Santa Fe woman’s book explores her Jewish family’s past in Syria
As founder and publisher of Santa Fe’s family newspaper Tumbleweeds, Claudette Sutton has spent her life writing about children, families and relationships. But none of that prepared her for what she would discover about her own roots.
After 20 years of research and writing, Sutton has published a book about her father’s journey as an Arab-speaking Jewish boy in Syria who traveled at age 19 to war-torn China with a French passport, and then to America, where he married into a merchant family who still very much identify themselves as Syrian Jews.
Farewell, Aleppo: My father, My People and Their Long Journey Home chronicles the man born as Meir Sutton, now 92-year-old Mike Sutton, who lives in Maryland with his wife, Cynthia.
For Claudette Sutton, her family and generations of immigrants, the book is a testament to resiliency and survival. For the world, it is an example of how the upheaval and hatred now seen in the Middle East almost daily is not organic to the region. In her father’s hometown of Aleppo, Syria, for instance, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side for centuries, attending school together, living and practicing what they believed.
“You see what’s going on now and you can’t imagine that was happening less than 100 years ago,” she said.
For Claudette Sutton, the narrative journey may have started even before she asked her father to take pen to paper. She writes in the book about being home from college and watching a Thanksgiving Day parade with her parents while doing a New York Times crossword puzzle, a passion she and her father shared.
She knew her father spoke Arabic, French, Turkish, Hebrew and English, and he asked if she needed help on a particularly difficult clue.
“Who would know the Turkish word for ‘morning?’ ” she asked.
“Sabah,” her father answered.
In 1922, when Sutton’s father was born, Jews had lived in Aleppo for 2,000 years. The population peaked at perhaps 25,000 when Jews fled from Spain with the inquisitions that started in 1492. But Aleppo also was one of the centers of Jewish scholarship and housed the Aleppo Codex, one of the oldest and most authoritative biblical Jewish texts that is now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Over the years, Claudette Sutton became more and more committed to drawing out her father’s life. He told of his time in Shanghai, when he was sent there to help an uncle in business. He left a port in Egypt at age 19, taking 31 days on a transport ship to arrive in China. The work involved exporting fine textiles such as tablecloths, clothes and linens from those who crafted them to urban markets in America and Europe.
But when Japan invaded China in World War II and occupied the city, commercial boats were not permitted. Mike Sutton, then in his early 20s, was stuck, alone and without a means of support. After seeing the radios and radiators being confiscated so the metal could be melted down for war supplies, he figured sewing needles would become a scarcity.
Generations of families who lived off their handwoven textiles would require needles, and factories would not be producing them during the war. Mike Sutton cultivated a source for sewing needles and became the go-to guy for buying and selling. With language skills and a business background, he also learned to convert currencies and exchanged money on the black market.
Her father told these stories matter-of factly, but for Claudette Sutton, her siblings and extended family, they were nothing short of incredible. “He had no idea how fascinating they were,” Claudette Sutton said.
Describing how her father learned English by going to American movies, she said, “He was expected to go out and rely on himself.”
Claudette Sutton originally tried to tell the story in her father’s own words, but she realized the richness of the history was essential to readers who needed to understand the political passages surrounding the journey.
So instead of just transcribing what her father said, “I started to make it more my book,” she said.
One little-known detail, for instance, is that when Japan occupied the Chinese peninsula, the government of Germany demanded its Asian ally turn over the Jewish residents, who would have certainly been killed by the Nazis. Japan refused to do so.
Though some Jews were detained until the war was over, Mike Sutton was not. He had a French passport because Syria was under French protection before it gained independence. And when Mike Sutton and most of his family entered the United States, they did so on work visas that are no longer permitted.
The epic character in the book may well be the one Claudette Sutton never met, grandfather Selim Sutton, who got out of Syria during strife-torn years to create a life elsewhere with his wife, Adele. The couple had nine children, and all escaped Syria except one child who had died.
It is well known that many Arab families were forced from their homes when Palestine was partitioned to create Israel in 1947. The coordinated Arab invasion of the new Jewish state led to further encroachments and still more refugees.
But “even greater numbers of Jews fled or were expelled from Muslim countries after the creation of Israel. Over 800,000 Jews left Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Aden from 1948 to the early 1970s as a result of the backlash against the creation of Israel,” Sutton reminds readers.
And it was Selim Sutton, a man who lived almost his entire life in Aleppo, who had the foresight to see the forces that would shake his country and his family.
It is both a sad and wonderful legacy of a parent who kept his children out of business relationships and entanglements in Syria so they would be more open to emigrate. In 1947 and 1948, tensions boiled over, and Jews who had lived in Aleppo for hundreds of years were restricted in business, not being able to collect debts. They could not leave the country for fear they would go to Israel and become an enemy.
In 1948, there were still 30,000 Jews in Aleppo. By 1952, the last of the Sutton family and most others were gone.
“Jews whose families had lived in these regions for centuries side by side with Christians and Muslims found themselves prisoners in their own countries, escaping by way of smugglers, bribes and disguises,” Sutton writes in Farewell Aleppo.
The family could not even sell its home, and had to flee after renting the home to a Muslim sheikh by collecting three years’ rent in advance. Selim Sutton died without them and is buried near Tel Aviv.
In the book, Mike Sutton tells his daughter. “I would say he had clear insight into the future to do what he did when your children are teen-agers and you have been an influence in their lives to make them take a trip to the other side of the world where — no doubt in your mind — you may not get to see them again.”
Today, the Jews of Aleppo and other parts of the Middle East have congregated in areas such as Brooklyn, which boasts a population of some 70,000 Middle-Eastern or Syrian Jews, including Jerry Seinfeld’s mother.
“Perhaps the most unexpected twist in the tale is that the end of Jews in Syria has no means meant the end of Syrian Jews. They have relocated and proliferated around the world,” the author writes.
And it has been the resiliency of her family and its legacy that is now part of Claudette Sutton, who started Tumbleweeds in 1995, when her own son was in elementary school. For her, the journey means that she no longer sees herself as a mainstream American.
“Families are a complex system,” she said. “You can see family in who we are, our identity. We don’t just wake up in the morning and invent ourselves.”