Baghdad hangings: When Jews were snatched and accused of spying for Israel

Daoud Ghali Yadgar was only 21 years old when he was snatched and accused of spying for Israel.

IRAQI JEWS in Israel protest their counterparts’ persecution under the Ba’ath regime. (Fritz Cohen) (photo credit: FRITZ COHEN)
IRAQI JEWS in Israel protest their counterparts’ persecution under the Ba’ath regime. (Fritz Cohen)
(photo credit: FRITZ COHEN)
‘I heard the story about how my cousin was hanged from my parents,” says Nitzan Hadad, referring to Daoud Ghali Yadgar, who was one among nine Jews who were hanged in the Iraqi capital’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square on charges of espionage on January 27, 1969.
“This was a very traumatic time for my family. My parents were already living in Israel by then, and everyone had sat transfixed around the radio waiting for the news. Soon after the announcement, a representative of Israel’s Defense Ministry arrived at my grandfather’s home and requested that no one give any interviews to the press, for fear that this could jeopardize the safety of the other family members who remained in Iraq. He also said that attempts were being made to have the remaining detainees released.”
Earlier this month, a seminar was held at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda titled “The End of the Diaspora – 50 Years since the Execution of the Nine Jews in Iraq.” Many second-generation members and Jewish Iraqi community leaders who’d experienced persecution under the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, which led to the disintegration of the Iraqi Jewish community, took part in the seminar.
Yadgar was only 21 years old when he was snatched and accused of spying for Israel.
“I’m only 47, so I never knew him personally,” explains Hadad. “My aunt never spoke about the Baghdad hangings. Neither did my grandmother. No one did. Only recently, after the monument in their memory was constructed, did the stories begin to emerge.
“My parents told me about how the hangings caused great havoc in the family and in the Iraqi Jewish community as a whole. Most of my mother’s family had made aliyah in 1950 and 1951 – only her sister and brother-in-law had remained in Iraq. He was a banker and they were very wealthy, and thought that nothing bad would happen to them. When my cousin was taken, the family switched into trauma mode. Soldiers had entered their home looking for the eldest son, who was in London studying. When they asked who was at home, my aunt replied that her other son, Daoud, was home. So they took Daoud instead and accused him of spying for Israel.”
Hadad goes on to describe how his aunt made every effort to save her son. “She was a very strong woman, with tremendous determination. The day before the hanging, she managed to use her connections to arrange a meeting for herself and another detainee’s mother with Saddam Hussein at his home in Baghdad. Saddam’s wife welcomed them into her home with open arms and showed them great compassion. When Saddam arrived, he requested that they meet with him in his study. My aunt remembers seeing on his desk a list with names of men who’d been sentenced to death. My cousin Daoud’s name, as well as the name of the other woman’s son, were on the list. Saddam looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘Everything will be all right. Go home now, mother. Tomorrow your boy will come home.”
But what actually happened?
“It was too late at night to drive home to Basra, so the two women slept at a friend’s home in Baghdad. The next morning, they found a taxi and started out for home. But before they had managed to leave the city, the taxi driver told them there was crazy traffic because of the hangings of the Jewish spies at Tahrir Square. My aunt instructed the driver to take them immediately to the square. When they arrived, the two women saw their sons hanging in the square.
“In 1971, my aunt succeeded in escaping from Iraq by paying Kurds to smuggle her family out through northern Iraq, and from there they made their way to London, where her oldest son was living.”
“On January 27, 1969, nine Jews were hanged by the Ba’ath government in Baghdad – eight of them in Tahrir Square – the largest square in the city – and one in Basra,” says Dr. Nissim Kazaz, a historian who specializes on Iraqi Jewry.
“At the time, Saddam Hussein was the head of interrogations and was considered the unofficial vice president of Iraq. The hanging turned into a kind of festival, a mass public event. The gallows had been set up in a large park, with 70 meters between each pole. Entire classes of schoolchildren and youth groups were brought there and announcements were broadcast on the radio calling the public to come see the traitorous spies hanging in the square. All the Iraqi institutions sent telegrams congratulating the government for its actions, including PLO leader Yasser Arafat.”
Kazaz tells how the acts of terror against Jews and other citizens who opposed the Iraqi regime continued throughout 1969.
“The Jews, however, were the main victims,” Kazaz continues. “The propaganda portrayed the Jews as traitors and hanging these young men was an easy way to get the people used to hangings. In fact, another four Jews had been hanged in jails by the end of the year. About a year later, Jews began disappearing, too. During the four years the Ba’ath regime ruled in Iraq, 52 Jews (of a community that numbered between 5,000 and 6,000) were tortured and hanged or disappeared. In addition, many Jews were imprisoned for many years, on charges of spying for Israel and Western imperialism.”
How did all of this affect the morale of the Jewish community?
“The Baghdad hangings incident had a serious effect on the community,” continues Kazaz. “However, many families had begun entertaining thoughts of leaving Iraq following the Six Day War in Israel, since after the war the Muslims increased their harassment of their Jewish neighbors and the Ba’ath regime amplified its persecution. The problem was that by then it was no longer legal for Jews to leave. Then, in 1969, one family daringly escaped through Kurdistan in northern Iraq. This was a catalyst for other Jewish families, who with the help of Kurdish smugglers and while the Kurdish leader turned a blind eye, made their way out of Iraq.
“After a number of families succeeded in fleeing, the Iraqi government realized its policy was useless and reached the conclusion that it might as well get rid of the remaining Jews. In 1970 and 1971, Iraqi Jews were allowed to leave legally. Half of the community left, using their passports, and the other half fled illegally. In 1974, only 400 Jews remained in the country, and that number has dwindled with each passing year.
“For years, no one was interested in the history of Middle Eastern Jewry. Only recently have people begun researching what happened in these countries. Holding seminars like this one is a great way to memorialize these communities.”
CHARLIE ATRAKCHI, 62, was home on November 8, 1968, when two men in civilian clothes who were accompanied by several Iraqi soldiers came and took away his father, Yaakov (Jacques) Atrakchi.
“They searched our home and told us, ‘How pleasant it is for you to live here while Israel is shelling refugees.’ They said they needed to ask my father some questions, and that they’d bring him home later. We begged them not to take him, but they didn’t listen. They wouldn’t even let us prepare a bag of food or toiletries for him. They said he’d be home soon, but that was the last time we ever saw him. Later, we sent our Muslim servant to see if he could find out any information, and he came back to tell us that father had been taken to Baghdad.”
When did you find out that your father had been sentenced to death?
“Only on January 27, when they announced the sentencing of the 14 men accused of espionage,” continues Atrakchi. “But in actuality, father had been killed well before that day. We found out from a Jewish man who’d been in the same prison with him. They’d tortured him to death in an effort to get him to admit to being part of an espionage ring. My father had been an exporter of honey and dates and an importer of fabric. They accused him of being the deputy head of the espionage ring. Later, they came to the house and took away all of our possessions, claiming that they belonged to a spy. Until today, they still haven’t handed over his remains.
“While the trial was taking place, all of the Jewish families holed up in their homes with the curtains pulled tightly closed,” Atrakchi recalls. “We followed every detail of the trial. We tried to remain hopeful throughout, but I remember seeing my mother and grandmother crying all the time, fearing the worst. In 1971, my mother decided to take her small children and flee.
“Today, not many people know about the glorious history of the Jewish communities in Arab countries,” continues Atrakchi. “The Israeli school history books don’t really deal with this subject, and not many people are aware of this chapter in the history of the Jewish people.”
Lydia Abda-Sasson’s father was luckier than his fellow Jews in Iraq.
“My father, Meir Abda, was taken from our home in Baghdad on January 6, 1968,” recalls Abda-Sasson. “His brother was also apprehended on the same day. They told us they were taking him for questioning and would bring him home soon. They put a black blindfold over his eyes, tied his hands behind his back and then searched the house. I was only 14 years old at the time, and it was an extremely traumatic event. I ran up to the guard and asked him, ‘Where are you taking my father?’
“Afterwards, my mother went from one prison to another, searching for them. We didn’t know if they were dead or alive for eight months. Then, finally, someone took pity on her and told her that there’s only one person who can help you: Saddam Hussein.”
Did she go see him?
“Yes. She put on all the Muslim head and body coverings and went to Saddam’s house. They opened the door, and she sat on the floor, next to his mother and wife, waiting for Saddam.
“When he appeared at the entrance of the room, wearing a galabia, Saddam’s mother motioned to my mother and said, ‘The sister wants to speak with you.’ My mother was asked, ‘What are you?’ meaning, what religion. My mother answered, ‘I’m from the religion of Moses.’ He then told her that he’d look into things, and she should come back in two weeks.”
What happened when she came back?
“Saddam told her, ‘I took a look at the files. There are things there,’ meaning that accusations had been brought against them. But because my father and uncle’s files had been pulled by Saddam himself, no one touched them.
“At the trial, they were sentenced to four-and-a-half years of jail time, and all of their property was confiscated. But at least they weren’t hanged. The very fact that Saddam had pulled their files apparently saved them from being hanged.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.