by Naji Noonoo
Note: Over 30 years, Naji Noonoo survived a pogrom, losing his job and assets, imprisonment and persecution in Iraq - before escaping to Israel. Here is his harrowing story, via The forgotten Million blog). Translation by Arieh Shamash and Yamin Nounou. "The 1950s were very hard years for the Iraqi Jews. The authorities gradually removed all Jews from their positions in government ministries and public companies.
At the time I was a friend of the management of the trains' authority. I got the job by accident. Management was looking for someone fluent in both Arabic and English. I decided to go for an interview. My skills fitted the job and I was accepted. Because of this, I resigned my previous job as secretary of one of the senior judges at the Justice Ministry.
At the time, most railroad workers were Jews. Why was the number of Jews working at the Railway so high? In my opinion, there were a number of reasons.
1. 1. Salaries were low
2. 2. The job locations were too remote
3. 3. Railway jobs required people who were knowledgeable in English and Arabic. Jews, graduates of the Alliance (AIU) school, were more proficient in these languages than their Arab counterparts. Arabs who were proficient in English did not work for low wages, but filled more senior positions in government offices. Therefore most of the railway workers were Jews.
During the 1950s, when they started to fire the Jewish workers, I was called for an urgent meeting with the British Commissioner. As soon as I entered the room, he told me, “Mr. Noonoo, I was instructed by the authorities to immediately fire 450 employees.”
I replied, "I'll make up the list of employees and you decide which ones."
"No,” he said, “No need, the Ministry of Justice sent a detailed list of those to be dismissed, you only need to tell them."
Reading the list, I couldn’t believe my eyes: all those being dismissed were Jews. Not even one Arab name was included in the list.
"Excuse me, sir," I said, "Please list 451 fired."
The manager looked at me in wonder and asked, "What do you mean?" "I am asking to be the 451st person to be dismissed", I said.
The next day I did not return to work in the Railways. My name was published in the paper along with the other 450 dismissals.
I survived all the tribulations, the pogroms, and the persecution in Iraq, such as the Farhud that took place in 1941. I escaped in 1970 after the Ba’ath Party purged the remaining Jewish community (in the 1960s).
During the time of the Farhud in 1941, I lived in the Bataween neighborhood in Baghdad. I was not personally impacted by the pogrom. An Arab friend, a lawyer by profession, who was married to a Jewish woman, saved me and many others from the rioters.
On the second day, after the end of the pogrom, when my brother Naim did not return home, I went looking for him. I wandered through the hospitals, and after a few hours of searching, I found him lying wounded without treatment in the back of the room. He was all bruised from head to toe. No doctor came to him for a whole day and night to treat him. Dozens of Jews were lying there wounded and untreated. When I saw that the doctors ignored him, I immediately took him out of the hospital and brought him home. The hospital director was notorious for his hatred for Jews. Every Jew that was seriously wounded had to be euthanized and did not recover, while the wounded were abandoned to their own fate.
These horrible days passed without anyone being punished. Also, a lot of Jewish property that was looted and stolen was not returned to the rightful owners.
The Jewish community had a deep emotional crisis following the horrible massacre and plunder. Community leaders were quick to help the families affected, especially for children left as orphans after their parents’ murder. In the aftermath of the riots, the British entered Baghdad and things returned to the way they were before the Farhud. The peaceful times enabled by British forces that stayed in Baghdad led to economic prosperity. The economic bloom benefited both Jews and Arabs. The memories of the events of the pogrom began to fade.
After I quit the Railway Board, I decided to establish my own business. My friends helped me, and soon thereafter I started a housewares company. Luck shined on me, I accumulated a lot of assets. In addition to good business, my wife inherited from her father 18 plots, each plot being 1⁄2 acre.
I decided to spend the money to build a mansion in an exclusive area in Baghdad. For this purpose, I even mortgaged the plots that my wife had inherited. The house was more beautiful than anything in the surroundings. I lived there only a short time. The Iraqi authorities had begun their anti-Jewish policies. Many Jews felt threatened and sought to sell their property, but the religious authority and the national newspapers warned the public to avoid buying the property of Jews, because the property would go to the Arabs soon anyway. These happenings made it impossible to realize the real value of property. As a result, I had trouble selling the house. Also, one local policeman coveted my house and in his capacity threatened every prospective buyer. I finally had to sell the house for such a small amount, I could not even cover the mortgage on some of the plots. I lost my house to the policeman and the lots to the lenders.
When the mass exodus of the Jews in the 1950s started, I had not made up my mind whether to abandon Iraq. The news and rumours coming back from Jews arriving in Israel were tough: immigrants from Iraq were living in tents under poor conditions. They had no food and no work. They faced hard conditions, and many of them got sick. These rumours increased my hesitation to leave Iraq. As time passed, the window of opportunity to leave Iraq closed to a further Jewish exodus.
Almost all Iraqi Jews had fled. Only 6,000 Jews remained scattered in several cities.
As a small and insignificant minority, we lived in constant fear until 1958. That year there was a coup. In place of King Faisal, his prime minister Nuri Said and the regent, General Qasim came to power . The Qasim regime improved the lot of the Jewish minority. They recruited the Jews to do their work. I was also blessed, my work prospered, which allowed me to build a new house. The positive attitude of General Qasim towards the Jewish minority enabled us to develop good relations with our Arab neighbours.
Unfortunately, General Qasim’s rule ended after another military coup. Qasim was assassinated and replaced by (General Al-Aref and then President) Al Bakr (of the Ba'ath party). The new ruling party did not sympathise with the Jewish community and our movements again were limited. Restrictions reached their peak after the Six Day War in 1967.
Right after the war I came as usual to the office; police detectives were waiting for me at the entrance. I was asked to accompany them for questioning. I did not know what for and why.
When I got to the police station I was thrown into a cell size of 20 sq.m. There I met 420 Jewish prisoners, who had arrived along with me. After only a short time in the cells, I was called to stand before a judge. Within minutes, my indictment was read to me: "spying for Israel." The judge asked if I pleaded guilty.
I refused to plead guilty to this false accusation. As a result, I was thrown back in the cage, along with all the other detainees. For three months I stayed in detention, the interrogation going on daily. One day a new prisoner was brought to jail, whose name was Albert Judah Noonoo. The man was bruised all over his body, he was dying from all the torture in the basement by the Iraqi secret police.
A Jewish doctor named Albert Rabie, who was also among the detainees, began to treat him with devotion. Gradually, he began to recover.
When the interrogators saw that his physical condition was improving, he was executed by hanging.
The detainees were horribly abused. One of the detainees, Fouad Jacob Shasha, who refused to plead guilty to the charges attributed to him, was hanged on the fan in front of his father by his feet, his hands down.
As a result of the investigations, harsh detention conditions, news of the executions of Jewish youth, and lack of contact with my family, I lost half my weight. My wife, after four months of wandering and searching, found the warden, but could not identify me.
The memorial in Ramat Gan, Israel, to the Iraqi Jews murdered in the Farhud and executed by the Ba'ath regimeOne day, soon after the hanging of nine Jews, guards entered my holding cell, opened the doors, and told us to go.
We did not understand their intentions: they told us we were really free. Having learned from experience, we feared they were sending us into a hidden trap. Why did they open the prison doors? And if they were really going to free us, why did our families not come to welcome us? We did not know where we were. With grave misgivings, we left the jail and began walking. After walking for hours, we found our way home.
Soon after we were freed, we were taken back to jail. This time, they insisted that each of us find an Arab to provide a financial guarantee that we would not break the law after we were freed. This was not logical at all. I was lucky, I had a Kurdish Arab friend who agreed to vouch for my release. Many were not so lucky and remained in detention. That way I was released a second time from jail.
For six months, my family and I stayed at home. We were afraid to leave the house. The general mood in the neighbourhood was that Jewish blood was cheap.
My wife and my family pressed me to take a chance and escape. I was afraid to do it, but family pressure was strong and made me change my mind.
I paid a lot of money to smugglers. We left late at night, we abandoned our home and all its contents. The brothers of Naim Hayal’eli (who was hanged a year earlier) ran away with us.
Only a long time afterwards did I find out why we were released from jail on the same day in such an extraordinary and rushed way. It turned out that the hangings of Jews had caused a great shock to world public opinion. Abba Eban, then Israel's UN representative, heard that there were many other detainees, so he asked for UN intervention. Iraq's representative denied that anybody was detained, and so he agreed to allow a UN representative to come to Iraq to examine Israel’s claims.
That's why we were released unexpectedly that day. When the UN representative reached the prison, he did not see any detainees. But, as soon as the UN representative left Iraq, we were arrested again. The mechanisms of denial and deception were very familiar to us.
In addition to the physical and mental suffering I went through in prison, my money of £ 60,000 that I had saved for years after working in Rafidan Bank was confiscated, and my home was seized.I came to Israel without anything, penniless and without any assets. I slaved to work hard to rehabilitate myself. At my advanced age, this was not a trivial matter. There are seven testimonies about the Farhud and others about the post-1967 plight of the remaining Jews at Point of No Return blog. Click here.