In May 1961, as the plane from Luxembourg to New York drew close to its destination, an announcement asked Elie Pallia and his family to wait on the plane after it landed. Having spent two years trying to reach America from Egypt, where Pallia’s uncle Felix had been imprisoned for months by the secret police, the family felt concerned.
Their fears proved unfounded when a delegation from HIAS, which had helped organize their immigration, met them soon after, Pallia said. The delegation informed them that his brother Robert was the 500th refugee the organization had brought to the U.S., presenting them with a certificate and taking a photo before Jewish Social Services settled them in Langley Park.
Today, Pallia is a resident of Annapolis and the treasurer of Kol Shalom of Annapolis, where he has been a member since the 2008 merger of its two predecessor synagogues, Kol Ami of Annapolis and Nevey Shalom of Bowie.
In his youth, Pallia had a comfortable life in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, he said, living in an oceanfront apartment with his father Albert, who managed a cotton factory, mother Dora and younger brothers Daniel and Riccardo. Pallia had his bar mitzvah in the city’s Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue.
His father spoke nine languages, while Pallia grew up learning French, English and Arabic, he said.
“I always joke in America to say to people that, ‘I was born in a Muslim country, I am a Jew, and I went to Catholic school,’” Pallia said. While there was a Jewish school in the area, it was a bit further away, and the Catholic school was a highly rated institution.
When a military coup overthrew the reigning king, a new adversity towards “foreigners,” such as those with European backgrounds, emerged, Pallia said.
At 15 years old, Pallia and his immediate family left Egypt in 1959 on a Greek vessel named “Masalia,” he said. They were joined by his grandfather Eli, grandmother Regime and uncle Felix.
Before depositing them in Marseille, France, it stopped at the Greek port of Piraeus, Pallia said. While the captain assured them that they could visit the town and return when the boat was ready to depart, years of living in an increasingly repressive country made them afraid at first to cross the gate without official permission.
“We were part of the second Exodus,” Pallia said. “So that’s how we must have felt coming out of Egypt.”
Upon reaching Marseille and taking a train to Paris, Pallia lived in a French hotel for a year and a half with support from The Jewish Agency, he said. Pallia’s brother Robert was born during their stay.
While in France, Pallia met a young Jewish woman, Ziza Masliah, who had also come from Egypt, and whose family name came noticeably close to that of the ship that had brought him to Europe. After meeting again in the U.S., they would marry in April 1967 and have three children.
Once the paperwork was sorted out, Pallia traveled to Luxembourg for his flight to America with his parents, three brothers, uncle Felix and great-uncle Maurice.
They settled in Maryland. Pallia finished high school and was drafted into the Army in 1966. He served at Fort Sill, Okla., where he taught classes on meteorology and its effects on artillery. During his two year service, he became a citizen in 1967. After graduating from University of Maryland, College Park in 1972 with a B.S. in economics, Pallia worked for the Washington Gas Light Company, before starting a promotional business with a friend in 1979.
While Pallia has never returned to Egypt, he does hope to see Alexandria once again.
“I wanted to close that chapter, and I haven’t been able so far,” Pallia said. “Maybe one day.”