Recounting ‘Farhud’ that ended 2,400 years of Iraqi Jewry

Every year before Shavuot, thousands of Jews of Baghdadi origin commemorate 1941 Nazi-led pogrom during which 700 Jews were murdered.

Nessim Zalayet depicts the Farhud 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nessim Zalayet depicts the Farhud 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Each Shavuot, thousands of Jews from Baghdad remember the traumatic day when 2,400 years of Jewish life in Babylon came to an end.
Exactly 70 years ago, on the eve of Shavuot, some 700 Jews in the city were murdered in a Nazi-led pogrom known as the Farhud (“violent dispossession” in Arabic). Inspired by Kristallnacht, it marked the end of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora and showed how far Hitler’s hatred of the Jews spread during World War II.
The Jews of Iraq had been living peacefully in Baghdad since the Babylonian era. By 1941, they numbered around 150,000, making up over a third of the population.
Prof. Heskel Haddad, a practicing eye surgeon in Manhattan, was 11 years old at the time and recounts a happy and secure early childhood.
“We had many Jewish and Arab Muslim neighbors, but we didn’t call them Arabs; we called them Muslims,” he recalls. “We were very friendly with them, and actually we felt Iraqi. We never felt in any danger. I used to talk to Muslims in the street. At the end of Pessah, they used to come to our homes and bring us a lot of bread and cakes.
We used to go to their houses also on their holidays. In a way, I was Jewish in religion, but I felt very much Iraqi. I loved Iraq and I loved the people, whether Muslim or Jew.”
The monarchy in Iraq, installed by the British, had been overthrown by the lawyer Rashid Ali al-Gaylani in April 1941, in a violent coup one month before the Farhud. Rashid Ali had strong links to the Nazi Party and the grand mufti, a close ally of Hitler. Rashid Ali indoctrinated the country with Nazi propaganda; children in Iraqi schools were taught to praise Hitler and that Jews were a treacherous enemy, and Radio Berlin had regular broadcasts in Arabic. Supported by the Nazis, he aimed to rid Iraq of the British and to gain access to the huge oil reserves in Kirkuk. An order was issued to Iraq’s air force to destroy the British RAF base in Habbaniyeh, west of Baghdad. Although the RAF was only equipped with planes left over from World War I, the bombing campaign failed drastically, with Iraq’s inept air force shooting down several of its own planes. On May 30, Rashid Ali was forced to flee. With British ground troops advancing on Baghdad and no ruler, the Jewish community was left in a perilous position.
Two days later, on June 1, the observant Jewish community was preparing for Shavuot, oblivious to a huge mob of rampaging Muslims shouting, “Cutal al yehud!” (slaughter the Jews).
Salim Fattal, also 11 years old at the time, was living in the Jewish quarter of Tatran, the center of the terrifying violence, and his testimony gives a glimpse of the horror.
“We didn’t have the slightest clue of the coming massacre. Everything had been quiet that morning, so my two uncles Meir and Naim went with their partner Nahum and his five-year-old son Nissim to relax a bit and see their racehorses in a stable south of Baghdad. On their way back home, their minibus was attacked in Bab e-Sheikh by a huge mob of hooligans armed with knives and axes and even firearms. Rioters grabbed Meir and dragged him out of the bus and immediately stabbed him to death. Nahum sneaked out of the bus through the window to try and save him, but he disappeared beneath the mob and was never seen again. Meanwhile, the driver realized the danger for his passengers and he immediately sped off.”
THE NEWS of the Farhud quickly spread when Fattal’s shaken uncle returned home, but his family was completely unprepared for the violence that hit the city.
“We were hiding with all the children and women in the cellar listening to the whistling of bullets around our house. We had no weapons, and there were four men trying to defend 21 women and children with just some primitive sticks and knives. We knew that we couldn’t defend the house against these armed invaders. It was terrifying.”
With no organized resistance, many of the Jews who survived unscathed bribed Iraqi policemen to stand guard. Fattal’s mother found a policeman near their alley and approached him with a parcel of money. The policeman agreed to stay and protect them until midnight, and the family made sure he had plenty to eat and drink while he stood guard outside their house, also making sure he didn’t fall asleep.
But the violence worsened during the night, and the mob soon numbered in the tens of thousands, targeting every Jewish home in the city. The mufti had made this task simple by advising the chief rabbi to ask the still-trusting Jewish community to paint a red hamsa on the outside of their homes.
Fattal cries quietly as he remembers that night: “We could hear screams from our neighbors, which was a horrifying sound, a sound of agony. All of them all together started to shout and scream and it would last for two minutes or so, and then the sound died. Then the same sound would renew from other directions. Their voices transmitted the tragedy of Jews in our neighborhood, and I can remember it until this day, as these voices have never left me. They were so strong, so close and so clear.”
By the second day, Fattal could see from his balcony that the mob was attacking his neighbor Habas’s house. “We could see them right under our noses, and if they had decided to attack us then, no one could have stopped them, as it was very easy for the rioters to move from roof to roof. So we called our armed policeman from outside and begged him to assume control and fire a few bullets in the air to scare them away. Our policeman insisted on more payment, and my Uncle Na’im argued that they we had already paid him generously. But our policeman kept repeating, ‘How much will you pay?’ while our situation was getting more and more threatening by the minute.
“The policeman kept repeating, ‘One dinar per bullet,’ and Na’im kept saying back that one dinar was enough for 50 bullets and offered him a quarter of a dinar. Finally they agreed upon half a dinar per bullet. Had he refused, we would have taken his gun. The policeman fired two shots and paused, and then two more shots, until he saw the rioters move away.”
While the violence continued unabated, British troops were waiting on the outskirts of the city, forbidden to enter. British historian Tony Rocca, the author of Memories of Eden, explains that according to the archives in Kew, it appears that “Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Britain’s ambassador in Baghdad, for reasons of his own, held our forces at bay in direct insubordination to express orders from Winston Churchill that they should take the city and secure its safety. While the Farhud raged, Cornwallis went back to his residence and played a game of bridge.”
By the second day of fighting, the mob’s violence had spread to such a degree that Muslim shops were also being looted, and a curfew was eventually called at 5 p.m. Remaining violators on the streets were shot, and a relative calm was soon restored.
Haddad learned that his cousin had been trying to save the life of a fellow Jew and been fatally stabbed in the back.
“I went to my uncle, and as soon as I opened the door, my uncle... was crying, his son was killed. It was very tragic because he was like an older brother to me,” he recounts.
“It felt like the destruction of the Temple, like on [Tisha Be’Av]. I felt the same way because... this city was our Temple. We were living there,” he goes on. “One third of the population of Baghdad were Jews. Baghdad was closed on Saturday, the whole government was closed on Saturday because Jews were the majority in the city. And yet here, I suddenly saw that this city was no longer our Temple. It was their Temple, and they can destroy it... It transformed me completely... From an Iraqi, loving Iraq, loving Muslims as Jews, I became fanatic Jewish, fanatic anti-Iraq.”
Despite the apparent calm in Baghdad, Jews were routinely imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Carrying Jewish prayer books was made illegal, and after the declaration of the birth of Israel in 1948, the situation became treacherous for Jews.
Morris Zebaida, who escaped to Israel illegally in December of that year with his two young sisters, describes the city he left: “We learned to live like mice. If we made any noise, we would be spat upon, beaten or thrown in prison on ridiculous made-up charges.”
WHEN THE State of Israel was created, life in Iraq became unbearable, with public hangings of prominent Jews that shocked the community to new depths. When the Iraqi government finally allowed to Jews to leave in 1950 on condition they forfeit their nationality and all their money and property, the entire community registered en masse, leaving only 2,000 Jews by 1952.
“We were the wealthiest Jewish community in the world,” says Haddad. “We were well-educated, cultured, and 85% were high school graduates, with hundreds of doctors among us. And in order to leave, we had to leave behind all our money, all our property and even our nationality. And that all happened because of the trauma of the Farhud. The Farhud was something that showed us we are not welcome in that country... We lived there for 2,400 years – before Islam, before the Arabs came there, but now it was no longer our home.”
Like many who lived through the Farhud, Haddad still has a love-hate relationship with Iraq, along with a remaining distrust of the British whose forces failed to prevent the massacre.
“I still love Iraqi cooking, I still love Iraqi music,” he says. “From one point, I don’t trust them, and from the other point, I feel I want to help them. I went to Iraq by the invitation of the Iraqi government to help to inspect all the eye departments... I saw the looting there. I said, ‘This is Farhud.’ They said, ‘Yes, this is Farhud – Muslim against Muslim’...
“Patients come from Iraq who are injured by explosions and... I treat them for free,” he adds. “I take them to the hospital and I operate on their eyes. And yet at the same time I have this feeling, distrust, that the Farhud created. It’s an emotional thing that you cannot eradicate that easily.”