Witnesses to Iraq’s Farhud
Over the first two days of June 1941, countless numbers of Jewish women in Baghdad were raped, more than 2,000 Jews were injured — many of them mutilated — and 900 homes, as well as 586 Jewish-owned businesses, were looted. All told, according to Iraqi-born historian Elie Kedourie, 600 Jews, including children and infants, were slaughtered. This Nazi-inspired pogrom is known as the Farhud, which in Kurdish means violent dispossession, and it marked the beginning of the destruction of the Iraq’s 2,600-year-old Jewish community, which beforehand had numbered more than 75,000 in Baghdad and 120,000 throughout Iraq.
The Nazis’ influence in Iraq can be traced back to 1933, when Hitler first came to power, which was just a year after Iraq gained its independence from Britain. Excerpts from “Mein Kampf” began appearing serially in Iraqi’s newspaper Al-Alem Al Arabi (The Arabic World), which had been purchased by Germany’s ambassador to Iraq, Dr. Fritz Grobba. A youth organization, Al Fatwaa, similar to the Hitler Youth, was formed, and Radio Berlin began to broadcast anti-Semitic propaganda in Arabic.
Pro-Nazis had taken power of the Iraqi government just two months before in a coup staged by Gen. Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and four generals, called the Golden Square, with support from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Nazi collaborator in exile in Baghdad. They overthrew the former, pro-British government and exiled the young King Faisal II and his regent, Prince Abdul Ilah.
Al-Gaylani, intent on controlling Iraq’s oil fields for Germany, staged the takeover, in league with the Nazis and the Grand Mufti. But Britain, dependent on Iraq’s oil, returned fire by sending in additional troops, and, after a month of fighting, emerged victorious. The British army then stationed itself outside Baghdad, and on May 30, al-Gaylani, his generals and the Grand Mufti fled the country.
The regent was to return the next day. And as a delegation of Iraqi Jews was driving across the Al Khurr Bridge to Baghdad’s airport to welcome him, they were attacked by a mob of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. The violence spread from there, while the British remained outside the city, as ordered by British Ambassador Kinahan Cornwallis, who didn’t want to be seen as interfering in Iraqi politics. Finally, on the afternoon of June 2, British forces restored order, but for the Jews, life in Iraq had changed irrevocably.
Some Jews fled Iraq immediately after the Farhud. The majority of the Jewish community was non-Zionist, and they stayed. Then, as the persecution of Jews continued, including after Israel became a state in May 1948, they reconsidered, and thousands were smuggled out by the Zionist underground. In March 1950, Iraq passed a law allowing Jews to depart within the year if they relinquished their citizenship. Shortly afterward, in Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israeli government airlifted out more than 100,000 Jews. In March 1951, the Iraqi government extended the law but forbade the Jews to remove any assets. By early 1952, more than 120,000 Jews had participated in the mass emigration, leaving behind approximately 6,000. In 2008 the Jewish Agency of Israel estimated that only seven Jews remained in Iraq.
The following memories of the Farhud come from three Iraqi Jews, all now living in Los Angeles, who as children witnessed what professor Yitzchak Kerem of Hebrew University calls “the Kristallnacht of Iraqi Jewry.”
On June 1, 1941, a Sunday, Charles Dabby, then 6, looked out the small recessed window of a second-story bedroom in his family’s house in Baghdad. He could see men breaking into nearby homes on the narrow street below, then hoisting stolen items over their heads or hauling them away in donkey-driven carts. “People were taking sheets, pillows, everything and anything,” he recalled. He also heard the shouts and crying of both adults and children.
Charles’ parents pulled him and his two younger sisters, Bertha and Tikvah, away from the window, saying, “Don’t worry. We have a guard.”
The family felt reassured by the presence of Azawi ibn Tabra, the large, Muslim owner of the warehouse where Charles’ father, Heskel, a spice importer and distributor, stored his merchandize. The keffiyah-clad Azawi was standing guard outside the family’s front door, a sword in one hand and a gun on his left side, patrolling back and forth. A few men accompanied him. He had also stationed several men on the Dabbys’ roof in case attackers jumped over the short wall separating the flat, attached roofs of the adjoining houses. Another guard remained inside the house, making funny faces to entertain Charles.
Later, Heskel led the family downstairs to the basement, where they slept for several nights. It was too dangerous to sleep on the rooftop, as was the custom in warm weather.
After the Farhud, when Charles walked with his father along Main Street to school, they often saw men hanging from scaffolding. When Charles asked why they had been hanged, Heskel answered, “Because they’re thieves.” He never explained that they were Jews.
On May 14, 1948, Charles remembers listening to the United Nations vote on Israeli statehood on the family radio. “I could hear my heart. I was crying,” he said. He had secretly begun learning conversational Hebrew, leaving school for an hour at a time for classes taught by young Iraqi Jews. At home, he buried his Hebrew papers in a box in the backyard, hidden from his parents. “They would panic,” he said. Like most Iraqi Jews, Charles’ parents were not Zionists.
Then, one afternoon in 1949, as Charles rode his bicycle home from school, two boys attacked him — hitting him and trying to steal his bicycle. Charles removed his belt and began thrashing the boys and destroying their bicycles. He returned home with torn clothes, his own bicycle on his shoulder. That night, after learning that the boys’ parents had important government jobs, Heskel put Charles on a train to Basra, to stay with his uncle. In the summer, against his uncle’s and father’s wishes, Charles crossed into Iran with a smuggler and, after some time in Istanbul, he traveled to Israel. His two sisters followed a year later, when Iraq allowed Jews to emigrate, while forbidding them to keep their Iraqi citizenship.
Charles’ parents, however, remained in Baghdad. Charles saw them again only once, in London in 1971. That same year, Charles helped his younger brother, Joseph, who was only 2 when Charles fled, escape Iraq. The following year, Joseph moved to Los Angeles, where Charles had been living since 1966, and where he currently lives with his wife, Teresa Stauring Dabby.
Ruth Pearl and her sisters, Baghdad, c. 1949. From left, Carmela, Shulamit and Ruth. Photo of Ruth Pearl
As the Farhud broke out, 5-year-old Ruth Rejwan was with her parents and four siblings in a second-story bedroom in their house just outside Baghdad’s Jewish Quarter. It was June 1, 1941, a tense time, with no government in control. As Ruth and her family gazed out the window, they saw looters running in the street, some carrying women’s shoes and others with bulging sacks thrown over their shoulders. Suddenly, shots rang out. Three bullets flew into their open window, streaking over their heads and lodging in the wall. “Duck!” one of Ruth’s brothers yelled. Their father, Joseph, fearing that the planes overhead might also shoot at them through the interior open courtyard, immediately directed everyone downstairs.
Once settled in the family room, Joseph wanted a cigarette, but he had left them upstairs. Ruth volunteered to fetch one. “Don’t look outside,” he warned her. But when she reached the bedroom, she peered through the window, spying a looter in blood-splattered clothing leaning against their front door, moaning. A sack lay next to him. “None of the Muslim neighbors went to help him,” Ruth said, a fact that puzzled her even at the time. But she said nothing to her parents, afraid she would be punished for disobeying.
Once calm had been restored, Ruth’s family spoke to their Muslim next-door neighbors and learned that they had stood outside the Rejwans’ house during the rioting, announcing, “There are no Jews here,” and preventing looters from breaking in.
After the Farhud, the Rejwans moved to Bataween, a safer suburb. But times were still tense. “We knew we could be attacked,” Ruth said.
Ruth began having a recurring nightmare that a Muslim man with a large knife was chasing her upstairs while she ran screaming. “I was running for my life,” she said. Those nightmares, which left her sweating and fearful, lasted until 1971, 10 years after she had moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Judea Pearl. (Judea and Ruth, who met at the Technion in Haifa and married on April 7, 1960, are the parents of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.)
Unlike most Iraqi Jews, the Rejwans were Zionists. When Ruth was 6 months old, in fact, they had planned to immigrate to Palestine. But Joseph became ill, so they remained in Iraq.
After the Farhud, however, the continuing violence against the Jews made them reconsider. As Ruth walked to school one day, she saw a man hanging on a scaffold, a hood covering his head. “It was frightening because it could happen to my brother,” she said.
By age 14, Ruth and her older sister were active in the Zionist movement. Her two older brothers had already separately smuggled themselves to Israel, and in February 1952, the rest of the family followed. “It was a hard decision to make,” Ruth recalled, knowing that they had to leave their home, their friends and all their possessions, including Joseph’s successful tailoring business. They were allowed to take only one suitcase each, and then half of each suitcase’s contents was confiscated at the airport. After arriving in Israel, they lived in tents in a refugee camp for several months.
“No one realizes that we were refugees. We came with nothing,” Ruth said.
Joe Samuels (then Josef Sasson) stayed home with his parents and seven siblings on Erev Shavuot, which fell on May 31, 1941. His devout father sat reading Torah, but Joe, then 10, and the others were too tense. They knew that al-Gayani and the pro-Nazi junta had fled, but they didn’t feel relief. Joe slept restlessly that night. In fact, ever since the coup in early April, he had been afraid, crying every night in bed. He couldn’t share his fears with his father and older brothers, who put on brave faces. “I thought, ‘My God, they’re going to kill us,’ ” he recalled.
The next day, the family began fortifying its house, which was located in an affluent neighborhood near the Tigris River. They reinforced the front door by stacking heavy furniture against it. Joe’s brother Eliyahoo electrified the chicken wire already attached atop the stone wall that enclosed their garden. And Joe helped carry buckets of boiled water to the roof, ready to toss on marauders if needed. From the second-floor window, Joe could see looters on the street, carrying away clothes and staring at them.
The family stayed awake all night. Two of Joe’s brothers maintained contact with the neighbors via the roof, bringing any news downstairs. By afternoon the next day, the British had quelled the riots.
The Iraqi Jews, who even as second-class citizens had been key to Baghdad’s economic life, lived mostly peaceably among the Muslim population. “Growing up, there were problems with the Jews, but you could depend on some Muslims as friends. Always,” Joe said. But after the Farhud, the Jews realized there was no future for them in Iraq.
Joe’s brother Eliyahoo left for Palestine in 1942. Two years later, when Joe was 14, a shaliach (Israeli emissary) came to live at the home, teaching him, his brothers and other boys conversational Hebrew. “Zionism began to become instilled in the younger crowd,” Joe said.
The same year, Joe was out walking one day when he saw the Jewish girl who lived next door trying to escape from two Muslim boys, one restraining her and the other fondling her. “Leave her alone,” he demanded. One of the boys cursed at him in Arabic, “Go away, you son of a dog.” Joe punched him. The other boy pulled a knife, and both chased him. “I ran at the speed of light,” Joe recalled. At that moment, he saw a Jewish man leaving his house and ran inside, locking the door. The women in the house screamed. “They’re trying to kill me,” Joe said, as he ran upstairs and escaped over the rooftops.
In December 1949, Joe and his younger brother, Nory, smuggled themselves to Iran and from there to Israel. Once Iraq gave permission for the Jews to leave, the rest of his family joined them. Joe then moved to Montreal in 1956 and, with his wife, Rebecca (Ruby) Isaac Samuels, came to Los Angeles in 1978.
Joe didn’t discuss the Farhud, even with his children, until 2008. But now he speaks about the Farhud at every opportunity. “People should know about it.”
The Farhud is perhaps the most devastating event to have occurred during the Jews’ 2,600-year history in Iraq — and certainly during the lifetimes of those who witnessed it — and yet it remains largely unknown. So does its Nazi-instigated origins, as well as the plight of the more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews who fled to Israel, both illegally and legally, between 1948 and early 1952, arriving penniless as refugees. According to Natalie Farahan, Los Angeles program director of San Francisco-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), “The Farhud is an integral piece of Jewish history, and if we fail to teach it, then we fail to tell the complete story of the Jewish people.”