Farhud memories: Baghdad's 1941 slaughter of the Jews
- 1 June 2011
- From the section Middle East
On 1 June 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom erupted in Baghdad, bringing to an end more than two millennia of peaceful existence for the city's Jewish minority. Some Jewish children witnessed the bloodshed, and retain vivid memories 70 years later.
Heskel Haddad, an 11-year-old boy was finishing a festive meal and preparing to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot, oblivious to the angry mob that was about to take over the city.
Thousands of armed Iraqi Muslims were on the rampage, with swords, knives and guns.
The two days of violence that followed have become known as the Farhud (Arabic for "violent dispossession"). It spelt the end for a Jewish community that dated from the time of Babylon. There are contemporary reports of up to 180 people killed, but some sources put the number much higher. The Israeli-based Babylonian Heritage Museum says about another 600 unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave.
"On the first night of Shavuot we usually go to synagogue and stay up all night studying Torah," says Haddad, now a veteran ophthalmologist in New York.
"Suddenly we heard screams, 'Allah Allah!' and shots were fired. We went out to the roof to see what's happening, we saw fires, we saw people on the roofs in the ghetto screaming, begging God to help them."
The violence continued through the night. A red hand sign, or hamsa, had been painted on Jewish homes, to mark them out. Families had to defend themselves by whatever means they could.
Haddad remembers the marauders coming down his street at dawn, and watching them from the roof as they looted his neighbour's house.
"My father had a dagger in his hand and a pipe to prevent people from attacking us on the roof. An idea came to me and I took some bricks from breaking the walls and started throwing them. Other kids came with me and began throwing rocks on these people.
"And when we hit somebody and they began to bleed, they began screaming 'Allah!' and they left. And they left the loot behind them."
Some families bribed policemen to stand guard, paying half a dinar for each bullet fired. Others owe their lives to Muslims who took great risks to protect them.
In a nearby street in a mixed Jewish and Muslim quarter, Steve Acre lived with his widowed mother and eight siblings in a house owned by a Muslim.
Acre, now 79 and living in Montreal, climbed a palm tree in the courtyard when the violence began. He still remembers the cry "Cutal al yehud" which translates as "slaughter the Jews".
From the tree he could see the landlord sitting in front of the house.
"When the mob came he talked to them. He told them that we are orphans who took refuge in his house and they cannot touch us. If they want us they have to kill him. So lucky for us, the mob moved away, moved to other houses," he remembers.
The men then crossed the street and screams began to emanate from the house of his mother's best friend.
"Later lots of men came outside and set the house on fire. And the men were shouting like from joy, in jubilation holding up something that looked like a slab of meat in their hands.
"Then I found out, it was a woman's breast they were carrying - they cut her breast off and tortured her before they killed her, my mother's best friend, Sabicha."
Until the Farhud, Baghdad had been a model of peaceful coexistence for Jews and Arabs. Jews made up about one in three of the city's population in 1941, and most saw themselves as Iraqi first and Jewish second.
So what caused this terrible turn of events?
A month earlier, a pro-Nazi lawyer Rashid Ali al-Gilani, had overthrown Iraq's royal family, and started broadcasting Nazi propaganda on the radio.
But when an attack on a British Air Force base outside Baghdad ended in humiliating failure, he was forced to flee. The Farhud took place in the power vacuum that followed.
In a tragic twist to the tale, it turns out the British Army could have intervened to halt the violence. On 1 June, British cavalry were just eight miles from the city, having raced 600 miles from Palestine and Egypt under orders to prevent Iraqi oil falling into Nazi hands.
"To Britain's shame, the army was stood down," says historian Tony Rocca, co-author with Farhud survivor Violette Samash of the book, Memories of Eden.
"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. Instead, Sir Kinahan went back to his residence had a candlelight dinner and played a game of bridge."
A move to halt the pogrom was finally taken by the Mayor of Baghdad and police loyal to the Iraqi monarchy, who imposed a curfew at 5pm on 2 June.
After the Farhud, life changed drastically for the city's Jews. Up to that point Haddad had had many Muslim friends.
"Suddenly I changed my attitude. I didn't feel any more Iraqi. I felt I'm a Jew and I vowed that I wanted to kill an Arab," he says.
One day, swimming in the River Tigris, he encountered a drowning man, and instinctively helped him to the shore.
"When I came home I was shook up. Not because I saved the guy but because I didn't follow my vow to kill an Arab. And when I went to see the rabbi, he said, 'You can't make a vow to kill. You can only make a vow to help.'
"That's what stimulated me to go into medicine, actually. I knew that I want to save lives, not to kill people."
The anti-Semitism that Hitler had successfully exported to Iraq made life unbearable for the Jewish community. There were frequent arrests on false charges of spying and public hangings of prominent Jews.
Morris Zebaida, a survivor who now lives in London, says: "We learnt to live like mice. If we didn't, we would be spat upon or arrested."
In 1950, Jews were finally allowed to leave, on condition they give up all their property and assets, including their bank accounts. By 1952, only 2,000 of 150,000 were left.
Acre and Haddad still feel a lingering distrust of the British, because of their failure to stop the violence.
For Haddad, another legacy of the Farhud is a contradictory attitude to Iraqi Muslims. He has operated on injured Iraqis free of charge, has visited Iraq as an adviser to the government, and is described by Iraq's ambassador in Washington as "the best Iraqi I know". But while he numbers some Iraqi Muslims among his friends, he remains on his guard in the presence of others.
"I have this feeling, a sort of distrust, that the Farhud created," he says. "It's an emotional thing that you cannot eradicate that easily."