Born Victor Gabra, Chaim was brilliantly candid about his time in Sudan speaking with a speed and energy that couldn't help but draw me in.
I was born in Sudan, June 11th 1933. The whole family used to live in Khartoum but me and my family lived in Khartoum Bahri, Khartoum North. That’s where I was born actually. We used to commute from where I lived in Khartoum Bahri to Khartoum by train. It’s an electric train, old fashioned. It used to have that wire on the top, and it only has one track so if a train is coming the other way, one going to Khartoum and the other coming back, one has to stand on the side until the other train passes. It was a very primitive system.
In Sudan we didn’t have money. That’s why I didn’t finish school, you know, I quit school - I was fourteen years old and I went to work. We managed, we had food - but we were still a poor family. One of the poorest of the Jewish there. We were just managing. Even my cousins from my mother, they were also poor but they were in Wad Medani. It wasn’t until their oldest son went to Nigeria and he made money trading there that the family began to grow up financially and they moved to Khartoum. They were the first ones of us to get a refrigerator, an electric refrigerator! You know we used to go there…it was something! We open it, we close it, we open, close,
‘Ooo! Fridge! Ohh!’
And my uncle used to say,
‘Hey! Leave it alone! That’s not Safinat Noah!’
He used to say Safinat Noah, the ship of Noah. Because you know what we had in my house? We had a cooler. You buy ice and you put it inside and that keeps the food cold. In Israel when we went we had the same thing. It’s very nice, you know, to have a refrigerator.
It wasn’t an easy life. Clothing we had - the clothes go from brother, to brother, to me. I remember one time I had very worn shoes, I couldn’t wear them any more but my father wouldn’t give me money to buy new ones. So, you know what I did? I went to the store where they sell shoes and I told them,
‘My father sent me to buy shoes’
and because they know us the guy in the shop he says,
He gives me the shoes, then he goes to my father and says,
‘You have to pay me for your sons shoes’.
My father goes mad!
He gave me hell after that, but I said,
‘You want me to take them back? Too late now, I wore them already’. What’s he going to do?
We left Sudan with British Airways, it was a big step - we had never gone on a plane before. Actually, my cousin used to work for them when we were teenagers and we used to joke with each other. I used to work as a clerk for a veterinary clinic and he with British Airways. So I come to work in the morning and I used to call him, and he used to answer,
‘British Airways Corporation’
because he doesn’t know who it is. And I don't say anything, I just start to sing to him in Arabic and then hang up. And he used to call me too, to do the same thing to me! We had a lot of fun.
I want to tell you about my brother, my elder brother Itzhak - Zaki in Arabic. He was doing very good in school, he was genius in Mathematics you know. He was brilliant in Math, and he made up his mind from when he was a little kid to be an Engineer. When he finished high school he went to the University of Cairo and then after that he became Doctor at Columbia University. He got a scholarship in Cairo and he lived with my aunts there, my father’s sisters, he lived with them. My father wasn’t so happy about it. All he wanted was for my father to send him a little money for living because he had everything else, but my father said,
‘Come back and work in the bank’.
He didn't want him to be there, but Zaki insisted, he said,
‘No, I am going to be an Engineer’.
After Cairo he worked in the Defence Department in Israel, but they wouldn't promote him because he is Sephardi, and so he came to America with me. He did his Master’s there and after that he became a Doctor of Engineering. He is a genius.