The hidden treasures of Iraqi Jews

American troops descended on the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s secret police in Baghdad in 2003 and were surprised to find a trove of Jewish books.

PASSOVER HAGGADA, 1930 (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)

On May 6, 2003, American troops reached Baghdad’s Mukhabarat, or secret police headquarters, which had been bombed a few weeks previously by the US Air Force. In the basement of the building, they found thousands of fragments of Torah scrolls, Jewish religious books and personal and community documents which had been confiscated from the thriving Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein’s secret police.

They were all waterlogged from the fire sprinklers that had been activated when the building was attacked. When the soldiers found the Jewish documents, they notified their commanders and the latter notified Pentagon representatives in Baghdad who were busy trying to establish an interim government in Iraq.
Lying in the muck, they found a trove of books of rabbinic law and interpretations written hundreds of years ago by the great rabbis of Babylonia. There were also modern schoolbooks the local Jewish community had used to teach their children Hebrew, community records of deaths and births and lists of the students who had attended the Jewish schools.
Miraculously, analyst Dr. Harold Rhode, a Middle East specialist who happens to be a religious Jew, was part of the staff the US administration had sent over to Iraq. Rhode immediately called the White House when he saw the documents and received permission from then vice president Dick Cheney to save the collection of Iraqi Jewish books.
He simultaneously contacted the Israel National Library in Jerusalem and the US National Archives and Records Administration so he could receive instruction in how to best conserve the documents. With help from the Iraqis who brought two small pumps to the building, they were able to extract the remaining water. Then the conservation of the documents began.
“The specialists told us not to dry out anything, but instead to freeze them since this was the best way to prevent mold from growing,” Rhode recalls. “We stored them in metal crates which were actually mobile refrigerators. We packed everything up and shipped the container to the US. The written agreement with the Iraqis stated that at the end of the conservation process, the collection would be returned to them.”
During those few weeks when he was involved in packing up the collection, Rhode was able to get a glimpse of some of the items and realized how significant and valuable they were. Among the wet pages he found a copy of the Ketuvim (Writings) part of the Bible, which had been printed in Venice in 1568, and a copy of a book of commentaries written by Rabbi Avraham Brudo from Constantinople called Birkat Avraham (The Blessing of Abraham), which was printed in Venice in 1696. There was also a set of the Babylonian Talmud that was printed in 1793 in Vienna and a copy of the Zohar from 1815 that was printed in Livorno. Other items found were works written by Rabbi Yosef Haim, one of the greatest modern Babylonian scholars – also known as the Ben Ish Hai – including the Kanon Al-Nasa’a, a collection of laws for women that was printed in 1906 also in Livorno.
The collection also included official documents, such as a letter from the British government that was sent to the chief rabbi of Baghdad in 1917, which discussed providing matza for Jewish prisoners during the Passover holiday.
“It was incredibly exciting to find these books,” Rhode says. “I asked myself how is that I, a practicing Jew, was the one who came upon this treasure and not someone else who would not have realized how important it is. I felt like I had been put in that exact location so that I could save all these books.”
Rhode recalls that from the very first moment, it seemed like all of the events that had occurred had been a series of coincidences. “When we began searching for assistance among the Iraqi authorities, we reached a man named Ahmed Chalbi, who had been a leader in the Iraqi government.
He could have refused to help us or demanded that we hand the collection over to him, but instead he began helping us and enlisted other people and the necessary equipment we needed to care for the books.”
Within a few weeks, the collection was ready to be shipped off to Washington. On the way, the flight stopped in the island of Rhodes for a few hours to refuel. Because all the systems on the plane were turned off during that time, the crew were afraid that the crates would begin defrosting.
The American soldier who had been put in charge of accompanying the collection to the US called the NATO base commander on the island and requested help.
The commander didn’t understand exactly what the problem was and so he suggested that he come check it out in person. When he arrived, the American soldier was surprised to see “for the first time in her life,” an American officer wearing a kippa. Of course, the problem was quickly solved.
Rhode recalls that everyone he spoke with in Iraq about the collection, “Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians,” had all told him the same thing: “Get the collection out of Iraq before anyone finds out about it.”
Rhode says that the collection had no value to the Iraqis, but he understood that the moment the existence of such a treasure became public knowledge, it would be used as a tool to gain leverage.
This was the first time the US National Archives were involved in preserving non-US material. The American experts dried the pages, reattached pages that had been torn, restored deleted letters, and bound old books; in short, they brought the documents back to life.
Sometimes the staff worked for days on end on one single item. Because of the extent of the damage and the numerous items, the US asked for and received permission from Baghdad to extend the agreement through the summer of 2014.
One of the stipulations of the agreement was that while the collection was being restored, a few items would be displayed to the public in an open exhibition. This exhibition, which opened this past November in Washington, has already won international acclaim.
But suddenly a third party emerged, claiming ownership of the collection. A group of Iraqi Jews claimed that the collection was stolen from them and that it should be returned to its rightful owners. These individuals made an official request to the Iraqi government through the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) which is based in New York and headed by Maurice Shohet. According to Shohet, since the current Iraqi regime is democratic, it must take into account the Jewish community’s call to repair this historical injustice.
“The most sensible thing to do would be to hand the collection over to the WOJI,” says Zvi Gabay, former deputy director- general of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Israel. Gabay, who was born in Iraq, recently published an article in Haaretz in which he called the confiscation of the collection “a robbery” and expressed grave concern over the fate of these documents should they be returned to Baghdad.
Rhode adds, “One of the items that is currently on display in Washington is a Torah scroll. And which weekly portion is it opened to? ‘Lech Lecha’ [‘go forward’ in Hebrew]. And how does the verse go? ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace to the land that I will show you.’ This is a command to us to bring this collection from ‘there’ to Jerusalem.”
The story of how the collection was confiscated from the Jews is another interesting part of this convoluted plot, whose starting point is known but whose end is still uncertain. How did this trove of documents and holy books find its way to the headquarters of the Iraqi secret service? In the early 1970s, during the rule of president Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr, the Iraqi Jews began to suffer from the heavy hand of the government.
The energetic vice president, Saddam Hussein, had made a point of terrorizing all sectors of the population, in an effort to deter them from rising up against him. He was especially zealous in his actions aimed against the Jews and other minorities. His staff recruited agents from within the small Jewish community, and they arrested and murdered some of them or hanged them following a mock trial. The 3,500 members of this tight-knit Jewish community were fraught with fear.
Many of them felt the ground shaking beneath their feet and decided to leave their homeland, and the ones who stayed gathered all of the holy books and community documents and hid them inside one of Baghdad’s largest synagogues.
One day in the early 1970s, Ba’ath members descended upon the synagogue and confiscated everything.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. In July 1979, Saddam unceremoniously removed president Al-Bakr and took his place.
Very quickly, Iraq became embroiled in a bloody war with Iran, which caused great damage. At the same time, Iraq suffered a military strike by Israel, which destroyed a nuclear reactor Iraq had secretly been building.
Just two years after the war with Iran had ended, Saddam conquered Kuwait, a small yet wealthy country, which leaders in Baghdad had been coveting for years. After this adventure ended, Saddam found himself in another confrontation with coalition forces led by US president George H.W. Bush, during which he almost lost his position.
Years later, he lost his life when the younger George W.
Bush took office, and Iraq was reduced to poverty.
For almost three decades, during which Baghdad was torn asunder, this magnificent collection of Jewish scrolls and documents sat in the basement of the Iraqi secret service until the building was attacked a decade ago. Over the years, Iraqi intelligence officers had added items they would collect, but had no need for, such as maps of Israel or books on security and politics. In the 1980s, the Hebrew Studies department at Baghdad University requested that a small number of books be displayed in the university’s library and so the secret service approved of the transfer of 300 books, some of which were rare editions. This collection was smuggled to Israel nine years ago and is currently on display at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. The oldest book in the collection is a commentary by the Ralbag on the Book of Job, which was printed in Naples in 1487.
Mordechai Ben-Porat, a former Knesset member who is a leader in the Iraqi community, says that the Americans deserve immense praise for their tremendous efforts in rescuing these documents.
However, he believes that the State of Israel should not get involved.
“The Iraqi Jews should demand that the documents be returned to the community. Israel should not be involved in any shape or form. Many of the owners of these items currently live in Canada, London and New York. Under no circumstances should any of the items be sent back to Iraq – they will just disappear. Under the circumstances, I think they should remain in the US.”
Ben-Porat’s words were partly directed toward two US Republican senators who recently drafted a bill that would require Washington to transfer the collection to the State Israel. The chances that the bill will pass are slim, but in the meantime, another initiative regarding the Iraqi collection was raised in the US Congress. Twenty-six congressmen have contacted Secretary of State John Kerry and demanded that the US not follow through with the agreement it reached with the Iraqi government, but instead hand the documents over to the Jews who used to live in this community. They indicated in their letter that the collection included personal photos of community members which were confiscated by Saddam.
“The Iraqi government has no legal right to keep these items,” they stated in the letter. “We believe they should be returned to the descendants of the Iraqi Jewish community and we urge the State Department to make sure that these items find their way back to their original owners, or the owners’ heirs, and not to the Iraqi government.”
On December 15, 2013, a few dozen people gathered in the New Montefiore Cemetery in New York. Forty-nine Hebrew prayer books, a Bible and copies of the Book of Esther, all of which were damaged beyond repair, were placed in a simple wooden casket. All of these items, which were part of the collection found in Baghdad, were then buried in a full religious burial ceremony. But before they could be buried, as unlikely as it seems, the Americans needed permission from the Iraqi government since the former was the official owner of the collection.
Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials flew in especially from Baghdad for the ceremony. Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador in Washington, was the most senior Iraqi official to participate in the ceremony. “The Jewish community in Iraq,” Faily said, “played a key role in building the country, but also suffered from forced expulsion due to tyrannical policies. Iraq’s new constitution states that all Iraqis are equal, regardless of religion or ethnicity.”
Faily was applauded when he said that he and his colleagues had come to participate in the ceremony out of a show of respect for the Jewish heritage of Iraq. These were particularly warm words. Since the days of the riots and executions in Iraq when Saddam was still in charge, no official statement has ever come out of Baghdad in recognition of the suffering of the Jewish community. Faily did not, however, make any references to the future of the collection.
Rhode did note, though, that the Iraqi ambassador has already hinted that it might be possible to delay the date by which the collection be returned to his country. “The collection belongs to the Iraqi Jews and their descendants, and should therefore not be returned to Baghdad,” Rhode says. “They stole these items and then nationalized them. They must now be returned to the Jews.”
Do you foresee the US government violating its agreement with Baghdad, I asked Rohde.
“You are not a religious Jew, but I am, and so I view the issue from a different perspective. I’m not saying that God is watching over the collection, but it would not surprise me if the US did not return the collection. It’s unbelievable what these objects have been through since we found them.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.