etc… When the inspector searched what we brought with us he got hurt by the needles and was bleeding. He told us to just leave the ship. My mother did not understand because she did not know any English.
My Grandfather, Joseph Khettena, used to wear the long robe braided with silver and gold and a belt quite wide around his waist. He always wore a turban on his head. He married his first wife, named Massouda, and he married his second wife, also named Massouda, in 1892. He lived to be over one hundred years old and died in Baghdad. He had two boys and one daughter from his first wife (this is what I recall). Moshe and Shlomo, both sons, and Farha, a daughter, were all born in Baghdad, Iraq. He had two sons with his second wife, as well. Khedoury, my father, was born on February 15, 1898. Another son was named Sassoon. Both were born in Baghdad.
My father, Khedoury Khettena was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and his mother, with her family, left Baghdad with my father in 1895. He was three years old at that time. My grandfather, Joseph Khettena, refused to leave Baghdad. He was always wearing the same silver and gold robe outfit and a turban around his head. He lived to be over 100 years old. My grandfather on my mother’s side always wore the same outfit and a red Fez. Always, he covered his head. He lived about 75 years. My grandmother on my father’s side was blonde and blue-eyed and also lived about 75 years. Her name was Masouda. She was happy and lived always with my parents. She never got sick—only at the end for three or four days.
Things were so bad in Baghdad with all Jews, and the girls could not go out into the street. It was like a ghetto. My grandmother Massouda left Baghdad without my grandfather and her two sons, my Dad and Uncle Sassoon, together with her two brothers to Cairo, Egypt. My father was five years old at this time, in 1903. They were all very poor and lived all together. My father went to elementary school and had to work to help the family.
He worked at a number of newspapers after he finished elementary school. “La Bourse Egyptienne,” and “Le Progres Egyptien” both French newspapers, “The Egyptian Mail,” an English newspaper were owned by the company “Society Orientelle Publicite.” He took care of all incoming and outgoing mail and foreign advertising, mostly from London.
He got married in 1921 to my mother. His brother Sassoon got married the same day, but he died a few months later—before I was born on March 3, 1923. My father registered me, his first born child, by the Egyptian Authorities six days later and claimed I was born on March 9, 1923 (to avoid paying a fine). He was working and could not take time on March 3, 1923, the actual day I was born. A penalty was being given to parents who did not register their new born babies immediately.
My father was employed and had a salary. He had a side business, Human Hair. He imported in bales bulk from Kobe—Canton, Hong Kong. Also, he used to see customers during lunchtime (in Egypt, lunch is typically two hours long) to place orders from Japan/Hong Kong of all sundry items and toys, and he got a commission. He was working 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, at three jobs. Human Hair was cleaned and dyed at home by my Grandfather, Abraham Douwer and a worker. Then it was distributed to workers (three or four women, all Armenians, who needed money). Then it was finished by hand and he sold various kinds for the villages. All this to help the family and relatives: his two uncles and their children, his father-in-law and family, my grandmother, etc. My grandmother passed away in 1950.
My father had another brother from his own mother whose name was Sassoon. He died at the age of 25. My father also had two brothers and a sister from my grandfather Joseph’s first wife: Shlomo, Moshe and Farha. Both brothers went to Singapore for a few years. Shlomo went to Israel with Flexie and her husband Edward and their daughter Georgette. Moshe married and his wife, Aunt Nellie, came to Cairo. Moshe lived first in Alexandria, Egypt, with his first wife and had a son, Sunny, and two daughters, Mody and Ruthy. I have no news from all of them.
My brother, Jacques, was born in the spring of 1930 and died in the first week of November, 1944, before the presidential election in the U.S. (Harry Truman had been re-elected at that time.) I explained to you how my brother had the accident and died of internal bleeding. In Hebrew, the date was the 24 Heshvan on Thursday. He was coming home from the American College.
My grandfather Abraham Douwer (on my mother’s side of the family), was born in Beirut, Lebanon. He went to Cairo with his wife Esther and two daughters (Sarine or Sarah, my mother, born in Beirut in 1902, and a second daughter, Marie, who passed away in 1929). Marie married some man by the name of Mecamel and got only one daughter, Esther.
My grandfather remarried after he lost his first wife. His second wife’s name was Jamila, and she had a son by the name of Yosef from her first husband.
My mother was working in a women’s hair dresser before she got married to my Dad. Once married, she had to stop working.
My uncles Shlomo and Moshe left Baghdad around 1918 and went to Singapore “British Colony.” Shlomo was married in Baghdad to Penina. They had five daughters and one son. They all went to Israel in 1930. Victoria married David Sherbanee and had one son, Andre, who was very sick. William never married, stayed single, and grew to be quite old. Leonie married, had two daughters and one son, all of whom also married. Leonie died a few years ago. Marguerite had two sons. She passed away in 1982. Flexie married a first cousin, Edward Sherbanee, who died in 1980. They had one daughter, Georgette, and one son. Georgette married Charles Goldring and had one son, Danny. Her husband died when her son was six or seven years old. Esther got married, then divorced, and has two daughters. Georgette’s brother, Yigal Sarig, lived in Tiberias, married, and had three daughters and one son.
Uncle Moshe married and had three children, who were born in Singapore. Stanley, who is very old and may have died, had two daughters, Mody and Ruthy. Moshe remarried after divorcing his first wife to his niece, Naima Sherbanee, daughter of his own sister Farha. He went to Baghdad to marry her there in 1932 and then brought her to Egypt. It was a convenience marriage, and my uncle was diabetic. He passed away in 1952.
It was Auntie Naima (we called her Auntie Nellie) who was in my parents’ home almost daily, especially after my brother Jack died of an accident coming from American College in November of 1944. It was so hard for my parents, and my mother used to go almost weekly to the cemetery and cry and hit her forehead on the marble tomb of my young brother. This continued until she got a detached retina in her eyes and almost completely lost her vision.
So coming to my Aunt Nellie: Albert, Etty and I considered her a second mother. In order to change the atmosphere at home, she told me to get engaged with Mimi, who was seven years younger than me. She was still in elementary school, and she would take care of me when I grew old because she is younger. She used to come to our house three or four nights a week with her mother and try to quiet my Mom because she was crying all the time. Mimi lost her Dad when she was six years old. But the way, her Dad was a wonderful man, and in the afternoon, he used to sit on a bench outside his butcher shop. Uncle Moshe and Auntie Nelly’s house was so close to his store. When I used to pass by the store, Mimi’s dad used to call me, “Come, my son. Sit next to me.” After conversations with him, he used to tell me to go to the store owned by Algazi (his neighbor), and to get whatever candy I’d like to have, and he would pay the bill later. The night that my brother had the accident, Mimi’s mother told her daughter to go with me and go to the police station to enquire about which hospital or where my young brother was, but not to leave me alone.
There was a Jewish Hospital walking distance from the spot of the accident, but the ambulance took him almost one hour by ambulance to the hospital where student doctors learned from all kinds of accidents and the patients hardly came out alive. The report of the cause of death was internal bleeding.
I finally decided to get engaged and marry Mimi as my wife on April 7, 1946, in order to change the atmosphere and the mood (my parents’ first).
This marriage was celebrated in the Synagogue of Koubbeh Garden. After the ceremony, everyone received a small vase containing almonds and candies. The best friends and relatives came to my parents’ house to drink a homemade syrup, and there was a table with drinks and food and pastries, etc.
On March 30, 1947, Jack was born. On May 26, 1948, Morris was born. On August 7, 1956, Sol was born. We lost a boy at the age of less than one year named Elie. He used to turn blue—his whole body. There was a hole in his heart. This happened to be in 1954.
I went in 1926 to Jewish School: Ecole de la Communaute Israelite Cattawi Pacha and stayed until I was graduated with the Primary Certificate. Albert went to Herzel School two years after me.
My dad sent me to Lycee Francais du Caire “College School.” I had to go by bus for a half-hour ride. The teachers were from France (Arabic was not obligatory). Albert went to College Francais, which was not far from home, and was graduated [with the second highest Arabic Degree.] My dad was planning once I finished college to send me to France to learn Medicine, but when Germany attacked Europe in 1939, I switched in the same school to learn Financial Math and get a degree of High Study Commerce. I was doing so well that during any written exam I had my desk isolated, far from the rest of my classroom students and close to the teacher, to prevent other students from cheating from my paper work. I got my degrees in 1942 and worked as a shorthand typist in a firm importing medicine from (Israel) Palestine. Albert worked in a factory of beer as an accountant.
The Arabs in Cairo used to call us Zionists and we were scared to walk separately.
I worked a year later in the same company newspaper my Dad worked for and spent a couple of years as a shorthand typist, French-English. Then I resigned and worked for my Uncle Moshe in the imports and sales as an employee (my Dad was a partner in the business), and before I got married in 1946, I also became a partner.
Since I was in college, the family’s name was Khettena, and in French and English there is no “kh,” so I eliminated the “k,” and the family name became Hettena. By the way, there were second cousins to my dad, “Hettena Freres”—the Hettena Brothers. They were very wealthy, and they were the best and most reliable architects in Government Buildings in Egypt. They were almost all British Citizens. One of their sons, Richard Hettena, son of Jacques Hettena, was in the same college I was. He was graduated the Baccalaureate and I was graduated with a Financial Business Commerce diploma.
I had a third cousin in New York, Victor Carrady, son of Selim S. Reuben and Regina Reuben Shrabanee (sister of Auntie Nellie). He went into partnership with Morris Hirsch (he was in the American Army). I used to import American merchandise and arrange with them to ship to Bombay and send me a reduced invoice and declare with a certificate that the merchandise was from Indian Origin in order to let the Egyptian customs authorize the entry into Egypt. I did so many transactions, and we made a nice profit. I introduced Victor Carrady to financial customers for exchange to American dollars in New York versus other currencies and got a small commission. I arranged also to send Coded Cables using merchandise (cartons of hairgrips, combs, balloons, etc.—i.e., one carton represented one thousand dollars). We had censorship in Egypt and all went so smoothly.
Albert was offered a job in their office in Hong Kong and left—as he hated Egypt, (especially Gamal Abdel Nasser)—to work with Ellis Reuben, Victor Carrady’s brother and Morris Carrady, another brother, had an office in Milano after World War Two.
After 1950, there was a lot of competition in the import business, and I went into a partnership with Leon Bivas and three other partners who were non-active—one was Leon’s wife and another was a wealthy Moslem working exactly in Egypt as an executive in the FBI. The third non-active partner was a Jewish woman whose husband was the manager of a well-known department store Orosdi Back. The factory was to manufacture terry towels and bath robes. Leon took care getting samples from Europe and all the sales. I used to get samples from the U.S. (Victor Carrady and Morris Hirsch) and I supervised the workers. We had about 20 people getting paid [according] the productions; by the hour for cutting and [sewing]. We gave the thread (cotton) to be dyed with specific colors. I had control of Accounting and was working 10 hours a day except Sundays and Saturdays, when I worked half-a-day. Driving from home took one hour each way. I had 25% of the partnership and 50% of the land and building. When in 1956 there was the Suez Canal war between Egypt and Israel, Gamal Abdul Nasser instructed Sadat to put many Jews in jail, among them all the Jews working in the Press. My father was taken into the Concentration Camp during the night. I was ordered to stay with my wife, children, and mother-in-law by my parents and was not allowed to drive my own car or go to my home, which was 25 minutes by car—in Heliopolis. If we needed anything from our home, my late wife used to go with the maid and bring them to my parents’ house. Egyptian soldiers used to bring notes from Dad to us, and we paid nice tips. Two weeks after they took my dad to jail, we got a registered letter from the employer “La Bourse Egyptienne” addressed to him in Arabic stating that he had not reported to work in two weeks and that, if he did not show up within 48 hours, he should consider himself fired with no indemnity or severance paid to him. He worked there about 40 years.
He was released a month later.
Early around the summer of 1957, my partner Leon quietly arranged to collect his share in the Factory and the building and joined his wife and children in Paris. I heard a week later, and my attorney advised me to arrange my papers to leave the country immediately. I went with my Dad and took pictures (mine and my late wife with the three boys), and with quite a lot of money we were able to get just a plain paper “Exit with No Return” for our families and signed that we were desisting from our Egyptian nationality. We got all the papers on Rosh Hashana and we went to reserve tickets. My late wife, three children and I were scheduled to arrive in Paris on TWA on the eve of Yom Kippur. We had to get our visa “TRI”—Transit Israel through France—through the Swiss Consulate because Egypt had cut all diplomatic relations with France at that time.
In between, the non-active partner of the towels factory, the Moslem, came to my parents’ home and insisted that I pay him cash for his share in the factory. He assumed that Leon arranged with me that we would get all the cash we had in the bank and factory. The truth was that Leon sneaked behind my back and put me facing the “Substitut Du Parquet” (FBI) and the other inactive partner. My Dad gave him a good portion of his share, and he told us that he had a relative in the village and that he was going there to pay respects. According to their religion, they have to stay in the village for three days minimum if a relative dies. My attorney advised me to change the tickets at any price with TWA and get out of Egypt early the following day. Naju Battat, G-d bless his memory, helped us. He changed the air tickets to first class to Athens for the next day, and we’d stay in Athens two nights and wait for our regular flight to Paris in Athens. The Moslem Arab partner mentioned to us that if he did not get the balance in cash of his share, and the full cash amount for the other inactive partner, he would report to the Egyptian Authorities that we were Zionist spies and that we trade money from Egypt to Israel.
Dr. Naji Battat took all our valises that evening by taxi to TWA and we stayed home. Edouard Toueg, son of my grandmother’s brother (a first cousin to Dad), came to my parents’ house to inform me that in the morning the “Mabahess” (Egyptian FBI) was going to notify the airport to arrest me, but let my wife and children leave the country. Dr. Naji Battat gave me a valium that night to quiet me down and sleep. He arranged for a cab early in the morning to take us with him and his wife Pauline to the airport. We did not carry any packages or valises. At the airport, the customs officers (soldiers) got all the valises from TWA and opened all of them and checked the cash we carried with us. We were only allowed to carry 20 sterling pounds per adult and ten per child, and a wedding ring and two bracelets. All was O.K. I had in the heel of my rubber shoes a diamond ring. An Armenian shoemaker had hidden it, and he told me to wear the shoes when I traveled. Finally, the plane took off and we felt safe the minute the TWA speaker announced over the loudspeaker that we’d passed the zone of no return. In Athen’s airport, we found an agent from the Jewish Community. They were there because many Jews left their countries to escape to Israel or Europe. He gave us the directions and name of a hotel in Athens where we could sleep and which was close to the market to buy the food we would need before going to Paris.
Two days later, we took the TWA from Athens to Paris. When we arrived in Paris, just a few hours before the Fast of Yom Kippur, I went to the grocery store close to the hotel and we all ate bread and chocolate before the fast (except the baby, Sol), and then ate the following day after sundown. In Paris, a TWA hostess made several calls to hotels, but all of them refused us since we had three boys and one baby that was one year old. Then the hostess got an idea and called a five-star hotel called the “Royal Monceau.” She told them to reserve a room for three adults. When we arrived, they got upset and said the reservation was made for three adults, not two adults and three children. They gave us a room for two nights only and said we’d have to find another hotel. I called my brother Albert to wire some money to the hotel to pay hotel and other expenses. The following day, Sol, the baby, had a high temperature. The people working on the floor helped us with food and extra beds. They called a doctor, who gave us medicine and told the manager of the hotel that the baby was not allowed to go out of the hotel if he was running a high fever. The hotel gave us three more nights, also [renewed] and stayed there almost two weeks. Then we took the train to Marseille to meet my parents, sister and mother-in-law.
My parents, sister and mother-in-law went to Alexandria by train with Dr. Naji Battat and his wife Pauline and left their home in Cairo empty. The Moslem partner came to their home in Cairo and did not find them. No one knew where they went. They stayed by Naji a few days until the boat sailed to Marseille. Naji had friends who were police officers. He gave to one of his friends the package of the most jewelry to deliver to my Dad on the boat. All went O.K.
In Marseille, we had two crummy bedrooms right next to the railroad station, and no bathrooms or toilets. We had to go two floors down and wait our turn on line to use the toilet. We had to pay to shower. My late wife was very sick and had to be operated on immediately for an appendix that was going to bust. I left the children with their grandparents and went with Mimi to a private clinic and slept at night on a chair. My brother Albert was sending all expenses via American Express. He arranged that I meet a delegate from the Hias to arrange to go to the U.S.A. as refugee escapees. The Hias told me not to report to the French police and not to report to the Jewish agency. The JA was arranging to ship all the refugees to Israel and all of my friends and relatives in Israel wrote to me to go to Israel after my children were Bar Mitzvah—i.e., not to go. The reasons Hias told us not to contact the J.A. or give them our new residential address in Marseille were because they would let us live for a few weeks in Barracks (tents), and all the Jews from Egypt were classified as coming from Goshen and had to live with the North African people: Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan Jews, etc. In Paris, we all went to friends on the Sabbath for lunch and spent a few hours with them. The Hias gave me the address of small apartments in a residential place and mentioned to me that if I contacted the J.A., they would wash their hands of us and not help us to go to the States. Whenever they needed me, I had to go by train to Marseille/Paris overnight, meet with them, sign papers and return to Marseille. Also, I was advised not to walk alone in the streets of Marseille. It was the time Algerian Arabs were spreading terror and had to show their I.D’s.
I sent my two big boys to a French public school near the place we lived and managed to stay in Marseille until August of 1958, when the American Consulate got us the approval to emigrate to the U.S. The French police told us they were looking for us almost 11 months and could not find where we were. The French police were happy that we were going to the U.S.
When all the papers were ready, we booked tickets from “Le Havre” Port in the North of France and took the train to Marseille/Paris. My mother in law booked through the J.A. to go to Haifa, Palestine to visit her family and then join us two months later in New York. My brother Albert bought a house in Arverne, Rockaway Beach on 70th St. under the L, a subway running and shaking the house. For us, this house was a paradise. Albert and his wife Charlotte filled the house with all kinds of food, and arranged for their cook to prepare food for all of us for more than a week. The house belonged to her grandfather. He used to rent rooms in the summer and beds in all the rooms. The purchase price was $9,200—walk-in floor and two other floors—terms that Morris Liberman, who we called Grandpa, had to live on in the back of the house in a very tiny apartment.
When my mother-in-law went by boat from Marseille to Haifa with the Jewish Agency, we went with her on the deck of the boat—and what we saw was terrible. We saw Jewish families from North Africa sitting on the floor of the deck and eating all around a big pot of cooked food with their bare hands, dirty and no shoes. The women had gold necklaces on their foreheads.
When we arrived in the States it was very hard to find a job. I went to work first in a costume jewelry factory for 6 months. Then I went to The New York Association for New Americans and they sent me to work in a factory of hair brushes, bristles, paint brushes…My job was taking shorthand and typing bills to customers. I worked there for almost a year and then I worked for a company that imported radios, stereos, and pocket sized micro-radios. I was an accountant there. I worked there about two years and then the partners split. I joined my brother, Albert, and one partner who was a cousin named Victor Carrady. We did the same business but Victor was busy in Puerto Rico controlling theatres with live shows. The expenses for the business were tremendous and there was a lot of competition. When we received defective units of radios from Japan customers used to return the radios and then refuse to pay the bills. We (Albert and I) decided to liquidate the business and go work as employees. Albert, through Morris Hirsch, senior officer at Republic Bank of New York, was hired in 1968 and I was hired in 1970. I started on the student loans and then I managed the Commercial Loan department (Domestic and International). I was first promoted to officership Assistant Treasurer, then Assistant Vice President and later to First Vice President. At one time the department had 54 employees. I used to sell Bankers Acceptance to big brokerage houses. I tried to get bids for large amounts before issuing the B/A and I’d try to sell them within a few minutes and have the bank (Republic) make a good margin of profit.
I am grateful that Mr. Edmund Safra “g-d bless his memory” together with Mr. Dov Schlein helped me financially in most of the expenses for my late wife, Mimi. Twenty five years later to the day I began working at Republic on 8/7/70 I retired on 8/7/1995.
I traveled to Israel with my late wife (G-d bless her memory) every year since 1972 up to 1984. We used to spend 4-5 weeks there. We both have relatives and friends there and we used to be received by them on a red carpet and with open arms. Mimi had many cousins and they had children and grandchildren in Haifa. They had their own synagogue which they owned and their children were the Hazanim. For holidays and Shabbat we used to go for Kiddush in one of the cousins homes. What food they served – delicious full meals – and we enjoyed every second we spent with them. The first few years we went to Israel between Pesach to after Lag Ba Omer. The first time, in 1972 we went with an organized tour; Mizrachi Hapoel and we visited the whole country on Israel. We spent Pesach in Jerusalem at The Kings’ Hotel (Malon Hamelacih). The following years we went on our own. Mimi had relatives in Bnei Brak, Holon, Bat Yam, and other places. I had relatives in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, friends in Haifa and Kiryat Yam, and Tel Aviv. From 1976 our trips to Israel were from Rosh Hashanah to Succot and on the way back we used to spend one week in Paris where both of us had cousins. They have since passed away (G-d bless their memories).
We continued to live in Arverne, Rockaway from 1958 to 1962 and then we bought a house in Far Rockaway from 1962 to 1985. This house was near the shul, Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater, near the subway station and close to the shopping area. All of our neighbors were very friendly and I used to go to pray at the shul every morning. Each Shabbat we would arrange with a few neighbors to have a Kiddush in the afternoon: each one of us took turns and invited the others. Mimi’s cooking was so delicious that who ever ate in our home used to lick their fingers. It was so nice, but unfortunately the area changed and the people began to move out and low class people moved in. They used to play loud music and dance and repair their cars by our side walk. My late wife (G-d bless her memory) got so sick and the neurologist diagnosed in 1986/87 that she had Alzheimers and he advised me to take her to Israel for the last time. Also, Dov Schlein and other officers of the Bank encouraged me to take her to Israel for the last time too. We did go to Israel on the Independence Day of Israel, Yom Haasmaout and we visited our family and friends and returned to New York after Lag Ba Omer. Then things turned very bad and she went to the Long Island Jewish Hospital and after to the nursing home on the hospital until December 1994.
I can say one thing – since we got married in 1946 we respected one another, we never raised our voices, or even had one bad word. We sacrificed ourselves -- me to her and her to me. We cherished one another – my children and family will confirm this to anyone.