When the pogrom against Iraq’s Jews known as the Farhud erupted on Shavuot eve in 1941, Hela Saref Kargola was 16 years old. She lived with her family in central Basra, a city in southern Iraq.
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“We were at home,” recalled Kargola, who died in 2012. “When we heard the mob screaming outside, we went out onto the terrace. We saw many Arabs crowding at Jewish homes, carrying dozens of household objects and furniture in their arms. They emptied the Jews’ homes and took whatever they could carry,” she recalled.
“Yesterday’s neighbors became today’s enemies. Police officers supposed to keep order took off their uniforms and joined in the killing,” she added. Her descriptions are horrific. “Pregnant women were taken off buses, their abdomens were cut open and the fetuses removed. Elderly people were beaten to death in the streets. Entire homes were looted to their foundations.”
According to statistics at Yad Vashem, 179 Jews were killed, more than 2,000 wounded, and 50,000 were victims of theft during the Farhud (an ancient word meaning imposing brutal terror on the subjects of a regime). “Terrible acts of cruelty were carried out during the pogrom. Babies, elderly people and women were murdered and their limbs hacked to pieces. Women were raped. Synagogues were damaged and Torah scrolls desecrated,” according to a brief paper in Hebrew about the Farhud at Yad Vashem’s website.
“Why? Why? How did it happen that people who had been guests in Jewish homes a day or two before, who had worked with them and admired them, suddenly turned into monsters? How did they change in such an awful way?” Kargola asked.
A legal struggle that Farhud victims are waging against Israel provides a possible explanation of the motives. Based on the professional opinion of historians, the plaintiffs claim that Nazi Germany was behind it. Accordingly, they are demanding that the government recognize the victims of the Farhud as victims of the Nazis, granting them compensation and benefits according to the Disabled Victims of Nazi Persecution Law.
Their claims, which were denied, are now being clarified by an appeals committee. “If we do not convince them, we will appeal to the District Court and even to the Supreme Court,” say attorneys David Yadid, Doron Atzmon and Sivan Batsri, experts in the rights of Holocaust survivors and victims of Nazi persecution, who brought the lawsuit.
How much were the Nazis involved in Iraq?
A look at the professional opinion written by the historians recruited by the parties provides a fascinating glimpse into the historical debate about Nazi Germany’s influence in Iraq and the suffering that the Nazis caused to Jews living in Arab countries, far from occupied Europe.
The historical material includes minutes of a German military discussion, the Nazi foreign ministry's correspondance, British army intelligence reports and the report of the investigative committee established in Iraq after the pogrom. The Iraqi prime minister, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani; the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini; Adolf Hitler and his book Mein Kampf; the Nazi radio station that broadcast from Berlin and had reception in Iraq; and the fascist youth movement that mirrored Germany’s Hitler Youth all play major roles in the material.
The plaintiffs claim that the riots against the Jews in Iraq were “a direct result of incitement and deliberate, organized German-Nazi propaganda whose purpose was to make the Jews hateful to the Arab inhabitants of Iraq and motivate them to strike at the Jews.” Attorneys Yadid and Batsri are convinced that “the Germans were directly linked to the people who fueled, instigated and organized the riots, supported them and directed them.” They add: “The broad scope of the riots... and other historical sources prove that there was a directing hand behind the riots — the hand of Nazi Germany.” They see Iraq as a satellite and a vassal state of Nazi Germany.
But on the other side of the barricade is the Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority at the Finance Ministry, whose officials claim that Nazi involvement in Iraq was marginal, meaning the case of Iraqi Jewry is not like that of other Jews subject to Nazi rule. The Authority says that the riots were caused by other factors, such as traditional hatred of Jews, a fight against supporters of the British and support for the Palestinian national struggle.
“Germany did not go out of its way to infiltrate Iraqi territory and establish a physical or ideological foothold there,” writes Dr. Yaacov Toby of the University of Haifa in his professional opinion. “Berlin’s affairs were directed toward the European continent, not elsewhere.” He added, “There was no expectation, and certainly no order, from the German government to the Iraqi government to carry out any government activity inside Iraq, and certainly not one of violent incidents or killing of Jews.”
The historical documents in archives in Israel and abroad were collected for the plaintiffs by Professor Yitzchak Kerem, an expert on Spanish and Oriental Jewry. In his professional opinion, he wrote, “The deciding factor in the outbreak of the Farhud was Nazi incitement against Iraq’s Jews, which was carried out by the Nazi regime through the representatives and agents it appointed.”
He draws a firm conclusion. “The Farhud must be seen as an integral part of the Holocaust that the Nazi regime brought on our people.” He calls the Farhud “the Kristallnacht of Iraqi Jewry.”
Historian Dr. Nissim Kazaz, an expert on Iraqi Jewry whose father was killed in the riots, claims that the pogrom was “indisputably” the result of “ongoing anti-Jewish incitement by the emissaries of Nazi Germany and the Arab leaders who joined with them.” He said, “The participants in the pogrom were organizations, military people and police officers steeped in Nazi ideology beside the rioters, whom had been incited by Nazi Germany’s lackeys in Iraq.” He also believes that the victims of the Farhud should be regarded as “inseparable from the victims and those affected by the Holocaust of European Jewry.”
To understand the Nazis’ influence in Iraq, we must return to 1932, the year the British mandate ended there. Dr. Fritz Grobba, an Orientalist and German diplomat stationed in Iraq as Germany’s ambassador, established the Nazi hold there. Before that, he had served in the German consulate in Jerusalem and fought on the Palestine front during World War I. Among other activities, he acquired the newspaper Al-Alam Al-Arabi, in which he published an Arabic translation of Mein Kampf and other essays containing anti-Semitic propaganda. He sent Iraqi officers and intellectuals on trips to Germany as guests of the Nazi party.
He also gave financial support to nationalist youth groups in Iraq and provided them with Nazi propaganda materials. A delegation from the Al-Fatwa nationalist youth movement even visited Germany in May 1938, attended the Nazi party conference in Nuremberg and returned to Iraq armed with anti-Jewish messages.
“They made an effort to emulate and adopt the extremely anti-Semitic slogans and tendencies of the Hitler Youth,” wrote Professor Michael Eppel, former head of the Department of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa. This youth movement later participated in the pogrom, together with other groups. “The influence of Nazi Germany was the deciding factor in directing anger on the street toward physical attack, a pogrom against the Jews,” he wrote. “The Iraqi politicians who encouraged it and handed out weapons to the worked-up crowd were among Germany’s strongest supporters, and they were very strongly influenced by the spirit of facscism and Nazism.”
Dr. Toby disagrees. “Of the many factors that created the hostile atmosphere toward the Jews inside Iraq, the German one is at the bottom of the list. It was marginal, perhaps almost negligible, in comparison with other factors,” he wrote, adding, “The mere existence of propaganda is not enough... to base a conclusion about a link, expectation or intent by the Germans to carry out an act against the Jews inside Iraq.”
Another figure at the center of the claim is the Iraqi prime minister at the time, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, who seized power in a coup in 1941 and established a pro-Nazi government that lasted for two months – the pogrom took place immediately upon the fall of this government.
Professor Kerem collected testimonies proving that al-Gaylani’s government had been funded by the Nazis. In a telegram sent on May 21, 1941 from Baghdad, Dr. Grobba, Germany’s ambassador in Iraq, writes that he transferred tens of thousands of gold ingots to al-Gaylani. Alongside that, he gives an update about al-Gaylani’s request for 80,000 more gold ingots and mentions the agreement that was about to be signed between Germany and Iraq, as part of which the Nazis would grant a loan of one million gold ingots to their allies in Baghdad.
Money and propaganda were not the only things the Nazis provided to Baghdad. They also sent weapons to Iraq in an attempt to help the Iraqis fight against a common enemy — the British. Professor Kerem found evidence of that in the archives of Germany’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry. He says that in the minutes of a meeting of the supreme German command from May 7, 1941, it is written that “Hitler decided to assist Iraq in every possible way, including sending arms, ammunition, money and military aid.”
Dr. Toby interprets this differently. “The Iraqis were courting the Germans enthusiastically and begging for their political, financial and military assistance. Throughout most of the period under discussion, Germany responded with indifference. It was only toward the end that they agreed to send limited assistance, which contributed nothing to the administration in Baghdad,” he wrote.
Indeed, the German attempt to help the Iraqis fight the British failed On May 29, 1941, after the British reached the gates of Baghdad, al-Gaylani fled from Iraq. The Jews thought that the danger had passed, and on the morning of the Shavuot festival, June 1, 1941, they emerged wearing their holiday clothing to welcome the pro-British ruler, who had returned to Iraq. But Iraqi troops set upon them, and within hours Jews were being attacked all over the city and in other places as well.
“Farhud, ya ummat Muhammad!” (Farhud, O nation of Mohammed!) was the cry of the mob when the signal was given to murder and rob the Jews,” Hela Kargola later said. “Thousands, regardless of gender, age or status, took part in the celebration of slaughter and theft.”
Were the Nazis behind the pogrom, or was it a spontaneous outbreak of frustrated Iraqis? Researchers differ. In the heat of the dispute, an embarrassing situation has been created in which the state is being asked to defend the strongly pro-Nazi Dr. Grobba. In his professional opinion, Dr. Toby wrote that Grobba “was not of the sort of people who were sworn Nazis,” but rather “a professional diplomat who evidently stayed in office when the Nazis came to power, not because of strong faith in Nazi ideology.”
Dr. Kazaz, the plaintiffs’ expert, was irritated to read these assertions. “The truth is that Dr. Grobba was a professional diplomat serving his country and his homeland. And let us say that he was ‘not of the sort of people who were sworn Nazis,’ by Dr. Toby’s definition. The question still remains: what kind of Nazi does Dr. Toby think he was? And even if we work on the assumption that he was not a sworn Nazi, he still remains in the category of a Nazi.”