By: Yali (Menashe) Werzberger
As a young girl, I remember many Sundays spent on “mailings. ” My parents Rabbi Ya’aqob and Rabbanith Ruth Menashe a”h, founded Midrash Ben Ish Hai, a multifaceted organization, committed to maintaining the authentic Jewish Baylonian traditions, derived from the teachings of the Ben Ish Hai. My parents organized many shiurim, lectures and other events, and, at a time before emails were prevalent, would send postcards and letters to their members, informing them of upcoming events and lectures.
My siblings and I made an activity out of stuffing envelopes and affixing labels on each envelope, often racing to see who would complete the most mailings in an allotted time frame. As a result, labels were often affixed in a haphazard, crooked fashion, and I remember my father telling us that a number of people once informed him that they received an envelope with nothing in it. In our haste to win the “mailings game” we forgot to stuff envelopes with the material meant to go inside!
One particular year, we were sending out postcards for a lecture commemorating the Farhud, with my grandmother, Mrs. Rachel Manasseh a”h, joining as one of the speakers. The title of the postcard intrigued me as I had no idea what the Farhud was. When I learned about the Farhud, aptly described as the “forgotten pogrom” by Edwin Black, which took place during the holiday of Shavuot in Baghdad in 1941, irrevocably changing life for Baghdadi Jewry, I understood why organizing an event commemorating the atrocities that took place was so important to my parents.
Indeed, this Shavuot marks the 80th anniversary of the Farhud. The Farhud happened as a result of many factors, led to tremendous devastation, and had far reaching consequences for Baghdadian Jewry.
Jews have lived in Baghdad (present day Iraq) since 586 BCE, when Jews were first exiled to Babylon. Many of the Jewish families living in Baghdad during the 1900s were able to trace their lineage back to this time. Babylonian Jews were proud of their roots, and very few were Zionists prior to the Farhud of 1941. Indeed, in 1936, the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, Rabbi Khedouri said that Jews of Iraq are Iraqi Jews, not Zionists. At the same time, a number of world events of the 1930s directly converged to lead to the horrific events of 1941.
The first was the rise of Nazism. Nazi ideology was directly linked to the Farhud, primarily through the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini. As the Jewish presence increased in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, the Mufti called for violence and jihad against the Jews. In addition to preaching for Arab nationalism, he was also an ardent supporter of the Nazi regime, working together with Nazis including Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann. Treatment of Jews in Baghdad also worsened between 1935 and 1941 due to the influence of the Mufti of Jerusalem, and calls of jihad were present in 1938. Jews, however, felt that the situation was manageable for as long as King Faisal, and then his son, King Ghazi were in power.
In 1939, however, King Ghazi died, succeeded by his three year old son, with Prince al-Ilah acting as regent. Arab nationalists were angered by Prince al-Ilah’s pro-British stance, and Rashid Ali, supported by four colonels and the Mufti of Jerusalem, along with funding from the German Nazi Party, seized control of the government, and Prince al-Ilah fled Iraq.
In 1941, Shavuot fell out on June 1 and 2 (Sunday and Monday). Shabbat came the day before (May 31), so that the Jews were anticipating celebrating a three day “holiday”. On May 28, 1941 Yunus al-Sabawi, the governor of Baghdad and head of the Nazi groups in Baghdad (indeed, al-Sabawi translated Mein Kampf into Arabic), summoned Hakham Sassoon Khedouri, leader of the Jews in Baghdad, informing him that Jews were to stay home on May 31, June 1 and 2 (Shabbat and Shavuot). Hakham Khedouri was also told to inform the Jews to pack one suitcase, and to be prepared to attend detention centers. Radio broadcasts were planned for May 29, informing Iraqi Nazis to murder Jews in their homes, and a red hamsa was placed on the homes of Jews so that gangs could easily identify Jewish homes, killing the inhabitants.
In a fascinating turn of events, al-Sabawi was deported to Iran the following day, and on May 31st, the radio announced that the rebels had fled and the regent al-Ilah would be returning to Baghdad, asking all residents to go out to greet him. The Jews, thinking that the worst was over, went out to greet the regent dressed in their finest Shavuot clothes. Arab nationalists, meanwhile, fed Anti-British and Anti-Jewish propaganda, did not welcome the regent’s return. They were incensed at the sight of the Jews, viewing them as spies due to the propaganda spread by the Mufti. Jews who went to greet the regent were attacked as they crossed the Al Khurr bridge, while, in other areas, mobs stopped buses, removed the Jews, and killed them. The violence escalated, and soldiers who supported Rashid Ali and policemen all joined in the looting and murders.
Mobs broke into homes, killing infants and raping women in front of their family, and murdering young and old Jews alike. Possessions from Jewish homes and stores were taken by the mobs, and a synagogue was burned, island its Sifrei Torah destroyed. At around two am, the violence subsided, and quiet returned to the city. By the next morning, however, the riots resumed, killing Jews and looting their possessions in both their homes and shops. Policemen did not come to the aid of the Jews (rather, many removed their badges to join the mob), and neither did the British, who accompanied the regent back to Baghdad. It was only close to noon on the second day of Shavuot, June 2, 1941, that the regent authorized orders, establishing a 5p.m. curfew, and ordered the regiment loyal to him to enter Baghdad.
The number of deaths vary with some reports indicating that 180 were killed, and others reporting that 1,000 were killed. It seems that around 400 were killed with many more wounded At least 586 Jewish businesses were plundered, with 99 homes burned. As Rabbis were forced to sign statements underreporting the damage and deaths, we can assume that these figures are under representations of the atrocities committed.
There were Jewish neighborhoods that fought against attackers, and were Muslims who saved their Jewish neighbors by taking them into their own homes. SOme even apologized for not being able to serve kosher meat. In the Baghdad Central Hospital, where Jewish nurses reported threats of rape by the wounded Iraqi soldiers, Dr. Saib Showkat announced on his megaphone that all soldiers must return to their beds, otherwise he would shoot them. Order was then restored.
Interestingly, there was a period of relative calm following the Farhud, lasting until the end of World War Two. While some Baghdadian Jews took this as a sign that there was a future for them in Baghdad (indeed two new Jewish schools opened in Baghdad following the Farhud), others felt differently. My grandmother spoke about her uncle, Ozriel Iny, who was a member of the Chamber of Commerce in Baghdad. He had two sons in the United States during the Farhud, and following the Farhud, asked them to return to Baghdad. They replied that they would not return, and asked their father to come join them. Indeed, this pattern became typical of many Jewish families in Baghdad, with the older generation hoping to continue to build a life in Baghdad, and the younger generation deciding that things had to change.
Within the younger generation, some Jews joined the Communist party, thinking that its values of brotherhood and equality would protect them from future prejudice and aggression. Others joined the underground Zionist movement, learning how to defend themselves and making plans to leave Iraq for Palestine.When Israel became a state in 1948, things changed dramatically for the Jews of Iraq. While Iraq assured the Jews that they would not be harmed, under martial law, anyone accused of being a Zionist was to be arressted and tortured.
Many Jews were thus tortured, including those who were not part of the Zionist movement. Jews tried to leave Iraq, with many applying for visas to India (where there was a sizable population of Baghdadi Jews). Things came to a head when Shafiq Ades, one of the most prominent members of the Baghdadi Jewish community was framed as a Zionist and hung. Bombs were also thrown at Jewish institutions. In 1950, Iraq passed the Denaturalization Act, where Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel, but were forced to renounce their Iraqi citizenship, leave all their assets behind, and move to Israel with only the possessions they could fit in their suitcase.
My grandmother, Rachel Manasseh a”h, had never been to Baghdad. She was born in Bombay, India to parents who were born in Baghdad, and was an integral member of the Baghdadian Jewish community in Bombay. She does recall her mother, Georgette Iny a”h, working hard to find housing and medical care for refugees who arrived at Bombay from Baghdad following the Farhud. My grandmother also shared that her uncle, Jacob Ani a”h was killed in the Farhud. I recently listened to the talk my grandmother gave on the Farhud, and she ended by marveling at the Divine Hand that enabled the Jews of Baghdad, a community of thousands upon thousands of people, leave the way of life they had for over 2,500 years, carrying nothing more than a suitcase, and thanking Hashem that we are able to sit in peace remembering those who perished. May their memories be a blessing.
Black, Edwin. Banking on Baghdad. Wiley, 2004.
Black, Edwin, The Farhud. Dialog Press, 2010.
Habousha, Hayim, V. The Farhud. Retrieved from www.midrash.org/articles/farhud/
Manasseh, Rachel, Baghdadian Jews of Bombay Their Life and Achievements: A Personal and
Historical Account. Midrash Ben Ish Hai, 2013.
Melamed, Ora, editor. Annals of Iraqi Jewry. Eliner Library, 1995.