Buying lives

A documentary on Channel 1 tonight shows how Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian school teacher, liberated over 3,000 Jews from Syria from 1972 to 2001.

Judy Feld Carr 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Judy Feld Carr 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Judy Feld Carr is a funny, self-deprecating Canadian grandmother who talks about needing a “major martini” after a stressful day of shopping in Jerusalem.
But for years she had a rather unusual hobby, one she kept to herself – rescuing Jews from Syria. And not just a couple, but at least 3,228, from the early 1970s to 2001.
But now, with Miss Judy, a documentary detailing her feat, airing on Mabat Sheni on Channel 1 at 9:30 tonight, her secret is out.
“You have to understand, when I look back I am almost overwhelmed,” says this retired music professor and mother of six, who is on a visit to Israel to see some of her children and grandchildren who live here.
She initially created what she calls her “underground railroad” by chance.
“We all demonstrated to free Soviet Jews, but we didn’t know anything about Syrian Jews.”
Then she learned that a synagogue in Syria needed religious books and she began sending them. This led to informal, clandestine contact with Syrian Jewish families, and as she learned of their deep desire to leave and of the arbitrary arrests and horrific torture many of those there suffered, she was seized by a desire to help.
With no family connection to Syria (“I’m an Ashkenazi from northern Canada, my father was from Russia and became a fur trader, my mother was from Brooklyn”) she didn’t have the faintest idea of how to help the Jews there – at first.
While she explains she never took the initiative to bring out anyone specific, she responded to pleas for help. And that meant raising money to bribe officials and to pay off those who coordinated the rescues (she prefers not to use the word “smugglers”).
“How was I able to do this? I’m not 100 percent sure.
It was through word of mouth, from ordinary people.
There were no leaders involved in this. No one from the UJA or any of the organizations. And I was never paid for any of it.”
She raised most of the money that was needed through contributions from worshipers at synagogues, particularly one in Toronto (with funds from the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands, established at Beth Tzedec Synagogue) and one in Baltimore. In an age before the Internet, when even phone conversations with Syrians were risky, she developed a system, using telegrams, smuggled letters (often hidden in boxes of books) and codes.
“My husband’s hobby was cooking kosher Chinese food, so there was a lot of code based around that. Or the word, ‘gin.’ I’d say, ‘I like gin,’ and that meant something.”
However, even today, years later, she isn’t comfortable giving too many details.
“You must understand that there’s an awful lot that will not ever be discussed.”
Only her family and one friend knew what she was up to and all of them were sworn to secrecy.
“It was the most stressful and frightening time while I was doing this,” she says. Asked whether she ever thought of quitting, she doesn’t hesitate before replying, “About a million times.” But then somebody else would always come along, begging for help, and she couldn’t turn away.
“You have to understand what a burden this was. You were trying to get out somebody’s child and you think, what if you don’t do it? It’s like reading books about the Shoah, about people giving up their children to someone they didn’t even know. And people were saying to me, ‘Take my child.’ I used every bit of proteksia I had.”
In the end, though, Carr is more than happy about her achievement.
“It turned out to be so wonderful. To know that people are living here [and in other countries], walking around in freedom.”
Oddly, she hasn’t met most of the people she saved.
“I didn’t want them to think they owed me something,” although in recent years she has gotten together with a number of them through speaking engagements she has done for the World Keren Hayesod.
The exception were those she got out of prison, whom she wanted to talk to right away. The harrowing details of their stories and their interviews are among the most moving parts of the film.
“I met everyone I took out of prison. I wanted to hear the story. I once got milk into prison for a baby that was born on the prison floor. Today she’s here someplace, that baby.”
She credits her determination to her tough but cultured father (“He taught me to paddle a canoe, to shoot a gun, he took me with him to trade furs on the Indian reservations – we caught fish and always ate kosher – and he taught me about Italian opera”) and a neighbor who had survived Auschwitz but lost her daughter in the Holocaust.
“On 9/11 [ironically, the date of her last rescue coincided with the 2001 tragedy] when I got my last people out, I knew in my gut I did it for her.
She was always in my head and she’s still in my head,” she says.
Recent current events in Syria have made her glad that the only Jews there are 22 elderly Damascus residents who chose to stay. As she thinks back on the thousands she helped escape, she muses, “What would have happened to them if they had stayed? It would have been terrible.”
Carr has dozens of stories, each more moving than the one before, and far too many to share in a television film.
As she looks back on her life, she says she wishes her father could have lived to see her now.
“He would have said, ‘Judy Leve [her maiden name], you did good.'”