Saved From Saddam’s Basement, Jewish Treasure Trove to Return to Baghdad

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This June, a trove of Jewish documents and books rescued from the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in May 2003 and shipped to the United States for preservation is slated to be returned to Iraq.

Not, however, if the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora has any say in the matter. Spread across many countries but concentrated in the United States, Great Britain and Israel, some of the community most prominent voices are trying to persuade the U.S. State Department to halt its plans to return what’s become known as the Iraqi Jewish Archive to authorities in Baghdad.

Edwin Shuker, who left Baghdad for England in 1971 at the age of 16, is among the people with the most at stake in the fight against the archive’s repatriation. While visiting Washington in November, he went to the National Archives to see highlights from the collection, on display for the first time. The curators had chosen 24 items from among the tens of thousands of documents, 2,700 books and other Jewish artifacts collected from Saddam’s abandoned headquarters as U.S. forces took control in Baghdad a decade ago.

The last thing Shuker expected was to see his own face staring back at him. By chance, one of the documents selected for the exhibition was his government-issued certificate showing he’d passed the nationwide exams given before high school. Attached was a photograph of him as a 12-year-old student at Frank Eini, Baghdad’s main Jewish school.

“I looked at this kid and I felt that I had just looked for the first time at my abandoned identity, not just my abandoned school certificate,” Shuker explains in an interview. “I felt as if I was looking into the eyes of that boy I left behind in 1971. When we left, our identity was completely cut.”

It’s wrong, he says, for the documents to go back to Iraq and be relegated to another basement. “This collection means a lot more to me and my community than pieces of documents,” he says. “It became an issue that has galvanized us around the conviction that this collection will not go back.”

Shuker told his personal story in an interview with Haaretz as well as at a larger forum on Monday at Jerusalem’s Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, at an event sponsored by the World Jewish Congress-Israel and the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations. Shuker’s family chose not to join the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq in 1951, known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. With a growing Zionist underground, Iraq’s Jews came under suspicion and harassment following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and a series of bombings targeting the Jewish community in 1950-51 spurred thousands to sign up for aliyah.

Despite that, many Jews felt themselves to be an integral part of Iraq and decided to stay, Shuker’s parents included. But things got worse for Iraq’s Jews after the 1963 coup by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party in 1963. But the real turning point, many community members say, was the roundup of Jews in 1968 amid charges of spying for Israel, followed by the 1969 hanging of 14 men, nine of them Jews; the regime encouraged Iraqi to come walk beneath the bodies and celebrate. Many Jews with connections to Israel were imprisoned. Most of the remaining families, including Shuker’s, began leaving in secret, often with false papers identifying them as Muslims.

“After the hangings, it was a living nightmare. My father announced one day that we had two hours to say goodbye to life as we know it, and that we could each bring one thing. I couldn’t chose, so I took nothing. We left our identity cards, but more important, we left our identity,” Shuker says.

The archive, which is mainly composed of communal documents but also includes some traditional Jewish books, 48 Torah fragments and a wooden “tik,” as the hard case in which Torah scrolls were usually housed in Middle Eastern communities, underwent a $3 million restoration. The collection has now become the symbol of the richness of Iraqi Jewish culture, which began during the Babylonian exile 2,600 years ago and flourished into the first half of the last century, when there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq. Iraqi Jewry was gradually decimated, first with the Nazi-inspired pogrom in 1941 known as the Farhud, and later as droves of Jews were encourage to immigrate Israel given the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. Saddam’s persecution in the late 1960s was the final death knell, and by the time of his overthrow in 2003, fewer than 60 Jews remained in Baghdad.

“We will explore every avenue to make sure that my children and my grandchildren and our community’s grandchildren will have safe access to this collection,” says Shuker. He is working on behalf of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, of which he is vice chairman, to coordinate what he characterized as “ongoing discussions” with the Iraqis and the State Department to find an acceptable solution.

The journey of the documents from a flooded Baghdad basement to a laboratory in Fort Worth, Texas is one of the more bizarre sidebars of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Harold Rhode, who was then working of the Coalition Provisional Authority on behalf of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, got a call from Ahmed Chalabi, a theretofore exiled Iraqi who was favored by the Bush administration to be the next leader of Iraq. While looking for documents in the intelligence headquarters, they had come across Saddam’s storehouse of information on the Jewish community. The basement had been flooded, whether willfully or accidentally, and was under four feet of water.

They spent two days pumping out the water, and then pulled out reams of waterlogged books, documents and religious texts. They laid them out in a large courtyard to dry. Rhode was at a loss over how to save a wet Torah, but he got permission from a rabbi to save it by rolling it out on the ground in the open air, despite the usual prohibitions against putting a Torah on the floor. Under some pressure to find a solution, the State Department decided to fly the entire mess to the United States. To that end, the materials were packed into 26 trunks that were frozen, to prevent further deterioration and mold. After sitting in Texas for years due to lack of funding, an intensive preservation and documentation effort began. The archive was digitized and presented to the public in November.

Since then, many Iraqi Jews have examined the collection online, and found it a poignant surprise to see their school records and personal documents there.

“I found my own parents’ marriage registration in these documents,” says David Basson, who is one of many Iraqi Jews trying to stop the archive from being returned to Baghdad. “There is the Judaica element, which is perhaps nice for the Jewish people, but the personal element touched all of us who left after 1951,” says Basson, who is now a Tel Aviv investment consultant. “We are the last generation that can identify these items and remember, and we are still alive and well. We are people who can read and know exactly what belonged to us.”

Rhode, for his part, thinks the documents should find a home in Israel. “There is only one Museum of Babylonian Jewish Heritage in the world, and that’s here [in Or Yehuda], and that’s of course where the documents belong,” he says. The United States never signed any kind of formal agreement with Iraq, which at the time was under occupation and without a government, for the return of the documents. But U.S. officials made several public promises to return the archive to Iraq after its restoration. “The only way to solve this now is the Iraqis demit and agree to letting the Americans have it on a longer loan, or that so much time passes that they forget about it,” Rhode says.

The State Department maintains the archives will be returned to Iraq as promised, and it has already funded the training of Iraqi archivists in Washington to further that goal. In a recent interview, Saad Eskander of the National Library in Baghdad said he is gladly awaiting the archive, which he believes should not have been removed from Iraq in the first place.

The archive goes on display at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage on February 4, where it will remain through May 18.

Tawfiq Safeer prepares for prayer in the synagogue of Baghdad, Saturday, March 21, 1998. Credit: AP
Edwin Shuker, the British vice chairman of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.Credit: Ilene Prusher
The transcript of Edwin Shuker's 1967 Iraqi school certificate, from the Iraqi Jewish Archive. Credit: The Preservation Project

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