At Passover, local Oak Parker recalls his tenuous journey from Egypt to America.
One of the basic tenets in Judaism is the Exodus from Egypt. The Ten Commandments begin with the words: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” We are compelled to recall this extraordinary event in prayers like the V’ahavta and Shabbat evening Kiddush. Passover commemorates our people’s freedom from slavery after this momentous escape.
This theme is familiar — especially for Salomone Castro. The 84-year-old Oak Park resident of Italian descent was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and his family’s struggle to leave that oppressive Middle Eastern regime reminds us that, like our ancestors, Jewish people continue to overcome adversity to achieve a better life.
“My grandfather left Italy for Egypt in the late 1800s,” Castro said. “He married a woman from Morocco, and my father was born in 1901. My father’s father wasn’t very religious, but my maternal grandfather was a rabbi in Jerusalem.”
Castro’s father owned open-air movie theaters in Alexandria and Cairo. He recalled as a youth during the 1940s the theaters closing because of the war. “We had to run for our lives from Rommel’s attacks,” he said. “My parents, my older sister and I fled to Cairo.”
Under King Farouk, the Jewish population fared well in Egypt; when Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1952, the situation deteriorated.
In 1959, Castro graduated as an engineer from Alexandria University and got a job at a Greek-owned textile plant.
“Two years later, the company was nationalized,” he said, “and I wanted to leave. I tried to get fired, but that didn’t work.”
The Jewish population was diminishing, Castro explained. “I could escape, but then what would happen to my dad? My mother had died in 1960, and my sister married and went to France, so it was just us.”
The Journey to America
Castro worked at the plant until June 5, 1967, right before the Six-Day War.
“My father and I were going to see a lawyer, and on our way, we were arrested — for being Jewish! I was separated from my dad, beaten and thrown unconscious into a two-person jail cell with 27 others,” he said. “My dad was released that day, but I was jailed for the duration of the war.”
Through actions of the Italian consulate, Castro obtained a passport. On June 11, he was deported and taken to an Italian ship that brought him and other Jews to Naples. “While on board, the captain sent us water and ham sandwiches,” he said. “We said we were Jews and got cheese instead.”
Castro even got a telegram from the plant, asking him to return to Egypt. “My reply? No!”
His next stop was a Naples refugee camp, where the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provided food, clothing and necessities, and he found work as an engineer. Yet his father remained in Egypt.
“The only way my dad could leave was to sign — under threat of death — a document relinquishing all our possessions,” he said.
In December 1967, Castro’s father arrived in Naples, and Castro told him it was best to go on to Marseille, to be with his daughter, which he did until April 1968.
With his master’s degree in digital computer design, Castro wanted to work in America. He had obtained visas for several countries, including the United States.
“I went to the U.S. embassy in Rome and was introduced to the ambassador, Mrs. Shirley Black. She looked familiar,” Castro recalled, “but I didn’t know why!” (It was years later, when Castro saw her on TV, he remembered her as Shirley Temple, the movie star.)
She explained there was a 12-year waiting list to leave Italy and recommended he live with his sister in France. “Since I held an Italian passport, she explained I’d just be an Italian in Italy — no special case — and wouldn’t be able to leave. But if I went to France, I’d be considered a displaced person and might be able to emigrate to America more quickly,” Castro said. “So I went to Paris.”
Not long after, Castro went to a friend’s house to go on a trip to Spain. When he got there, his friend told him to return to Paris immediately to catch a train to Brussels and from there a plane to New York. “He knew how much I wanted to leave Europe with my father. Here was the opportunity!” Castro said.
He and his father left on an evening train. At midnight, the train, which was near Belgium, stopped in the middle of nowhere. “There was a strike!” Castro said. “We thought we’d miss our plane, which was leaving at 10 a.m.”
At around 3 a.m., Castro said the train began to move because the conductor needed his coffee and traveled to a small village where he got off. Another locomotive brought them to Brussels. “We made it to the airport 10 minutes before the plane left,” he said. “When we arrived in New York and went through immigration, the officer asked: ‘Castro? Are you related to Fidel?’”
From New York, Castro’s next move was to Detroit in 1968, where he worked as a plant engineer in Hamtramck. In 1970, he met and married Cairo-born Mathilde (whom he had known in France years before), and the couple had their daughter Sarina in 1971. They moved to their Oak Park home in 1978, where the two still live.
Castro and his wife attend Keter Torah, and he said the congregation is aware of his experience escaping his country of birth.
“Every time the rabbi mentions the Jews leaving Egypt, he always looks my way,” he joked. “Coming to America represented freedom. Just like at Passover, we were able to free ourselves from being almost like slaves in Egypt!”