Thursday, May 30, 2013

Memories of the Baghdad Farhud of 1941

June 1 will mark the anniversary of the Farhud, a two-day pogrom in Baghdad that, in retrospect, signaled the beginning of the end of thousands of years of Jewish life in what is now Iraq.

That was a culturally rich and often flourishing history. In 1941, and as late as 1948, there were around 140,000 Iraqi Jews. By the end of 1951 roughly 120,000 had fled, mostly to Israel, and within a few decades only a few hundred remained in the country. For centuries Baghdad was a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population, like Alexandria or Salonika or Smyrna or Vienna, and during the first half of the 20th century about a third of that population was Jewish. In 2011, by contrast, there were somewhere between 7 and 12 Jews still left in the city, trying to live incognito for safety. (See the BBC report that year, by Hannah Marshall, on The Last Jews of Iraq, and a 2008 NYTimes report on the last Jews in Baghdad.) I don't know how many of them are still in Baghdad now.

The abrupt disappearance of Iraq's Jewish community is part of a larger story—the disappearance, by flight or expulsion, of the Jewish communities everywhere in the Arab world.  They numbered around 800,000 in 1948 and are now almost completely gone, with only tiny remnants left in a few countries and none at all in others. Iran's Jewish community, which numbered over 100,000 in 1948, has not disappeared so completely; but it is now down to somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000, depending on which estimates one follows. (For some details and elaboration, see the very useful website Point of No Return and two posts of mine here & here.)

In 2011, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Farhud, there was a BBC radio broacast about it (to which I was alerted at the time by Norman Geras) that included interviews with survivors. You can listen to it here:
"The Massacre of Baghdad's Jews"
Sarah Ehrlich, who put together the BBC broadcast, also wrote an account of the Farhud for the Jewish Chronicle (below). Her account, like the interviews, captures the shock and terror that victims of the Farhud still recalled many decades later. But as Norm pointed out in 2011, Ehrlich also heard stories of "Muslims acting heroically to save their Jewish neighbours". Still, the Baghdadi Jews never felt entirely secure again, and eleven years later they were almost entirely gone.

Was that outcome inevitable? Perhaps not. But the fact that essentially the same outcome happened everywhere in the Arab world, with variations only in timing and details, suggests that by 1941 the handwriting was on the wall. Did the Farhud sound "the death knell" for Baghdad's Jewish community, as Sarah Ehrlich puts it?  Yes and no.  The Farhud itself did not mark the end of Jewish life in Iraq. But in retrospect, as I said, it appears to have marked the beginning of the end.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  In 2008 I read a report in Ha'aretz about a (partly academic) conference in Tel Aviv on the Iraqi Jews ("Iraqi Jews at conference reject term 'Arab Jew'").  A number of the participants apparently emphasized the complex mixture of nostalgia, affection, anger, hostility, and regret that many Iraqi Jews feel about Iraq, their experiences there, and the way it all ended.  (Their feelings about their experiences in Israel are also ambivalent.)  But one passage made me laugh:
Another person got up and requested the floor: "I was born in Prague," he said with a smile. "But I must admit that, after two days of this conference on Iraqi Jews, I myself feel a longing for Baghdad."
The Jewish Chronicle
May 26, 2011
When Iraq had its Kristallnacht 
In 1941, Baghdad's Jews were the target of a horrific pogrom
By Sarah Ehrlich

For a dwindling number of Iraqi Jews, the holiday of Shavuot brings back each year the traumatic memory of one of the worst racial attacks in modern history.  [JW: To be honest, that formulation seems a little exaggerated, given all the other mass slaughters of modern history, though this pogrom was certainly bad enough.]  Over two days in 1941 around 800 Jews were murdered in their homes in Baghdad by a huge mob of Muslim rioters as the British army, forbidden from entering the city, looked on from the outskirts.

June 1 and 2 this year mark the 70th anniversary of what became known as the Farhud ("violent dispossession" in Arabic). As significant as Kristallnacht, the pogrom sounded the death-knell for the oldest community in the diaspora and was a clear demonstration of the hatred exported to the Middle East by Hitler. The Farhud brought to an end 2,600 years of Jewish settlement, yet little has been written about it, very little is taught in Holocaust studies about it, and the British role has never been fully investigated, although many survivors still bear a lifelong distrust of Britain.

The Jews of Iraq had been living peacefully for millennia in Baghdad since the time of Babylon and by 1941 numbered around 150,000, over a third of the population [of Baghdad]. Professor Heskel Haddad, now an ophthalmologist in Manhattan, was 11-years- old at the time and recalls a happy and secure early childhood. "We had many Jewish and Arab Muslim neighbours and we were very friendly with them. I was Jewish in religion but I felt very much Iraqi. I loved Iraq and I loved the people, whether Muslim or Jew."

One month before the Farhud a violent coup brought a rabidly pro-Nazi lawyer, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, to power, forcing the country's regent, a friend of the Jews, to seek British protection. Rashid Ali brought to his side the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a man with strong ties to the Third Reich who had fled from Palestine.  [JW: After leaving Baghdad the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, lived in Berlin from late 1941 through the end of the war, made Arabic-language propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis, and helped raise Muslim SS troops in the Balkans.]  Together, they indoctrinated the country with Nazi propaganda; children in Iraqi schools were taught to praise Hitler and that Jews were the internal enemy; Radio Berlin began regular broadcasts in Arabic. Their aim was to rid Iraq of the British presence and turn the country's oil reserves over to the Germans.

Next, Rashid Ali ordered Iraq's military to destroy the British RAF base in Habbaniya, west of Baghdad –– a non-operational flight training centre equipped with antique planes, manned by cadets. Despite the odds, the Iraqi campaign failed drastically. With his forces humiliatingly defeated and British ground troops advancing on the city, on May 30 Rashid Ali fled the country leaving the capital in a vacuum.

The regent's return was announced two days later, to the relief of the Jews celebrating Shavuot. Their joy turned to horror however when the Muslims mistook their celebrations to be the result of the country's downfall at the hands of the British. A huge mob gathered, armed with knives, swords and guns, chanting "Ketaal al yehud" ("Slaughter the Jews"). Eleven-year-old Haddad was with his family having a festive meal. "Suddenly we heard screams, 'Allah Allah', and shots were fired," he recalls. "We went out to the roof to see what was happening - we saw fires, we saw people on the roofs screaming, begging God to help them. There was a guy across the street from our house screaming: 'Help me! Give me water!' and my father didn't let me give him water because he was afraid that I might be killed by the gangs. The voice of this man ended an hour or two later when I guess he died."

Salim Fattal was also 11, living with his family in the Jewish quarter of Tatran. Like everyone, they were completely unprepared for the violence that hit the city. "We were hiding with all the children and women in the cellar listening to the whistling of bullets around our house," he says. "We had no weapons and there were four men trying to defend 21 women and children with just some sticks and knives. We knew we couldn't defend the house against these armed invaders. It was terrifying."

Taken by surprise and with no protection, Jews either defended themselves with whatever they could find or else bribed Iraqi policemen to protect them. Fattal's mother found one near their alley and approached him with a parcel of money. The policeman agreed to stay with them until midnight.

The violence worsened during the night and the mob was soon in its tens of thousands, targeting every Jewish home in the city. The task was easy as a red hamsa - a traditional hand symbol - had been painted on the exteriors.

"We could hear screams from our neighbours which was a horrifying sound," continues Fattal, even now crying at the memory. "All of them all started to shout and scream and it would last for two minutes or so, and then the sound died. Then the same sound would renew from other directions. These voices have never left me. They were so strong, so close and so clear."

By the second day, Fattal could see from his balcony that the mob was attacking his neighbour's house. "We could see them right under our noses and if they had decided to attack us then, no one could have stopped them as it was very easy for the rioters to move from roof to roof. So we called our armed policeman from outside and begged him to fire a few bullets in the air to scare them away. Our policeman insisted on more payment and my Uncle Naim argued that we had already paid him generously. But our policeman kept repeating: 'How much will you pay?' while our situation was getting more and more threatening by the minute. Finally they agreed upon half a dinar per bullet. Had he refused, we would have taken his gun. The policeman fired two shots and paused and then two more shots, until he saw the rioters move away."

There were also accounts of Muslims acting heroically to save their Jewish neighbours. Steve Acre was nine at the time, living with his widowed mother and eight siblings in their landlord's house. "Our landlord was a devout Muslim called Hajji who wore a green turban, and when the mob came, he sat in front of them and told them that there were orphans in his house and that if they wanted to kill us, they would have to kill him first. So they moved on across the street."

Acre, who has been living in Montreal for over 50 years, sees Iraqi Nazism as the direct cause of the Farhud, but also blames the British for not having stopped it when it was within their power. "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. He just wanted to let the Iraqi army vent their frustration [at being defeated in battle] without them being involved, which was a difficult thing to understand later - how come nobody came to our rescue?"

Tony Rocca, who researched and co-wrote Memories of Eden with a survivor of the Farhud, Violette Shamash, agrees. "To Britain's shame, the army was stood down while hundreds of Jews were killed in rioting that raged over two days with damage estimated at £13 million by today's values. Archive material points to one man who deliberately kept the troops out. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Britain's ambassador in Baghdad, for reasons of his own, held our forces at bay in direct contradiction to express orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill that they should take the city and secure its safety."

The violence was stopped only when it appeared the rioters were getting carried away and entering Muslim areas. A curfew was called, and Iraqi troops began shooting looters. But the death toll of around 800 and thousands more injured is a memory Acre can never forget. "When you hear yelling and screaming of women and children, it stays with you forever."

Witness on BBC World Service will be remembering the 70th anniversary of the Farhud on June 1. Listen online at Additional research by Tony and Mira Rocca