ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Found in a flooded cellar of Saddam Hussein’s secret service and soon on view at the National Archives in Washington: A treasure trove of papers and books that open a window to Iraq’s Jewish life before it faded under emigration and the Iraqi dictator’s crackdowns.
What makes the collection special is that, though Iraq’s centuries-old Jews have all but disappeared, some of their heritage has not.
Items in the find include historical and cultural treasures, found among 2,700 books in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and English, some dating back to the 14th century. There are also the original documents of a Torah, and a part of the centuries-old box where it was housed.
Next to the prayer books and religious texts, even more interesting to the National Archives’ Doris Hamburg are mundane items like sales bills and school reports of Iraqi Jews. “Most of these documents show us the daily life in Iraq between the forties and the seventies,” says Hamburg, Director of Preservation Programs at the National Archives in the US capital.
The story of how the documents were found, and how they ended up in Washington, is itself a tale.
A month after the March 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, American soldiers arrived at the flooded cellar of a building that belonged to the Mukhabarat, the dictator’s dreaded secret service. There, the soldiers found floating boxes, which on inspection were found to contain Jewish documents. The army contacted the National Archives and told them what they had.
When Hamburg arrived in Baghdad soon after, the wet documents had already started moulding in the heat of May.
“We did not know if someone had opened a tap,” Hamburg recalls 10 years later, on the phone in Washington. The documents needed immediate attention but salvaging them in Baghdad was not possible. So they were flown to the United States.
Most Jews left Iraq after Israel was founded in 1948 and only thousands remained after the big exodus that continued until 1952. Most who stayed left after anti-Jewish campaigns under Saddam in 1969 and the year after. Nowadays, only a handful of elderly Jews remain in Baghdad. What remains of the community can no longer be recognised as Jewish, following conversions to Islam or Christianity.
Yet, for decades the Jews of Baghdad formed the economic and intellectual heart of the city, thanks to their roles as bankers, money changers, traders, doctors, thinkers and artists. Jews had their own schools and organizations. The documents found seem to stem mainly from organizations that were closed one-by-one in the 1960s and early the following decade.
Because of their importance for researchers, the documents will all be freely available online, Hamburg says proudly. A special exhibition was planned, but it is unclear when that will open due to the shutdown of the American federal government.
After that, the originals will return to Iraq, Hamburg says. “From the start, we have worked closely with the Iraqi authorities, and that’s what we agreed on.”
Director Saad Eskander of the National Library in Baghdad will be glad to receive the archives. From the start, he was against their trip to the United States, although he admits that Iraq could not look after them in 2003. “Iraq was in a chaos. Nobody was interested in our cultural heritage.”
Yet, the documents should have stayed, he says: “Instead of taking them away, the Americans should have taught the Iraqi’s how to repair and maintain them.”
When he was invited to the US to see what was happening to the documents, he admitted the National Archives had done a great job. But when the Americans asked to send more documents to restore, he refused. Instead, he set up the National Library’s own laboratory with help from abroad.
“My staff can now do it by itself,” he says proudly. “And our documents can also be found on our website.”
Eskander will use the return of the documents next year to put on a special exhibition. It will be “the first Jewish one in Iraq in many years. We want to show how multi-religious Iraq was, and what crimes have been committed by the former dictatorial regimes,” he says.
To the returning collection, the National Library will add its own Jewish documents, many of them received under Saddam’s rule. When Saddam confiscated the books and documents of the Jews who left the country, the most valuable pieces were kept. “They went to us, and to the Iraqi Museum. Only a third went to the Mukhabarat,” Eskandar explains.
But the library and museum were not allowed to study or handle them in any way. “We could read nor classify them. They have been kept in dark cellars for many years,” Eskandar says.
In the Iraqi Museum, that is where they still are, he adds. “In 2004, I had them taken out to be repaired and maintained.”
For that reason he is not as impressed as the Americans about the cultural value of the returning documents.
“That has been exaggerated greatly.” The fact that the Mukhabarat put them in the cellar, tells us the service did not value them highly, he says.
That does not make them worthless, he hastens to add. “The political value is huge. Because they show you how Saddam Hussein tried to destroy the cultural heritage of the Jews of Iraq.”