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The Great Escape

Aharon Granevich-Granot

Half a century ago, Reb Raphael Avraham, the one-time mukhtar of the village of Oyeja near the Turkish border, was the head of a smuggling ring to bring oppressed Jews out of Syria. He was on his way to the gallows when an influential businessman in Damascus — who later turned out to be Eli Cohen Hy”d — intervened on his behalf. Now, Reb Raphael Avraham, responsible for the escape of so many Jews, tells his story for the first time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

siddurAs fighting continues to escalate near the 550-mile Syrian border withTurkey, Reb Raphael Avraham, an elderly Syrian Jew living in Jerusalem, monitors the developments with piqued interest. For him, it’s much more than news curiosity. Half a century ago, that border saved him — and nearly killed him.

1963. Under cover of darkness, dozens of people slipped out of their homes in the ruralvillage ofOyeja, just a few kilometers from the Syrian-Turkish border. A similar scene was taking place in other villages of northernSyria at the same time. Glancing nervously over their shoulders to make sure the Mukhabarat — the Syrian secret service — wasn’t on their tail, each group made their way to a pre-arranged hiding spot, where a few random automobiles killed their headlights and silenced their engines. The slightest commotion would attract the attention of the Mukhabarat, and that would be their end. 

The cars moved toward the border, the drivers raking in a considerable profit for endangering themselves on that night. The Kurdish smugglers were waiting, and they also knew that if all didn’t go according to plan, they wouldn’t receive a red cent from the young Jewish mukhtar of Oyeja, Raphael Avraham. In the middle of the night, the fugitives were deposited alongside the border, where they began a crushing trek through fields and vineyards, led by their Kurdish guides. The slightest misstep was liable to bring the Syrian border guards running, firing their weapons into the night.

Acting on pre-planned instructions, they scattered throughout the tiny villages that formed a mosaic of life along the border, pretending to be paupers scavenging for food. Any local residents who were still awake — or who had risen early — assumed that a band of beggars had descended on their village. None of them imagined that a similar-looking group had appeared in the neighboring villages. Certainly, none of them imagined that a mass flight of Jewish refugees was taking place directly under their noses.

The “scavengers” regrouped in the wadi of the no-man’s-land on the other side of the border. The local Syrian border guards had been “greased” in advance in exchange for their silence. All that remained was to wait for the changing of the guard on the Turkish side. On the next shift, at about four o’clock in the morning, there were a number of Turkish patrols that had also been greased by the mukhtar of thevillage ofOyeja. They were to let a hundred fugitives into the country.

The nocturnal escape had met with success.


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