Exhibit at Jewish Museum preserves Iraqi Jewish heritage

The exhibit includes just a few of the 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents rescued from the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. Photo by David Stuck

The meticulously restored historic Iraqi Jewish documents and artifacts on display through Jan. 15 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore are some of the last remnants of the once-thriving Jewish communities of Baghdad. Over the last century, the Jewish population was decimated through pogroms, public executions, forced deportations and mass exodus, falling from about 130,000 after World War II to fewer than 10 in Baghdad today.

But view “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” an exhibit created by the National Archives and Records Administration, and one feels the unmistakable pulse of religious and communal life. The exhibit contains about two dozen items, including books, calendars, school and organization records, bibles, a Haggadah and fragments of a Torah scroll — just a few of the 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents rescued from the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, the Mukhabarat, in Baghdad in the spring of 2003. That same year, the last synagogue closed.

The long story of Iraqi Jews begins with their expulsion from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzer in the sixth century B.C.E. Through much of their history, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace, and the Jewish community flourished. By 1900, Jews made up about a third of the population of Baghdad, numbering 80,000.

“It was a community that was integrated to a great extent with its neighbors,” said Marvin Pinkert, Jewish Museum of Maryland executive director. “The Jewish schools were the premium schools, not just for the Jewish kids. If you were an affluent member of the Islamic or Christian community, you also sent your kids to the Jewish schools.”

The Jewish population grew by another 50,000 by the end of World War II, but the war also brought in a pro-Nazi government whose oppression and harsh treatment of Jews persisted, even after parties changed.

Colorfully illustrated French and Hebrew Haggadah circa 1930. Photo by David Stuck

“When the pro-Nazi government took over briefly in 1941, that really turned everything around,” Pinkert said. “But until the 1930s, Iraq was a relatively welcoming place for the Jewish community.”

During the 1940s and 1950s, more than 120,000 Jews left, many through the airlift campaign Operation Ezra and Nehemiah that relocated Jews to Israel. With such a swift and massive exodus over such a short period, synagogues, schools and organizations were shuttered, and their belongings eventually confiscated, many winding up in Hussein’s hands.

In May 2003, a few months after the start of the Iraq War and after Baghdad had been secured by coalition forces, a rumor began circulating that a seventh-century Talmud was hidden away in Hussein’s basement.

“That would have been pretty extraordinary had there been a seventh-century Talmud,” said Doris Hamburg, former director of preservation programs for the National Archives.

There is no known surviving Talmud from that period, and since the rumors were fairly reliable, 16 American soldiers from Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha — normally charged with searching for weapons of mass destruction — entered the Mukhabarat even though outside the building lay an unexploded bomb.

“They went into the basement, where it was thought these things might be,” Hamburg explained. “They didn’t find [the Talmud]. But they found floating in the water books and documents pertaining to the Iraqi Jewish community.”

Hamburg said that Harold Rhode, a military analyst, Islamic affairs expert and Orthodox Jew, knew immediately how important this discovery was for the Iraqi Jewish community.

“He really was the person who took the lead in finding a way to bring everything together and bring the things out,” Hamburg said.

Rhode secured funding to pump out the four feet of fetid water and then remove the piles of waterlogged books and documents, some dating to the 16th century.

Damaged items dry outside the Mukhabarat in Baghdad.
Photo courtesy of Harold Rhode

‘Put us first on the list’

Much of the cache was laid outside on the ground in an effort to dry the piles of papers and books, but in the hot Iraq weather, mold set in. With advice from the National Archives to freeze the wet items to discourage more mold growth, the trove was loaded into metal trunks and into a freezer truck — quite a feat in the middle of a desert conflict.

When Hamburg got a call from Baghdad asking her to come help stabilize and secure the items, she recalled asking, “How safe is it?” But she went.

“It was a lull in the fighting, and my colleague Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler [then chief of the conservation laboratory at the National Archives] and I were, within a week, on a plane headed to Baghdad.”

Through an agreement with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority that replaced the Saddam Hussein regime, the trunks, 26 in all, were brought to the United States, first to a vacuum-freeze-drying facility in Texas, then to the National Archives in Washington. There, the condition of each book, artifact and document was assessed, after which they went through multiple processes, including washing, mold removal, repair and rebinding. Finally, each page or item, except in the case of duplicates, was digitally photographed, catalogued and stored in custom-made archival boxes to keep them from further deterioration. Project costs totaled more than $3 million, mostly though grant funding.

As part of the State Department’s agreement with the Iraqi government, all of the digital files of what had come to be known as the “Iraqi Jewish Archive” were loaded onto a website so the material would be available to anyone around the world with computer access to see and use. The last phase was to create an exhibit, in Arabic and English, which would be on display for three months in Washington and three months in New York, before the archive was sent back to Baghdad.

“Somewhere around 2009, the preservation section of the [National Archives] turned to the museum section of the archives and said, ‘You know, when we signed this agreement it said that we were going to produce an exhibit,’” Pinkert recalled. “And the head of the museum at that time, which was me, said, ‘I agreed to what?’”

Pinkert was involved in a major renovation to the entire floor of the National Archives Museum.

“But I’m glad we got started,” he said. “It already had a designer, a curator, and it was into its planning phase when I left to become head the Jewish Museum of Maryland.”

When the exhibit’s tour was extended twice to include stops at museums in Kansas City, Mo., Yorba Linda, Calif., and Miami, Pinkert had a chance in 2014 to ask a former colleague if the exhibit could come to Baltimore to the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

“I said, ‘If you’re extending it, put us first on the list,’” he recalled. “And they did.”

Pinkert was excited for the exhibit to come to Baltimore because it is a rarity that the museum has a chance to offer such early historic artifacts to the public.

Sivan Chaban is a descendent of Iraqi Jews whose mother’s family came from Urmia on the border of Iraq and Iran. And although the Kurdish Jews in that area enjoyed peaceful and friendly relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors at the time, Chaban said that the family decided to leave for Israel in 1951 with many other Iraqi and Kurdish Jews.

“Kurdish Jews always dreamed of returning to Israel and maintained their Zionist ideology throughout their time in exile,” Chaban, program manager for Baltimore Zionist District, said in an email interview.

“While my family’s decision was based on their Zionism, they were also warned by government officials who were very friendly to the Kurdish Jews that the situation for the Jews in Kurdistan was becoming volatile, so they decided it was best to return to Israel.”

Chaban said that her cultural pride resonates in her daily life.

A wooden “tik,” or rigid Torah scroll holder from the 19th-20th century.
Photo by David Stuck

“I cook Kurdish food for Shabbat and holidays, I listen and dance to Kurdish music, and I try to pick up as much Kurdish as I can when I am with my family in Israel,” she said. “Preserving my Kurdish identity also allows me to feel very connected to the non-Jewish Kurds and their struggles, because they are very similar to the struggles of the Jews and Israel. Both groups experienced a genocide and sought independence. In the case of the Kurds, they are still fighting for their homeland while continuing to suffer at the hands of different players in the Middle East who want to deny them their culture and future.”

Although the State Department’s returning the archive to Iraq has raised objections, including a Senate resolution sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan cadre including Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), the archive is still slated to return to Iraq in September 2018 when the agreement’s extension runs out.

Remnants of a Jewish culture

Chaban is of two minds on the disposition of the archive and where it should go after its U.S. tour is complete.

“I think the archive should be returned to Iraq because it is important for the Iraqis to recognize, remember and commemorate the rich Jewish culture that existed and thrived there,” Chaban said. “That being said, if the archive will not be protected or respected in Iraq, I think it should be taken to Israel, where the Iraqi Jewish community there can protect it and use it to preserve and teach their culture.”

Remnants of Iraq’s Jewish culture highlighted in the exhibit include a tattered wooden “tik,” or rigid Torah-scroll holder traditionally covered in velvet and silver from the 19th century; a 1902 Haggadah that was handwritten and decorated by a young Iraqi; an 1815 Zohar, the primary text of Jewish mysticism; a 1793 Babylonian Talmud; and a Hebrew Bible with handwritten comments throughout, from 1568.

Beth Hogans came to the exhibit’s opening day program to hear Doris Hamburg talk about the collection and was impressed by the extent of the restorations.

“I think it’s really wonderful that the U.S. government can be involved in preserving cultural heritage like that,” she said.

Blanche Cohen Sachs emigrated from Egypt to the United States in 1955 as a student at Southern Illinois University, which she said was nicknamed “Little Egypt.” She moved to Baltimore in the early 1960s and did not return to Egypt because of the unstable political situation there.

“I keep comparing the Jews of Iraq to the Jews of Egypt. Their history and our history. And I remembered the Jews of Iraq actually started the Jewish religion. The [Babylonian] Talmud and books that were in the early religion that were very important came from Iraq,” she said.

For Doris Hamburg, who was on the ground in Iraq soon after the Iraqi Jewish artifacts were discovered, this project was unique, even to a collections and preservation expert with decades in the field.

“This was very special because it related to a community that no longer exists, a community that has disappeared from where it once was. In that regard, it was very different. That doesn’t happen so often,” she said.

The museum plans more than a half-dozen programs related to the exhibit — on ancient Iraq, Iraqi Jewish food, Iraqi Jews, Jews in Baghdad, the 1950s airlift, Iraqi Jewish Heritage Day and a
Sephardic Chanukah.

For information, visit jewishmuseummd.org/calendar-event/upcoming or ija.archives.gov.

Susan Ingram is a reporter at the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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