Seventy-five years ago, about 120,000 Jews lived in Iraq. In Baghdad, they were prominent in business and the professions — doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, musicians, writers, artists, engineers. Last summer, a visitor just back from Iraq told me he could account for only five Iraqi Jews alive in the country. Not 5,000. Not 500. Five. They are too old to leave. When they die, there will be none.
Iraq has been home to Jews for more than 2,500 years. The Babylonian Talmud was written there. And despite instances of sectarian violence, Jews and Arab Muslims managed by and large to cohabit, until anti-Semitism escalated in the 20th century and culminated in a great massacre that Iraqi Jews call the Farhud pogrom, or “the forgotten pogrom of the Holocaust.” It began on June 1, 1941, when pro-Nazi militants executed Jews on buses and sidewalks, killed babies and their grandparents, raped and murdered women and girls. Then they emptied the homes of the dead of everything valuable. When the carnage and looting were over, about 130 Jews had been murdered, many more orphaned and hundreds of others wounded. The dead went into a common grave.
Less than two years after the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Iraqi government declared that Iraq’s Jews could go to the Promised Land — on the understanding that they would renounce their Iraqi citizenship and leave their assets behind. Going to Israel meant never going back. To return with an Israeli stamp on your travel document would be to ask to be executed as a spy. Still, within three years, about 120,000 Jews willingly paid the price for their freedom, leaving just a few thousand behind.
My family remained, and I was born in Baghdad in 1963. But by the time I was in kindergarten, Jewish assets were being frozen, Jewish men had begun to lose their jobs, and universities would not accept Jewish students. And yet, surreally, it was by then illegal to leave. Finally, my family and I tried to escape over the border with Iran, but we were captured and jailed for five weeks. An officer took me alone into an interrogation room and, looking for a recording device, dismembered the doll I was carrying. He accused me of being a “jasoosa” — a spy. I was 8. I still have the broken doll.
Upon being released, we found that many of our belongings had been confiscated. We moved in with a friend and applied for passports for a 10-day vacation in Turkey. We could take just one suitcase and a pittance in cash, and we knew we’d never return. Even if our suitcase had been large enough, we could not have taken our photo albums, diaries, letters or schoolbooks. Nor the elegant dresses our mother had made for me and my two sisters. Nor the jewelry and scrolls and shawls and menorahs bequeathed us by our ancestors. Who takes a photo album on a 10-day vacation, the police would have asked.
From Turkey, we fled to Tel Aviv and then Amsterdam, where my father soon died of a heart attack. I was schooled for a year in England, and eventually I emigrated to America, where I have lived since 1991 — and where I now help direct the World Organization of Jews From Iraq. Through the group, I found a small community with this in common: leaving Iraq meant leaving virtually everything dear to us in the very country that had expelled us.
Then, in May 2003, American soldiers searching the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters for weapons found instead an obviously looted trove of more than 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English. The materials dated as far back as 1540, and as recently as the 1970s; they included scroll fragments, a Babylonian Talmud, hand-illustrated prayer books, Hebrew calendars, school primers, personal and business correspondence, Kabbalist commentaries and a Bible from 1568. Conservationists from the National Archives in Washington went to Baghdad to assess the damage and save the articles. Iraqi representatives agreed that the materials should be flown to America, where they were nursed back to life: freeze-dried, cleaned, categorized, photographed and digitized.
On Friday, an exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi-Jewish Heritage,” opens at the National Archives. A website has given the world access to the archive. But the collection’s future is uncertain because President George W. Bush’s administration promised that the materials would be returned to Iraq after restoration. That promise’s legality has been contested by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and others.
I can understand American sensitivities to accusations of pillaging. During the Iraq war, the United States also removed Baath Party documents, and Iraq is seeking their return, too, on grounds that the Iraqi public can learn from them about their past leaders’ mistakes. But there is a difference between the papers of a murderous dictator and the heritage of an oppressed minority. The Iraqi-Jewish archive never belonged to the Iraqi government; it belonged to the Jews of Iraq.
For me, the Baath Party documents are like the black box from a plane that has crashed: studying them can avert future calamities. The Iraqi-Jewish Archive is more like lost luggage — the treasures of a dispersed people who yearn to reconnect with something, anything, of the life they left behind.
So where should these materials go? To suggest that they go to Israel, where many Iraqi Jews live now, might invite venom from Iraq. To suggest America would almost certainly inspire complaints in Baghdad about “imperialism.” Honoring the Bush administration’s pledge, and returning the materials would dishonor every one of the Jews who were cruelly driven from their homeland. The United States should make sure this trove of memory remains safely in America for the world to share. On Thursday, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States suggested a possible loan that would let the material remain in America for some time after the exhibition closes. This may be a first step, but it isn’t a long-term solution.
One hopes that Iraq will know peace and that perhaps Jews can return some day. Maybe then it would make sense to return these materials. But until that distant moment, returning such a vast trove of Jewish heritage to a place where there will soon be no Jews would be perverse — and a failure to acknowledge the devastation caused by anti-Semitism in the Arab world.
Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, a dentist in Flushing, Queens, is a member of the board of the World Organization of Jews From Iraq.