Maurice Sion - Early Life

By Sarica Sion
Taken from Nassif Ghoussoub's Piece of Mind Blog

I am going to start by talking about my father’s early life (his pre-UBC years).  These stories that he told us, in particular the ones relating to the first 16 years of his life, have always held me in their thrall as they were part of a world so distant from the one I was brought up in.

Maurice was born in 1927.  His family were Sephardic Jews living in Salonica, Greece.  His mother wanted to be with her family for his birth so his actual birthplace was Skopje of the former Yugoslavia, now the capital of what has recently been renamed North Macedonia.  He was born at his maternal grandparents’ home.  They were dried goods and alcohol merchants and Maurice later remembered their cellar was filled with barrels of nuts and dried fruits and there was a still for making Arak.  His family spoke Ladino which is an ancient form of Spanish as they were descendants of the Jews who had been forced to leave the Iberian peninsula over 500 years ago, and Ladino was Maurice’s first language.

The late 1920s was a time of depression for the Balkans and his father had lost his steady job and had a very poorly paid job as a contract electrician, so the family left the Jewish community in Salonica and moved to Izmir Turkey, where Maurice’s father worked with a company specializing in electrical installations and radios.  Things turned out well for them there.  His family was doing well financially and enjoyed a happy and extensive social life.  His mother worked very hard to ensure her children were well educated and Maurice and his brother attended a parochial Italian school, which was one of the more prestigious private schools in the area.  His mother would have saved every penny so that they could attend.

However, the good times in Turkey did not last, and in 1935, the Turkish government enacted a law that would forbid foreigners from working in order to ensure employment to Turkish nationals.  So they had to leave Izmir, but instead of retuning to Salonica in Greece, they settled in Beirut, Lebanon with the help of family who had also left Salonica and had moved there.  The fact that they did not return to Salonica turned out to be a very fortunate choice for them, for if they had, there is a very good chance that they would have perished in the holocaust as did many members of my father’s extended family (just as a footnote, 90% of Salonica’s jews were killed during World War II).

In Beirut, Maurice’s father opened a general store in the Place des Canons.  Life was a lot harder in Beirut.  My father talked a lot of the social unrest.  The store had metal shutters and there was always advance notice of a riot.  They would quickly shutter the store to avoid looting and go home till it was over and safe to open up again. In the late 1930s, weary of their difficult life in Beirut, they made plans to leave and to go to Paris.  They almost made it but the plans fell through at the very last minute to the great disappointment of the family, which of course in hindsight turned out to be another fortunate turn of events for them that they were not in Paris during the Second World War.

In Beirut, Maurice and his brother continued their education with the Italian Dominican Fathers until 1941, when with the arrival of the British during the war, all Italian nationals were interned and Italian schools closed.  Maurice and his brother then continued their high school education at the American University of Beirut in the French section.  It was through his education with Italian and French schools that he solidified his knowledge of these two languages.

Maurice and his family lived out the bulk of the war in Beirut.  Towards the middle of the war as the Germans were advancing across north Africa, they made the decision to leave Beirut for America.  They discovered that a rash act by Maurice’s father in his late teens that had taken him to the United States and saw him join the US army at the end of the First World War actually gave his father, Maurice and his brother US citizenship unbeknownst to them all these years, thereby making their entry to the United States a certainty.  In 1944 when Maurice was 16, the family left Beirut for America via Egypt.  First Maurice’s father and older brother left and they settled in New York.  While they waited for word from them, Maurice worked at an insurance agency with a family friend so that he could pay for his and his mother’s passage to America. Three months later, Maurice and his mother followed them.  There were transportation restrictions and they took a train from Beirut to Cairo where they stayed for three weeks.  When they heard that their ship was ready to depart they took an overnight train from Cairo to Port Said where they boarded a ship bound for New York City.  Their ship travelled in a convoy and it was understood that if one ship was torpedoed, the others would not risk lives to save them.  The voyage, fortunately, was very uneventful. And it was on this trip to America that he began to seriously learn his fourth language, English.

Upon arrival in New York, the family settled in Brooklyn.  Maurice describes his time in New York as one of a freedom he could only have dreamed about before.  He was 16 years old, and was now out of the war zone so his personal safety was no longer compromised.  It was 1944 and so many of the American men were at war.  This meant that jobs were plentiful and entrance to university was assured.  To his family, the United States truly was the land of welcome and opportunity.  His father and older brother found jobs and Maurice enrolled at New York University.

My father did not start out studying Mathematics.  He loved History and considered becoming a diplomat and enrolled in courses to that end.  He also took a first year math course as an elective.   However at his first class, the professor said that the course had been incorrectly described.  It was in fact an honours course for students continuing on in the subject.  When he asked if there was anyone who thought to be enrolled in the wrong class, Maurice was too shy and embarrassed to bring attention to himself so he said nothing and simply stayed on.  He soon found it was not too hard for him and that he liked it.  He also soon figured out that he did not have the political and social connections needed for a career in diplomacy.  Sitting with his advisor at this juncture in his life, the math course stood out as something he could do well and enjoyed, so he changed direction and started studying Mathematics.

My father left NYU with a Masters degree in Mathematics.  Then he went to University of California in Berkeley and received his PhD in 1951.  The Korean War intervened in his career and he was drafted for two years, never seeing active duty and his math skills assured him a desk job.  After the war he spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and then taught at UC Berkeley.  That was where he met my mother Emilie in 1957 when they were introduced over a game of tennis by mutual friends.  Then they surprised just about everyone by getting married only 2 weeks after they had met.  Emilie had just returned from a camping trip that had taken her through Vancouver during a beautiful spell of August weather and two years later when they had to decide between jobs in Seattle and Vancouver, he accepted the job at UBC because Emilie convinced him that it was such a beautiful city.