Dorota Molin
Dorota Molin

Baghdad, 1941: The Farhud (pogrom) through the eyes of an 11-year-old

Sarah Adaqi at her home in Jerusalem, aged 89.

Part 1: The turn of the tide

It’s the end of May 1941, Baghdad. The air in the city quivers, not only with the usual summer’s heat, but also with anxious anticipation. In April that year, an anti-British Iraqi nationalist movement supported by Nazi Germany carried out a coup against the Britain-supported Iraqi government. But the celebrations of independence from the British were premature. For the Allied Forces, the loss of Iraq threatened to cut them of oil supplies and strategic routes. Worse still, other Middle Eastern countries would likely follow suit and change their allegiance, bringing devastating losses to the Allies in the Middle East. So by mid-April, British troops had arrived in Iraq and, joined by the Iraqi forces loyal to them, had begun their occupation of parts of the county.

By now–the end of May–Baghdad lies abandoned by its short-lived pro-Nazi regime and awaits the arrival of joint British-Iraqi forces. For a few days, the city holds its breath as an eerie stillness falls, disturbed only by the wind from the mighty Tigris. But now, this wind brings no relief, only dust which irritates the eyes and reminds of the desert outside the city–the desert where the joint troops are stationed, waiting.

Baghdad in the 1930s, after Iraq obtained (partial) independence of the British. Credit: @IraqiPic (Twitter)

The Jews, on the other hand, let out a cautious sigh of relief. They’d been on the alert for several years now as the city was becoming intoxicated with antisemitic Nazi propaganda, and the Jews were being accused of collaboration with the British colonialists. Now, finally, they are going to be safe. The Feast of Shavuot is approaching and celebrations might go ahead after all; there’s all the more reason to celebrate now that the pro-Nazi regime has toppled. Preparations are underway and as dusk falls on 1st of June, the holiday begins.

On that day, Sarah is an 11-year-old Jewish girl, still dazzled by the lights and extravagance of Baghdad. This place is very different from her town up in the mountainous Kurdish North where she left her family in order to stay with her uncle in Baghdad. She is an Iraqi, just like the Baghdadis, but the two might as well be from different planets. The Jews here dress in clothes which she finds strange at first, they call it ‘the European fashion’. And they speak a different language too—Arabic. She understands it, but prefers Aramaic, her family’s language. But when they’re out in the street with her uncle, he tells her to speak Arabic, he says that the other Jews would not like Aramaic, and this makes her feel confused. Still, the sound of the muezzin and the murmur of the synagogue prayers are comfortingly familiar, and also here, she has her Muslim neighbours to play with, just like she did up in the Kurdish town.

But then, strange things start happening. There are shouts and chants in the streets, but the voices sound angry, not like the festive Shavuot singing she was expecting. Then, they tell her to come inside the house an close the shutters.

* * *

It’s 1941, the year when the tide in the Tigris turns, irreversibly. The year when at Shavuot, the Jews of Iraq bring in the bodies of the dead instead of new crops. For over 2,000 years, the Jews of historical Mesopotamia had lived alongside Arabs, Kurds, Yezidis and Christians. As empires and regimes dawned and collapsed, the Jews stayed on. But now, they wouldn’t. After the Farhud, trust would be irreparably broken and there would be whispering about a new Jewish home to be established in Palestine. Jewish emissaries would arrive to help protect the Jewish community and to win them over to the Zionist cause of building a new homeland. When Israel would be established in 1948, the persecution of the Iraqi Jews would increase on account of their alleged responsibility for the displacement of Palestinian Arabs. By mid-1950s, almost all of the Jews will have left Iraq–for Israel, in the majority of cases.

But this all is yet to come. For now, Sarah is still simply an Iraqi of Jewish ethnicity, and the country which will soon become her new homeland does not exist. For now, Sarah is a curious child, curious about the tumult outside her house in Baghdad. It’s the spring of 1941–the beginning of the end.

Part 2: Sarah

This is Sarah’s story:

Sarah aged 89, at her house in Jerusalem.

“My paternal uncle lived in Baghdad. He didn’t have children, so he asked my father to ‘adopt’ one of his. I was the eldest one and my father loved me very much, he said ‘pick any one except for Sarah.’ But my uncle still asked for me. My father couldn’t refuse him, that would harm his honour in our community. So aged 11, I left my family and went down to Baghdad to stay with my uncle.

I was living with him and his wife but in the end, I got bored. I told them I wanted to work. They took me to a house where I took care of a child, a baby. Afterwards I was brought to care for an elderly Jewish woman. Three or four months later, the Farhud broke out, they started killing people. Earlier, they had already began beating Jews in the streets and robbing them. Eventually, the Farhud broke out, on the Eve of the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost). They went out and started killing people. They would break into houses at night to rob and kill.

They discussed this at the house of my mistress. ‘A certain man has been killed, what shall we do?’ But they couldn’t do anything, so they just hid in the house. In Baghdad, there were also Muslims who loved the Jews. Such Muslims would help their Jewish neighbours by writing on their neighbours’ doors ‘this house is Muslim‘. If a house had this sign, the rioters wouldn’t touch it. But if a house didn’t have such a sign, they would break in and kill those who were inside. They would bang on the door with rifles, the door opened, they entered and killed whoever was inside. This went on from the night until the next day, two in the afternoon. So to protect us from this, our Muslim neighbours put a sign on my mistress’ house. I watched them painted this sign on our door but I didn’t understand what was going on, I was just a little child.

The next day in the afternoon, my mistress told me ‘go, get us some bread.’

In Arabic, they call it sammun. Here in Israel, they call them lakhmanyot. ‘Bring us three bread rolls so that we can eat.’ I didn’t understand what was going on so I went to the bakery, bought some rolls and started walking back. Then I saw two men on the street, one was saying to the other ‘See this girl? Kill her, she’s a Jewess.’

‘No way, today Jews don’t go out to roam about in the streets.’

‘I tell you, she is a Jew. Kill her.’

‘No, she can’t be, Jews dress fashionably, they are modern. This one is a poor child, not a wealthy Jew!’

But the other says ‘kill her!’

‘I will not kill her.’

In the meantime, I tried to stay calm. By the grace of God, I didn’t run away, walking slowly, as if unintimidated by them. In the end, they went their way and I made it back to my mistress’ house, shaking from head to foot. I told her about this incident and she exclaimed ‘oh, you are yellow! Drink some sweet water!’ She gave me water with sugar and I drank.

The next day, they started killing again. First, they roamed the streets and killed any Jews they could find. But at noon, they even started breaking into houses using rifles and killing people indoors. I went up to the roof to watch what was happening in the streets. I was little, I didn’t understand it. There in Iraq, the houses had flat roofs you could sit on, so I sat there. I saw some people carrying bundles with clothes—possessions they had stolen from Jewish homes. They would come with cars, loot Jewish homes and fill their vehicles with the stolen possessions, taking even the furniture.

Then one man approached one of those who were carrying the bundles saying ‘give these things to me or I’ll kill you.‘ The other replied ‘I won’t give them to you. These houses are full, go get some for yourself.‘ Then someone called from inside our house. ‘Come down from the roof!’ But I said ‘No, I want to see.’ So I stayed, watching the men outside argue. ‘Why would you kill me?’ one of them said. ‘Go, get some possessions for yourself.’ But—what shall we do—the other man did kill him, in front of my very eyes. He killed him and took the stolen possessions from him.

The Farhud pogrom of Baghdad, 1941. Credit: Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of The Otniel Margalit Collection, Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive

I ran down and started talking. ‘I am scared, this is what I saw.’

‘Oh!’—they said—‘what were you doing on the roof? Why did you go up the roof?’

I said ‘How should I know?’ I left do so some chores.

Later, someone brought my mistress’ brother, stabbed in his belly, he’d been assaulted in the street. He said ‘they would have killed me!’ But there were Muslims who found him wounded, took pity on him and brought him to his sister’s. My mistress had a Muslim neighbour who was a doctor, she wanted him to treat her wounded brother. But the day before, they had written on the door that this house is Muslim. So why should a doctor visit the patient’s house to perform a surgery, rather than the patient going to the hospital? So the doctor came up with a plan: ‘I will climb up on my roof and cross over to yours from up there, rather than going through the street. But you have to promise that you will not say a word about this and no one will not see me inside your house.’ So he went up on his roof and climbed over to our house from there. He started the surgery, but he ran out of anesthetic. The patient started screaming, the doctor said ‘Hush, if you start screaming, I’ll have to leave you.’

‘But what should I do? It hurts.’

‘Well then, as you wish, I will leave you,’ he says. ‘If anyone finds out I’m in a Jewish home, they’ll kill me.’

So he went on with the surgery, the man kept quiet. When the doctor finished, the patient started speaking. ‘They had beaten me in the street. I told them “don’t beat me, I am a minister, a government minister.” But they told me “we are searching for the ministers of the Jewish government and shall kill them all.”’ So they stabbed him in the stomach and left him, but some people found him and brought him to our house.

When it was noon, they said that a decree was received to stop the Farhud. They were to stop the killings. And indeed, that’s what happened. They had killed a hundred and twenty people. And four or five hundred more had been wounded.[1] And that was it. Later, they organized an underground Jewish youth resistance movement in Baghdad to protect the community. They call it maḥteret. A few years later, we all came here, to Israel.

We had trouble with the Arabs in Iraq, but there were also good people among them. Before the troubles and the Farhud, we had all lived as neighbours in Baghdad, Dohok or Zakho,[2] Jews, Kurds, Arabs and Christians, we lived together. We loved each other. The Muslims, they were like brothers to us. We celebrated weddings and holidays together. But then the war broke out here in Palestine, the Jews in Iraq started being scapegoated. Still, even now, we have to hope for peace, stay together. Now we’re here in Israel and have nowhere else to go. Whatever might happen, we don’t have a choice.”

[1] The number of the victims has been estimated between 128 and 180, see https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-farhud and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13610702. Around 600 are estimated to have been injured and over 1,500 homes and businesses damaged.

[2] Dohok and Zakho are towns in the Kurdish North of Iraq, where the narrator is from.

Further resources

https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-farhud

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13610702

https://www.timesofisrael.com/85-year-old-israeli-testifies-to-nazi-inspired-pogrom-that-massacred-iraqi-jewry/

see also the Babylonian Heritage Museum website: https://www.bjhcenglish.com/databases-and-collections

About the Author
Dorota, originally Czech, is a Semitic linguist, working at the University of Cambridge, where she also obtained her PhD. She researches Neo-Aramaic - the language of Jewish and Christian minorities from Kurdish Iraq. She also teaches and works on Biblical and Modern Hebrew. She's lived and studied in Israel, working in a charity advancing Bedouin women and at the Polish Embassy.
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