Features

Letters from the exiles

"Letters from the exiles" Continued...

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

The U.S. National Archives flew out experts to salvage the wet archives; they put the documents and books in freezers to halt mold then flew back everything to the States for restoration. The Americans signed a deal with the Iraqis to return the archives when the restoration was complete. Three million dollars and 11 years later, the process is almost complete.

MODERN-DAY MONUMENTS MEN: A U.S. soldier hauls documents during a raid conducted at a community center in  Baghdad in 2003.
Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon
MODERN-DAY MONUMENTS MEN: A U.S. soldier hauls documents during a raid conducted at a community center in Baghdad in 2003.
The collection documents only a sliver of Jewish history in Iraq. The Jewish presence in Iraq goes back to the early 700s B.C., when Assyria took the northern Israeli kingdom into exile in modern-day Iraq, and then later when Babylon conquered Judah and took the Jews into exile in Babylon (near modern-day Baghdad). While some Jews were able to return to Israel under the reign of the Persian Emperor Cyrus, many stayed in Iraq, remaining for generations through successive empires. In a 1917 census of Baghdad, at least a third of the city’s population was Jewish.

The tide turned against the Jews at the beginning of June 1941, known as Farhud, when about 180 Jews were killed and Jewish homes were burned. Conditions worsened for Jews after the creation of Israel in 1948. Iraqi Jews faced more persecution, and most of the Jewish population fled to Israel. Iraq declared that any Jew leaving the country would have his assets frozen and would lose his citizenship—a printed declaration that appears in the Jewish archive.

“In most of the Arab world there were very big old, old Jewish communities and they were very much part of society there,” said Dangoor, whose father left Iraq in the 1930s. Dangoor’s grandfather refused to leave Iraq until the 1970s, when he was 92, but he was unusual. Arab persecution forced most Jews to leave, and Dangoor noted that many educated Muslim families in Iraq left with the Jewish families too.

“Babylonian Jewry had survived the violent conquests of the Mongols and the Black Death, but not the founding of the state of Israel,” said Dangoor.

MODERN-DAY MONUMENTS MEN: Conservation technician Patrick Brown works on documents at the National Archives.
Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon
MODERN-DAY MONUMENTS MEN: Conservation technician Patrick Brown works on documents at the National Archives.
With the rise of the Baathist Party in the late 1960s, persecution of the remaining Jews worsened. In 1969, nine Jews were hanged publicly as spies, though they had no real trial. The regime killed dozens more that year. Iraqi Jews now living in New York recall being arrested for being Jewish and tortured. By the time the United States invaded Iraq, just a handful of Jews remained in the country and they live inconspicuously.

After 2,700 years of history, this small exhibit may be one of the only enduring physical records of the Jews in Iraq. The U.S. National Archives was not sure whether any other Iraqi Jewish artifacts survived in the world. A spokesperson for the Museum of Jewish Heritage said Iraq may have some more artifacts of the Babylonian Jews. Jewish groups say a number of Torah scrolls remain in Iraq, and Iraq still has geographic memorials, like the tombs of the prophets Nahum and Ezekiel. Because the families had to leave their possessions when they were smuggled out of Iraq, there is little physical reminder of their rich history. One Iraqi Jewish woman who visited the exhibit told the staff that all she had brought from Iraq was a photo album. 

The exhibit, though small, is rich in details of daily life, like notes from a chemistry class at one of the elite Jewish schools in Baghdad, where Jews as well as Muslims and Christians were educated together in French and English. There’s a handwritten letter from an Armenian Christian group in 1962 asking some Jewish businessmen to play them in a basketball game. Correspondence shows the reach that Iraqi Jewish businessmen had in the early 20th century, to Britain and India and Asia. One letter from a Baghdad Jewish businessman in 1920 refers to “our Hong Kong office.” Dangoor said he recognized the names of some of his friends in the school records. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dangoor got a call from an Iraqi Muslim businessman who wanted to meet. The two met and talked through the afternoon and into the night; the Shiite Muslim told Dangoor that his parents had sent him to a Jewish school in Iraq. The last Jewish school closed in Iraq in the 1970s.

“It would be wonderful to visit Iraq and Baghdad the way it was,” said Dangoor. “But it’s no longer the way it was.”

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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