In 2003, a U.S. task force formally assigned to look for weapons of mass destruction entered Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in Baghdad. They had been told that something very interesting lay in its flooded basement.
Dr. Harold Rhode, a Pentagon adviser on Islamic Affairs, had received a tip from a former member of Hussein’s secret police, who was head of its “Jewish unit.” Inside the basement, Rhode and the U.S. unit found tens of thousands of Jewish documents, books and objects floating or submerged in the water.
The finding — now called the Iraqi Jewish Archive — represents nearly 500 of the 2,500-year history of Jews in Iraq. It contains Torah scrolls, student records, letters and legal proclamations, calendars and photos. There’s a Hebrew Bible printed in Renaissance-era Venice in 1568; a purple-velvet and floral patterned tik (a holder for a Torah scroll) and a Babylonian Talmud printed in Austria in the 18th century, exploring the laws of Yom Kippur.
These items and more from the archive are on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, located in two former synagogues on South Beach. The exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” tells the story not just of Jews in Iraq but also the remarkable recovery and preservation process by the U.S. National Archives and other government agencies.
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There are also, however, two underlying questions that have yet to be answered: why were they confiscated by the secret police in the first place, and who ultimately owns this archive?
First, some history. Jews entered the modern-day state of Iraq when it was biblical Babylonia. They are said to have been the first group of Jews to be exiled from Israel — the very first instance of diaspora. The community was a center of Jewish life.
In addition to significant religious texts from the 1500s, the Iraqi Jewish Archive contains a heap of documents highlighting the modern era, including books in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, French, English and Spanish.
Doris Hamburg, the director of preservation programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, has worked on the project from the start. In a telephone interview, she recalled the incredible process of recovering and preserving the items. First, a freezer truck was secured: “When something becomes wet and moldy, freezing kind of stops the clock to keep the damage from getting worse,” she said.
And this was no simple feat in the midst of war. “It was amazing that they could secure the freezer truck. The truck driver stayed with the truck the entire time, for about three months. No small process to keep it fueled and filled with Freon.”
The documents and books were then sent on a U.S. military jet in a freezer container to Texas, where they were vacuum freeze-dried so the water could be removed as vapor, causing less damage. According to Hamburg, this was the first time the National Archives was assigned to a project that didn’t involve U.S. documents. Their mandate, after all, is to see after documents such as the Declaration of Independence. (Funding for the Iraqi Jewish Archive came from outside organizations, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of State, according to Hamburg.)
Along with the preservation process, the exhibition shines a light on the everyday lives of Iraqi Jews. “The Haggadah book [for Passover Seder] illustrated by an Iraqi youth from Baghdad in 1902 is one of my favorites,” said Jo Ann Arnowitz, executive director and chief curator of the museum. “You can see the orange illustration that the child made. It was very personal to see this, to be able to imagine a child drawing this back then.”
However, the archive also reveals the hard political realities of Iraqi Jewish life. By the mid-20th century, the Jewish population in Iraq numbered around 130,000; today, it’s estimated to be at just 5, according to Maurice Shehot, director of the World Organization of Iraqi Jews.
An Iraqi Jew who helped put together the traveling exhibition of the archive, Shehot fled Baghdad with his family in 1970 via Kurdish smugglers into Iran. In the exhibition, there’s a photo of his family in a boat, on the bank of the Tigris River in 1959. It’s near a legal document proclaiming the freezing of Jewish assets in 1948.
Like many Jewish communities, the one in Baghdad experienced discrimination and periodic outbursts of violence. In 1963, the Ba’ath party came to power and started imposing more restrictions: Jews were not allowed to leave the country to immigrate to Israel, as so many others had done.
“They were not allowed to sell their properties anymore, or keep a certain amount of funds in the bank,” Shehot said. He adds that “Not only the Jews suffered from nationalization, but other Iraqis from other religions,” referring to Christians, Yezidis and Mandaeans. The crystallization of Jewish oppression came in 1969, when nine Jews alongside three other Iraqi nationals were hung publicly in Baghdad and Basra on charges of espionage.
“As the Jewish schools closed across Iraq, the documents, Torah scrolls and certificates that were in all in these educational institutions were taken and put in the Jewish headquarters in Baghdad,” Shehot said.
And then, without explanation, the Iraqi secret police confiscated tens of thousands of these documents.
Geraldine Gassam, the Political-Military Affairs Officer for Iraq at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, said, “While there are several theories as to how the collection got into the hands of the Iraqi mukhabarat, or secret police, the most common is that the documents were seized by Iraqi authorities from the Meir Taweig Synagogue in Baghdad in 1984.”
Still, there is this question of why. It’s significant to note that surveillance was a big part of the Ba’ath party’s grip on power, something that Sadam Hussein would exploit to commit acts of genocide against the Kurdish people. However, the archive’s origin remains shrouded in mystery.
Its future is somewhat unknown too. Though the Iraqi Jewish Archive was recovered, preserved and exhibited by the United States, a verbal agreement with former President George W. Bush’s administration stated that the archive would be returned to Iraq. A number of Jewish organizations — including Shehot’s — are advocating for it to remain in the United States.
Regardless of where it ends up, the archive was digitized by the National Archives and put online so anyone can see and search it. And for now, some of its items can be viewed at the Jewish Museum of Florida in South Beach, itself another historic site of the Jewish diaspora.
If you go
What: “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.”
When: On view through March 6.
Where: Jewish Museum of Florida, 301 Washington Ave, Miami Beach.
Cost: $6 adults; $5 seniors and students.