In 2003, Army Coalition Forces entered the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence quarters. They had no idea that more than 2,700 historic religious books and tens of thousands of documents outlining the history of Iraqi Jews would be floating in the water.
Twenty-three of the items are now on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in South Beach, where visitors can browse the collection before the items are returned to Iraq.
The exhibit, Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage, includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Torah scroll with a fragment from Genesis and official letters dated 1917 to the chief rabbi, as well as college entrance letters, school records and a lunar calendar in both Hebrew and Arabic, one of the last examples of Hebrew printing produced in Baghdad.
The U.S. State Department National Archives and Records Administration took about 10 years to restore the documents and religious books. Water and mold ate away at the covers and caused the pages to deteriorate. Locals out the items to dry in the Baghdad heat; then the items were freeze-dried for shipment to the United States.
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For Jo Ann Arnowitz, the executive director and chief curator, the exhibit is about giving people a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the history of a community spanning 2,500 years.
“This exhibit will show how Iraqis were so much a part of the community and such high standing in the community, and after times changed how the powers and governments turned against the Jewish community,” Arnowitz said. “People think this only happens in certain parts of the world or to certain communities, but this shows how fragile things can be not only to Jews but to other people.”
Visitors from all over the country have stopped by the exhibit. For Arnowitz, it’s not only about the Jewish religion, but for people to learn about another culture with deep historical ties.
Joseph Dabby, an Iraqi Jew now living in Montreal, visited the exhibit in hopes of seeing his school records on display after finding them in the digital archive.
Dabby, who left Iraq after high school, is part of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI), which is against the collection being returned to Iraq.
“We understand why the Americans agreed to it at the time but it is a wrong decision considering the circumstances,” Dabby said. “ Whoever made the decision took a logically correct decision but it’s technically wrong. There is no group or person in Iraq who could process this collection. A lot of the documents found were school documents; technically this collection belongs to us, but what I saw is still better than nothing.”
The decision to return the documents was made as part of the agreement that allowed them to be brought to the United States for preservation.
Jonathan Symons, one of the museum’s supporters, said history is our rear-view mirror.
“This exhibit is the best show in town,” Symons said. “ At this exhibit you’re able to go back far in history in the Babylonian era — you can’t just find that anywhere.”