Remembering Iraq's Shavuot massacre
Former members of the Baghdad Jewish community recall Shavuot of 1941 - when their peaceful and prosperous lives became filled with violence and fear.
For a shrinking group of Baghdadi Jews, Shavuot is a day of mourning when the terrifying memory of the Farhud returns. Seventy years ago, a mob of Iraqi Muslims, fuelled by Nazi propaganda and armed with knives and guns, began chanting "Kutal al Yehud" (slaughter the Jews) , and launched a pogrom that killed more than 100 Jews in two days of violent attacks. The farhud ended 2,600 years of Jewish life in Babylon - the oldest Jewish community in the Diaspora - and illustrated how far Hitler’s anti-Semitism had spread by 1941.
In April 1941, the pro-Nazi leader Rashid Ali al-Gaylani seized power when he overthrew Iraq’s monarchy. With his strong links to the Third Reich and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Baghdad was bombarded with Nazi propaganda; Berlin Radio began broadcasting in Arabic and children in Iraqi schools praised Hitler learning how Jews, and the British, were the treacherous enemy within.
Rashid Ali aimed to rid Iraq of the British colonial rule and to secure Iraq’s vast oil reserves in Kirkuk for Germany. When an attack on the British Royal Air Force base outside Baghdad ended in humiliating failure, Rashid Ali was forced to flee. The farhud took place in the power vacuum that followed.
Heskel Haddad, now an eye doctor in Manhattan, was 11 years old at the time of the farhud and lived in comparative luxury, with a car and chauffeur and a big house on the outskirts of the Jewish quarter. Haddad remembers a childhood in Baghdad that was happy and secure.
"We had many Jewish and Arab Muslim neighbours. We didn't call them Arabs, we called them Muslims, and we were very friendly with them. We would go to their houses for holidays and they would bring us fresh bread at the end of Pesach. We never felt in any danger and we saw ourselves as Iraqi first. Being Jewish came second place.”
On the eve of Shavuot, Haddad was at home eating a festive meal downstairs in the cellar with his family oblivious to the commotion outside.
“We were just about ready to go out to my uncle’s house where we used to study Torah all night when we heard the screams of 'Allah, Allah,' and shots were fired. We went out to the roof to see what's happening - we saw fires, we saw people on the roofs in the ghetto screaming, begging God to help them. And then when we came down from the roof there was a guy across the street from our house, he was screaming, 'Help me! Give me water!' My father didn't want to let me go give him water because he was afraid that I might be killed, because there were gangs going right on our street. Then the voice of this man ended after about an hour or two. I guess he died.”
The mob of rioters and the violence grew through the night of Shavuot targeting every Jewish home. A few days before the farhud, a sinister red hamsa (traditional hand-shaped totem to ward off bad luck) had been painted on the outside wall of Jewish houses to help the mob find their targets.
Haddad recalls the terror of seeing gangs outside his house at dawn, poised to break in. “They hit our neighbour Ephraim’s house, they broke the door in and looted everything. I was standing on the roof, not knowing what to do. My father had a dagger in his hand and a pipe to prevent people from attacking us on the roof. But then an idea came to me and I took some bricks from breaking the walls on our roof and started throwing them at the gangs. Other kids came with me and began throwing rocks on these people. And when we hit somebody and they began to bleed and they left. And they left the loot behind them.”
Haddad is still feels indebted to his mother’s faith on that night. “My mother went downstairs into the cellar and lit three oil wick candles called knadeel. She lit one for the prophet Yehezkiel, after whom I am named, one for Ezra Shofer and one for Rabbi Meir Ba’al Nes. She believed in these and told us, 'these are going to protect us.' Nobody knew that she was doing that and when I came downstairs to find my mother with those three candles, I was really flabbergasted. And her belief and faith, imparted itself on me.
believe the same way. I believe in the power of spirit and not the power of gun.”
Steve Acre, now 79 and living in Montreal, says he owes his life to his fearless Muslim landlord. Acre has only recently begun to talk about his traumatic memories from that terrible Shavuot. Sharing a house with his widowed mother and eight siblings, Acre witnessed the mob trying to break into their home.
“I was up hiding in this tall palm tree in our courtyard too scared to move. I watched this mob outside shouting and yelling, but the shouting is still in my head. And then I saw our landlord. He was a devout Muslim and went to Mecca so we called him Haaji. He was wearing a green turban and he sat in front of our house.
There was a new red hamsa painted on the outside wall and when the mob there came he told them that we are orphans taking refuge in his house and they cannot touch us. He told them that if they want to kill us they have to kill him. We were lucky, but then the mob moved across the street to the house of my mother’s best friend Sabicha. I was still hiding up in the tree and heard women screaming, but like lots of women. And then I saw this group of men leave the house and set it on fire. But they were holding something in their hands that looked like a slab of meat, and they were shouting in jubilation. Later I found out that they were holding the breasts of my mother’s friend Sabicha - they had tortured her before they killed her. When you hear yelling and screaming of children and women, it stays with you forever and ever. “
By 5pm on Shavuot, a curfew was finally called bringing the violence to an end. In just over 24 hours, the rioters killed more than 100 Jews. The victims were buried hastily in a mass grave which became known as The Dead of the Farhud.
And as the farhud was raging, thousands of British troops stood on the outskirts of the city, forbidden from going to the rescue of the Jewish community. Steve Acre, like many Iraqi Jews, still feels anger toward the British ambassador who issued the order to stand aside.
“We always felt the British would be there in case there was a need. But unfortunately, the British ambassador at the time did not want to send the forces into Baghdad, but he just wanted to let the Iraqis vent their frustration alone without being involved, which was a difficult thing to understand later - how come no one came to our rescue?”
An uneasy calm returned to Baghdad although there were no investigations, no arrests and no prosecutions. For the Jewish community, life had changed irrevocably.
“It was horrific to go back to school after that when you know it was your neighbours who had just killed and got away with it," Acre says. "You knew that mobs had come in and you still didn’t know from where. And so we learned how to run, because if you didn’t, the kids threw stones at you and spit in your face and called you dirty names. So you learned to run for your life. We were living on the edge.”
For Haddad, whose cousin died from stab wounds while trying to save someone else, thoughts of revenge prevailed.
“After that farhud, I suddenly changed my attitude. I didn't feel Iraqi anymore, I felt I'm a Jew and wanted to have my bar mitzvah. I wanted to see why this happened to the Jews. And I also vowed to myself that I would to kill an Arab.
"One day I was swimming across the River Tigris back and forth. I was a very good swimmer and I was a third of the way across when I saw this guy screaming "Hatah Allah" (Save me!) He was thrashing in the water, he was drowning. So I swam to him and took him back to the shore. He said to me, 'you saved my life,' but I just swam back again. When I came home I was shook up. Not because I saved the guy but because I didn't follow my vow to kill an Arab. And when I went to see the rabbi, he said, 'you can't make a vow to kill. You can only make a vow to help.' and that's what stimulated me to go into medicine actually. I knew that I wanted to save lives and not to kill people”.
For Haddad, the farhud has left him with a love-hate relationship towards Iraq. Now a practising ophthalmologist, Haddad offers free treatment for Iraqis wounded by explosions. In 1995, he returned to Baghdad as an adviser to the Iraqi government.
Iraq's ambassador in Washington describes Haddad as "the best Iraqi I know". But while he numbers some Iraqi Muslims among his friends, he remains on his guard in the presence of others.
"I have this feeling, a sort of distrust, that the farhud created," he says. "It's an emotional thing that you cannot eradicate that easily. That is, I would be very afraid if a general person that I never met before happened to be Muslim. There is mistrust in me about that. It is something that I like to correct if I meet the person and talk to him. It is an ambivalent feeling that is difficult to describe. From one point, you want to really trust that person and be friends, but at the same time, you feel on guard. You feel that you have to be very careful because he might stab you in the back."
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