JIMENA’s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA’s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
Passover in Baghdad
By Joe Samuels
Spring was always a welcomed guest. The winter was wet, muddy and the nights were bitterly cold. The streets in Baghdad’s old quarter (Taht el Takia) where I was born in December of 1930 were narrow, twisted and unpaved. Donkeys were the only mode of transportation. Sanitary conditions were poor or none existing. There was no city sewer system and central heating was unknown. Drinking water and electricity were intermittently cut off. When the weather warmed up in March and April and the orange blossom filled the air, I knew Passover was coming.
Of all the holidays, Passover was the one I waited for impatiently. I usually got a new pair of shoes, new trousers, white shirt, socks and underwear. I was happy as a lark and looked like a clown. The trousers were too long, the shirt was too big and my feet were swimming in my shoes. To prepare for Passover my mother baked Matzah at home. The helpers scrubbed, cleaned and washed drapes, sheets and everything else. All pots and pans had to be dipped in boiling water. On the first night of Passover, the table was set lavishly on an elegant table cloth with special posh dishes and fancy cutlery, and individual wine cups. I dressed up in my new clothes.
To start the Seder, Dad blessed the wine and blessed us. We all kissed his hand. We gathered to read the Hagadah, the story of the exodus from Egypt from 3500 years ago. We sang in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand, and translated to Arabic. We read about the ten plagues and the parting of the sea, and always wished “next year in land of Israel”. I was the seventh of eight children and had a beautiful voice- at least I thought so. I always sung with zest and patiently waited for the Charoset, a dip made of date juice and crushed walnuts. I enjoyed most with romaine lettuce and Matza. After that we had festive dinner, chicken rice with roasted almonds, sweet and sour okra, lamb with dried apricots, followed by a variety of sweets. Passover was the most joyous time of the year.
The Farhud. Passover 1941 was different. I was 11 then. We had moved to bigger house near the Tigris River a year earlier. My father and my older brothers were sort of looking somber. On April 3 a pro Nazi coup overthrew the government. King Faisal II and the Regent escaped. Rashid Ali Algailani became the prime minister. General anxiety overcame the Jewish community. Some Jews were arrested; tortured and imprisoned. I was frightened and scared. Passover fell on April 12th. Despite the delicious food, our Seder was cheerless and gloomy.
On May 31 the British troops arrived to the outskirts of Baghdad. Al Gailani and his accomplice the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husaini, and their clique fled the country. On June 1, the crowds aided by the police stopped the mini buses, singled out the Jewish passengers, robbed them, slit their throats raped the women and threw the babies in the Tigris River. Rioters began looting the homes of the Jews in the old quarters, and the businesses on the main streets. We locked and bolted our doors and prayed. We were safe.
By June 2 British troops, aided by two Brigades loyal to the King, entered Baghdad and stopped the rampage. The official government count showed that 180 Jews were murdered and 240 wounded. Private estimates were much higher. Hundreds of homes were looted. There wasn’t any act of resistance or fighting back. There weren’t any arrests, trial or convictions. The disaster would have been greater if it were not for the act of kindness and heroism by some Muslims who protected their Jewish friends.
Life went back to normal or so it seemed, but future Passovers were never the same. The Farhud (Free looting) of 1941 proved there was no guarantee for the future safety of the Jews. I, too, felt there was no future for me in Iraq. I studied hard and dreamed of going to America after finishing high school.
Passover of 1948 fell on April 24th. It came like thick black cloud over dark skies. The UN voted on November 29, 1947 for the partitioning of Palestine to two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Arab countries rejected the decision. All newspapers and radio were calling for the destruction of the Zionist entity and the liberation of Palestine. On May 15th 1948 the Iraqi army together with the armies of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt attacked the newly created State of Israel. While we were celebrating in our hearts the establishment of the first Jewish State in 2000 years, we were terrified, uncertain if Israel would survive. Israel did survive. After the Iraqi army failed to eliminate Israel, the Iraqi government turned against its Jewish citizens, especially the youth. Zionism was declared treason. Many were picked up, accused of Zionism, tortured, and imprisoned. This harassment culminated by the indictment of a prominent Jewish merchant Shafiq Adas. When I saw the front page of the news paper with his body hanging in the air, I was hysterical.
I kept a low profile. It took me over a year to get my student visa to the US. But I could not get an exit visa to leave Iraq. Things were getting worse, more arrests and disappearances. It was time for me to get out. On December of 1949 I traveled with my younger brother Nory to the port city of Basra and from there I was smuggled out to Iran. The Iranian government was gracious to let me and thousands of Jewish refugees, to pass through to Israel. On March 2nd, of 1950, one day before the festival of Purim, I kissed the ground when I landed in Tel Aviv.
I left Baghdad my home; I left my culture and a history of 2,500 years. I left behind my faithful friends, Muslims and Christians. I left behind memories of fun and fear, of hope and despair. I left behind my past and future dreams, never wanting to look back. I was certain of one thing- that I was lucky to be out and alive from that unpredictable heaven and hell. I was a refugee, among the hundreds of thousands who arrived to Israel from Arab lands, with nothing but my shirt on my back. I had my youth, the love of life and the determination to succeed. I refused to let the nightmare of past enslave my bright future. On April 1, 1950 I celebrated Passover in Jerusalem, a free man.