Baghdad reclaims a Jewish history it once shunned

Iraqi officials say they will go to DC to try bring back Jewish archive US troops took 7 years ago.

iraq jewish archive 311 ap (photo credit: AP)
iraq jewish archive 311 ap
(photo credit: AP)

It was seized from Jewish families and wound upsoaking in sewage water in the basement of a secret police building.Rescued from the chaos that engulfed Baghdad as Saddam Hussein wastoppled, it now sits in safekeeping in an office near Washington, D.C.

Likethis country's once great Jewish community, the Iraqi Jewish Archive ofbooks, manuscripts, records and other materials has gone throughturbulent times. Now another twist may be in store: Iraq wants it back.

Iraqi officials say they will go to the US, possibly nextmonth, to assess the materials found by US troops and plan for theirreturn after an absence of nearly seven years.

Some Jewish authorities are skeptical, arguing that since mostestimates put the number of Jews in Iraq at less than 10, the archiveno longer belongs here. But to Saad Eskander, the director of the IraqNational Library and Archives, it is part of a larger effort to rescuethe cultural history Iraq lost during the invasion, and to put Iraqison a tentative path to coming to grips with their past.

"Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, withdifferent traditions, different religions, and we need to accept thisdiversity ... To show it to our people that Baghdad was alwaysmultiethnic," said Eskander.

The archive was found in May 2003, when US troops looking forweapons of mass destruction got a tip to check out the basement of abuilding of the Mukhabarat - Saddam's secret police. Passing a2,000-pound unexploded bomb on their way into the building, they founda flooded basement.

"It was really quite disgusting, to be honest,because it was about chest-deep sewage water," said Richard Gonzales,the Army officer who led the team and has since retired.

The troops found no WMD, but it was worth the trip. Books,photos and papers floated in the murky water. And not just any books,but Hebrew-language books, in a country that had been at war withIsrael since 1948 and had once accused Jews of espionage and after ashow trial hanged nine of them in a public square.

The fact that the materials survived at all is remarkable,considering how much of Iraq's cultural heritage was looted ordestroyed after the fall of Saddam - more than a quarter of theNational Library's books and 60 percent of its collection of maps,photographs and records, Eskander said.

Gonzales knew he had something significant on his hands but hedidn't have enough people or tools to deal with it. So he went to AhmedChalabi, the leader of the Iraqi exile group whose discredited WMDclaims had been the main justification for the invasion.

Chalabi got him a pump and some manpower. The materials werepulled out of the basement, laid out to dry in the sun and packed in 27metal trunks.

Accumulated over the years were photos, parchments and cases tohold Torah scrolls; a Jewish religious book published in 1568; 50copies of a children's primer in Hebrew and Arabic; books in Arabic andEnglish, books printed in Baghdad, Warsaw and Venice - the lostheritage of what was once one of the largest Jewish communities in theMiddle East, dating to the 6th century B.C.

Abraham of the Old Testament is believed to have come from thecity of Ur, in what is modern-day Iraq, and despite periods ofpersecution, the community endured and thrived over centuries. Butproblems worsened when Iraq sided with Germany in World War II, andcame to a head when Israel was created.

By the early 1950s, Iraqi Jews were fleeing the country indroves. The few thousand who remained were harassed, too frightened tohold services, and their assets seized. In 1969, after Saddam's Baathparty took power, came the hangings.

The secret police are believed to have confiscated countless books and other archival material from the Jewish community.

"Sometimes they would contact us when they had intelligenceabout such documents, Hebrew documents or books," said Kamil JawadAshour, the deputy director of the National Library. "On one occasion Iwent with them to a house in Basra of a Jewish family where theyconfiscated some documents and books from them. And there was only anold woman there."

After the 2003 invasion, Corine Wegener was working in Baghdadas an arts, monuments and archives officer - a rarity in the USmilitary - when she was asked to examine the materials from thebasement.

They were still damp, and that meant mold, a preservationist's nightmare.

Only freezing stops mold, so a refrigerator truck was found and kept running 24 hours a day.

"I was out there three or four times a day with a food thermometer checking the temperature," Wegener said.

Agreement was reached, and later approved by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, to move the archive to the US for preservation.

After being freeze-dried in Texas, the collection was taken tothe National Archives and Records Administration in College Park,Maryland. There the items were photographed, lightly cleaned, wrappedand boxed. NARA and the Center for Jewish History, a New York-basednonprofit group, are using the photos to catalog the collection. But tohandle and digitize it, more preservation work would be needed.

The archive was supposed to return to Iraq after two years.Until now, the Iraqis - focused more on surviving the day to dayviolence in the country - have never pushed for the archive's return.Doris Hamburg, who directs preservation projects at NARA, said it takesages to repair damaged materials. Further work needs outside fundingthat has not materialized.

But the archive's longer-than-anticipated stay in the US hasraised questions in Iraq, where public opinion tends to conflate Israelwith Jews in general, and anything even tangentially related to eitheris suspect.

"I am afraid that there is pressure from some groups, bothinside and outside the United States, in order to prevent the return ofthese Iraqi manuscripts to their original country," said AbdullahHamid, the head of Iraq's National Center for Manuscripts andDocuments.

Hamburg denies any pressures and stresses Iraqcan have the archive back whenever it wants, Iraqi officials at theNational Library said they have no indication the Americans are tryingto hold onto the archive.

ButDov S. Zakheim, an Orthodox Jew who was a senior Department of Defenseofficial under President George W. Bush warned that if the Iraqis wereto claim the archive as their own, it would anger the Jewish community.

"It's not theirs. It's just not theirs," he said. "Jews feel very strongly about their heritage."

Mordechai Ben-Porat, who helped orchestrate a mass airlift ofJews leaving Iraq after Israel's establishment in 1948, says thearchive should be in the museum dedicated to Iraqi Jews which he runsin Israel, where Jewish scholars can make use of the materials.

"The books belong to the majority of the Iraqi Jews, and theyare not in Iraq. The books should be given to us, as therepresentatives of the Jews of Iraq," he said.

However, he appeared resigned to the likelihood the archive would return to Iraq.

Maurice Shohet of the World Organization of Jewsfrom Iraq said the community would like the materials to be digitizedso that everyone has access, and was worried the necessary preservationwork could not be done in Iraq.

"If these documents go back to Iraq the way they are they will be lost forever," he said.

Since Iraq has no diplomatic relations with Israel, Eskanderthought it unlikely Israeli scholars would get visas to enter Iraq andstudy the archive. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was notinvolved in any move to bring the archive to Israel.

Digitization to make them available on the Web would solve alot of the problems, but would require extensive preservation work,which many worry is beyond Iraq's present capabilities.

But Iraqi officials stressed they have the expertise and willmake preservation a priority. Down the hall from Eskander's office areexperts, many trained in Europe, who are repairing documents similarlydamaged during the invasion.

Wegener said she was deeply torn about whether the collectionshould be removed from what at the time was an occupied country. But "Ifirmly believed then, and I believe now, that if we did not, it wouldhave been destroyed."

All the same, the archive's long absence from Iraq has made it"politically sensitive," Eskander said. It "annoyed Iraqis a lot" thatthe Americans who failed to protect Iraqi cultural treasures weredevoting such care to the Jewish archive.

Why, given its treatment of its Jewish population, would Iraqwant the Jewish Archive back? Eskander, 48, can point to himself. He isa Faily, a member of a small Shiite-Kurdish minority persecuted underSaddam, and he wants Iraqis to know about such oppression and learnfrom it.

In a country that has lost thousands of lives to sectarianviolence since 2003, where Christian churches are bombed, and wherepeople perceived as friendly to Israel often receive death threats,Eskander can point to the collection of Hebrew-language books he has inhis office for safekeeping.

Like the Iraqi Jewish Archive, these books were found tucked inthe corner of another basement - that one dry. They are catalogued onthe library's Web site and available for study.

"The American national archive did a great job, and we'regrateful for their help. ... The idea now is that we will do it here inBaghdad," Eskander said. "It's our cultural heritage."