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At one time there were 150,000 Jews living in Iraq. Iraq had one of the oldest Jewish populations in the world, dating back some 2,600 years. For centuries, Jews lived peacefully in Iraq until the 1930s, when Nazi ideology began to take hold. That’s when Jews began to experience discrimination and were often barred from employment and attending universities.
By 1948, when Israel became a Jewish nation, being identified as a Zionist became punishable by death in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Jews emigrated from the country until they were barred from leaving in 1952. By the 1960s, Jews were prohibited from owning property. Their assets were frozen and they had to carry yellow ID cards.
In the early 1970s, under international pressure, the last of the Jews of Iraq were allowed to leave. They could not bring any of their belongings with them. For years, it seemed the record and history of Iraqi Jews had vanished, but in 2003 when an unexploded bomb from U.S. forces caused a flood in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Bagdad, some 2,700 items confiscated from Iraqi Jewish homes were found.
The items — thousands of documents, pictures, books and ancient Jewish paraphernalia — were lent to the U.S. by the Iraqi government. After sitting in Texas for almost 10 years due to a lack of funding for restoration, 24 of the items are now on the display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in a new exhibit.
The items are slated to be returned to the Iraqi government, but many Iraqis Jews living in the diaspora are fighting to keep the items out of Iraq, and perhaps returned to the families who have lost them.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Cynthia Kaplan Shamash and Edwin Shuker, who were childhood friends in Baghdad. They escaped from Iraq in the early 1970s and are now members of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This week bombings in and around Bagdad killed over 20 people, the latest in a long series of attacks this year. When several car bombs hit the capital in September, an Iraqi man expressed his anger to a Euro news reporter.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) What is the guilt of those people? What is our guilt, we the poor, innocent people who are caught in the middle? You are fighting for positions, but what did we do to deserve car bombs?
HOBSON: Iraq has seen more than its share of conflict over the years, but we're going to hear now about the struggles of a small part of the Iraqi population that don't make the front page: Iraq's Jews. An exhibit on now at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. features books, manuscripts and photographs taken from generations of Iraqi Jews that were found in Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters in 2003.
Cynthia Kaplan Shamash and Edwin Shuker were childhood friends in Bagdad. They escaped from Iraq in the early '70s and they're both members of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq. They're with us now. Welcome.
EDWIN SHUKER: Thank you for having us.
CYNTHIA KAPLAN SHAMASH: Thank you.
HOBSON: Edwin, let me start with you. You're living in London now. You left Iraq when you were 16. Tell us about your experience leaving Iraq.
SHUKER: Well, without the background you would think that my father was totally nuts to actually take a decision to take us out of Iraq, to escape, to use false papers at the time of the Saddam Hussein and his henchmen were in power. We had to make a gamble, a life and death gamble, and I'm so proud of my father that he had the courage to do so.
We left our home as if we were going out to the market, nothing taken, because most of the Jewish homes by then were watched 24/7, so we just took the car and moved on and took the first step to freedom. And it took time, it took guts and it took nerves, but we made it.
HOBSON: What about you, Cynthia? You were eight years old when you left.
SHAMASH: Correct. My parents took the same gamble as well because the choice was either staying, and that looked very gloomy, or taking a gamble and leaving, so we opted to take the gamble. We took the train from Bagdad to the North, to Kirkuk, to make it over the mountains in Iran, and we were caught and we were imprisoned. I was eight; I was interrogated separately, being the youngest in the family.
As a matter of fact, I have the doll here that was ripped apart. They took the intestines out that says Mama and that would be proof of espionage device. And then we were transported to Bagdad and separated with my sisters; my mother and me separated from my father and brother. We didn't know each other's fate and that went on for like five weeks.
Eventually we applied for passports. We got the passports after like two months and we left as if we're leaving on a vacation, because you, of course, cannot say that you're leaving for good, even though they knew how to read between the lines. And so we left to Turkey and eventually we ended in different countries abroad.
HOBSON: And you still have that doll?
SHAMASH: Yes, I have it with me right here.
HOBSON: What does it mean to you?
SHAMASH: It means something, now it's darkness, and it brings darkness and despair when I look at it. And I show it to my children. Like, when I came on the train to the studio, I held onto it for dear life. For me, this is more than gold. It is a part of my heritage. It is an evidence that I have where I came from and what oppression we had to go through to be where we are and not take for granted our safety.
HOBSON: Edwin, do you have something like that?
SHUKER: I do. I have something like that in the (unintelligible) exhibition.
HOBSON: Your school certificate?
SHUKER: My school certificate. This is my doll and my doll is behind class and I can't touch it, and I'm waiting for the day, just like Cynthia did, to actually hold my doll.
HOBSON: Well, tell us the story of that certificate and how it was found, first of all.
SHUKER: Well, back in 2003, the American Army was informed that there was a cache of Jewish artifacts and documents, and what they saw was a huge collection of books and artifacts and documents, but unfortunately, because of the bombing, the water system had collapsed and the whole cache was under a meter and a half of water. So that was really the vast collection of our identity sitting underwater. Eventually the water was drained and they were transported to Texas, to America, and for the past 10 years they've been lovingly restored, preserved, digitalized, and a small collection of it is exhibited in Washington at the moment.
HOBSON: Do you think that it should stay in Washington, or do you think it should go back to Iraq or what?
SHUKER: Well, quite honestly, I have to tell you that when I looked at that certificate for the first time, my heart stopped. I just felt I have left this, but more than a certificate, this was the community's identity. That collection is much more than its intrinsic value. I just looked at that certificate and I saw that little boy staring at me, that picture of Edwin Shuker when he was 12, and I just felt connected back to him after 43 years, a little boy that was abandoned back home with his certificates, with his identity, with his toys, with his stamp collection. We just left him behind in Baghdad. And last month I got reconnected with him, and just as Cynthia described her doll, that was my identity, and boy, do I want it to be with me, do I want it to stay for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And no, I don't want it to go back.
HOBSON: We're speaking with Edwin Shuker and Cynthia Kaplan Shamash. They were childhood friends in Baghdad who escaped from Iraq in the early Seventies. They're both members of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, and we've got photos of their artifacts at HEREANDNOW.org. This is HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. We're speaking today with Cynthia Kaplan Shamash and Edwin Shuker. They were childhood friends in Baghdad, but in the early Seventies both families fled Iraq, pushed out by anti-Semitism. An exhibit now underway at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. tells a part of their history in Iraq. And Cynthia, let me get back to you. Tell us about what it was like in Iraq as a Jew before you left.
SHAMASH: Well, there were a lot of limitations that made it that we cannot live as the other people lived in Iraq. For example, after 1967, the Six-Day War, Jews were not allowed to have phones in their home. Jews were not allowed to travel within a certain mileage. They were allowed to travel within a certain mileage of their homes. There were yellow identity cards that they had to carry that was Nazi inspired. There were hangings in 1969 of Jews where the whole community was dancing and celebrating. We very much hated the fact that we were Jews and Jewish men were not able to keep their job. So basically they turned the oxygen knobs to make it that our lives was oppression so we had no choice but to leave. It is not that we left freely and we left behind what we opted to leave behind; we just ran for our lives, literally.
HOBSON: Edwin, tell us about your experience.
SHUKER: Well, I was a bit older than Cynthia, and from 1963 when we received the famous yellow ID cards, we were really just hostages. I mean, we were begging to leave as refugees. We were begging to leave with nothing. We were begging just to get out with our lives, though that was denied. Passports were not given. We were just kept just literally hostages in a huge prison. I remember - I mean, as the 1967 War approached, I remember the excitement in the street. I remember being chased with a lynch mob and only protected by a wonderful, kind Arab man who just hugged me and pushed the mob away. The way we woke up on one day in January '69 to hear that there was a national holiday and there was no schools and that we should rejoice, did not know why. We were dancing in the room waiting for the news, and the news came out that several members of the community, innocent people, nine Jews and five non-Jews were caught, supposedly tried, convicted, judged, executed, and their bodies were hanging in the main public square. That day was one of the lowest days of the life of the Iraqi Jewish community, a community that has been living in Babil in Iraq for the last 2,600 years, has been loyal to the homeland and has not done anything to deserve the ending it ended.
HOBSON: You are both not in Iraq any longer. You, Edwin, are in London, and Cynthia, you're in New York. Are you able to find people who you can talk about this with who have also experienced the same things who also came out of Iraq as a Jew? Cynthia, you first.
SHAMASH: Well, when we left, the numbers speak for themselves. After 1948, with the main exodus, the time we left in the Seventies, there were a few hundred left, and from these few hundreds were disbursed in different countries. So basically there wasn't any support or who to turn to about these experiences, and that's why we are all so excited when we re-met with the archives and it brought so much emotions up, and it's got our community so together.
HOBSON: What about you, Edwin? Have you found friends who you can talk to about this?
SHUKER: We have a very close community. We are concentrated in New York, in London, L.A., Montreal and Israel. We celebrate together. We have weddings and bar mitzvahs, and so we do meet a lot. What is really heartbreaking is that we are the last generation. After that long, long sojourn in Iraq, we are losing our language, our culture, our food, our traditions. I already look at my children and Cynthia's children. They no longer are Babylonian Jews. We try. We'll try and push it for a few more years, but unfortunately we are the end of the line, and it hurts.
HOBSON: For people who are able to make it to the National Archives to see this exhibition that's on right now, what would you like them to take away from it, Edwin?
SHUKER: Edwin Shuker: The same as I took from it. This is our identity. We should treasure it. We should cherish it. We are reaching an age now where the homeland is a distant memory and that came right on time, and that's why the community is so galvanized, because we're all looking at each other and saying I am not going to give up on my identity. I am not giving up so easily on my legacy and culture and my ancestors' contributions to humanity. You know, it's 2,600 years. The Talmud was written in Babil. It is the longest diaspora Jewish or non-Jewish in the world, the longest time a community lived outside its homeland and kept its identity for 2,600 years. And we belong to it and we should be proud of it, and that's not something we're going to give up easily, and we're not going to give up these archives easily either.
HOBSON: What is the status right now of whether those archives are going to stay in the U.S. or go back to Iraq?
SHUKER: Well, according to the State Department, it seems that they are committed to return them, and it looks like at the moment June 2014 is a possible target. There was a statement from the Iraqi government which says the Iraqi government will not accept to give up any part of these documents. This is Iraqi legacy owned by all of the Iraqi people and belongs to all the generations. So at the moment, unless we have public opinion on our side, unless we have hopefully the Iraqi government realizing the hurt that it is causing to its former citizens, we are destined to see it going back. And in the words of Cynthia, it is not acceptable and it's unbearable.
SHAMASH: If we see these archives as an end in and of itself and the contemplation to return them, it is as if we didn't learn a lesson from our whole history, from our expulsion and oppression.
HOBSON: Cynthia Kaplan Shamash and Edwin Shuker were childhood friends in Baghdad. They escaped from Iraq in the early 1970s. They're both members of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq. Thanks so much to both of you for joining us.
SHUKER: Thank you.
SHAMASH: Thank you for having us.
HOBSON: And you can see photos at our website, HEREANDNOW.org of the school certificates of both Edwin and Cynthia. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.