Shavu‘ot in Baghdad: 75th anniversary of the Farhud

The festival of Shavu‘ot commemorates the time when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It also marks the beginning of a new agricultural season, Hag Hakatsir (The Harvest Holiday). It comes seven weeks after Passover. This year it falls on Sunday June 12 and Monday June13.

Shavuot in Baghdad marks the beginning of the brutal summer heat and dry weather. The temperature during the day reaches 110 degrees and attimes, 120 degrees. Air conditioning and refrigerators were unheard of at the time when I grew up in the 1930’s. At night, it cooled off a bit. Everyone slept on the roof of their house. Poor people slept outdoors.

After a joyful celebration of Passover with family and friends, we children waited anxiously for a new and different celebration of Shavu’ot. On the eve of Shavu’ot my uncles and distant relatives came to our house. They prayed and chanted through the night, reading the book of Ruth and studying Torah. They lit candles for the departed. My cousins and I had a ball collecting the wax and making different figurines. Grownups and children enjoy delicious sweets all night long.

On the day of Shavu’ot many families went on a Ziara (Pilgrimage) visiting the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel, located some fifty miles from Baghdad, by the Euphrates River. It was a great picnic for us children. We loved my mother’s chicken rice with almonds and raisins, served with mango and cucumber pickles.

On April 13, 1941, a pro Nazi coup deposed the government. King Faisal, the Regent Abdul Illah and the Prime Minister Taha Al Hashimi fled Baghdad. Rashid Ali Algailani, the German attaché Dr. Fritz Groba and the grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin Al Husaini assumed leadership.

Radio Baghdad, the government mouthpiece, and the daily newspapers began a steady stream of anti-Jewish propaganda. The public hatred and frenzy made the summer heat even more unbearable for the Jews. Every Iraqi Jew was shaken up to the core. Many stayed home fearing for their lives.

My father, and my older brothers couldn’t hide their fear and sadness. They tried to put on a happy face, thinking to protect me, then 11 years old, and my 8 year-old brothe, Nory. We were restricted from leaving the house. That made things worse for us. I began to have nightmares and sleepless nights. I cried in fear.

The Iraqi coup plotters in Baghdad once firmly entrenched in power, decided to exterminate its Jews in a single blow. Jews were ordered to stay in theirhomes. The “proto-Nazi youth movement,” Al Futuwwa, marked the doors of the Jewish homes with a red Hamsa (shape of a palm), to facilitate the rioters inidentifying Jewish homes.

On May 31 st , the British forces, with fresh troops from Nepal and India, arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad. The extermination plot fell apart. The coupleaders fled, creating a power vacuum. That was the scenario on June 1st 1941 as Jews were preparing to celebrate the festival Shavu’ot.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum, rogue bands of soldiers, aided by police in civilian clothes, common criminals and nondescript mobs rampaged through Baghdad hunting for Jews. They were easily found. Hundreds of Jews were cut down by sword and rifle, some decapitated. Babies were sliced in half andthrown into the Tigris River. Girls were raped in front of their parents. Parents were mercilessly killed in front of their children.

Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted and then burned. The official government count shows 180 killed and 240 wounded; private estimates indicate as many as 400 were killed and 2,100 injured. There were no arrests, convictions or sentencing. Jews were afraid to report or file a complaint against any Muslim for fear of retaliation and threats to their lives.

The carnage continued unabated for almost two days during Shavu’ot. If it weren’t for some Muslim men who stood in front of Jewish homes with knives, daggers, and swords and prevented the rioters from breaking into Jewish homes, the carnage would have been more devastating. Those were the decent and honorable Muslims, the Righteous among the Nations.

We began to fortify our house. We reinforced the front door by stacking heavy furniture against it. My brother Eliyahu electrified the chicken wire fence atop the stone wall of our side garden. I helped carry buckets of boiling water to theroof, ready to toss on marauders if needed. From the second-floor window, I saw looters on the street, carrying away clothes and boxes. We stayed awake all night. Two of my brothers maintained contact with the neighbors via the roof, bringing any news downstairs. By afternoon the next day, June 2, the British soldiers entered Baghdad and quelled the riots.

My family was fortunate; we moved a year earlier from the old city to Bab el Shargy close to the Tigris River. My Uncle Moshi and Uncle Meir’s houses in the old city were totally ransacked. They escaped by jumping from their roof to the adjoining neighbors roofs. They sustained minor injuries, twisted ankle and scratches. They were lucky.

This Holocaust-era pogrom became known as the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.” The Farhud left bitterness and hopelessness in the hearts of the Iraqi Jewish community. Many wanted to leave after the Farhud, but there was no place to go, or a country willing to take us in.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948, most of the Iraqi Jewish community, including my family and I, left to Israel. We became refugees. We stood in line for a free meal, slept on a steel beds anchored in thesand, in the heat of the summer. We left behind our homes, stores, businesses, land, buildings, school, synagogues and other properties.

The memory of a few, decent and honorable Muslims’ deep friendship who were like brothers to us, was overshadowed by the long history of fear, pain, suffering and humiliation. I doubt if there is one Jew from Arab lands or Islamic countries who would ever entertain going back to live therepermanently. We are lucky to be out and luckier to be where we are.

In 1948 there were some 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Baghdad’s population was nearly 25% Jewish. By 1953 some 80% had left to Israel. The rest stayed deluding themselves as loyal Iraqis. Over the years they faced systemic persecution, pauperization, their bank accounts frozen, trumped up charges and forced confessions through torture. In 1969 eight Jews including four students were hanged in Baghdad’s public square accused of spying. At present, this 27 century-old Jewish community has totally vanished. Only 8 Jews remain.

Shavu’ot 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the Farhud. It was commemorated in four cities, London, New York, Washington and Jerusalem. Lighting 27 candles highlighted each century that the Jews inhabited the land. These candles were immediately extinguished symbolizing their complete disappearance.

The Farhud served as forewarning of what would happen to Jews in other Arab lands, culminating with a total migration of some 850,000 Jews. The void of the Jewish presence has had far reaching consequences to the medical, economic, agricultural, educational, cultural, administrative, contributions that are so badly needed in these chaotic times that the Arab world is facing.

About the Author
Joseph Samuels was born in Taht El Takia, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Iraq in 1930 and he now resides in Santa Monica, California. He is a member of the Speaker’s Bureau of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa)