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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Iraq’s Exiled Jews Fight To Keep Memorabilia

Edwin Shuker with his father, mother and grandmother. (Courtesy of  Edwin Shuker)Iraqi ID card for Salima Meir and Ephraim ben Eliyahoo, the maternal grandparents of Cynthia Kaplan Shamash. (Courtesy of the family)Clockwise from left: Cynthia Kaplan Shamash's siblings Linda and David in 1966; Cynthia in a dress; Cynthia's parents when things were great for Iraqi Jews in 1958. (Courtesy of Cynthia Kaplan Shamash)Edwin Shuker at the National Archives. (Courtesy of Edwin Shuker)Edwin Shuker's Iraqi school certificate in the National Archives exhibit. (Courtesy of Edwin Shuker)Cynthia Kaplan Shamash's school certificate from Iraq. (Courtesy of Cynthia Kaplan Shamash)Clockwise from left: Cynthia Kaplan Shamash and her mother; Cynthia with her brother and syster; Cynthia's parents in better times, in 1962. (Courtesy of Cynthia Kaplan Shamash)Edwin Shuker with his sister Rita. (Courtesy of Edwin Shuker)Socializing in the Iraqi Jewish community, 1957 to 1963. (Courtesy of Cynthia Kaplan Shamash)One of the yellow ID cards Iraqi Jews were required to carry. (Courtesy of Edwin Shuker)

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.

One of the yellow ID cards Iraqi Jews were required to carry. (Courtesy of Edwin Shuker)

One of the yellow ID cards Iraqi Jews were required to carry. (Courtesy of Edwin Shuker)

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.


  • Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, member of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq.
  • Edwin Shuker, member of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq.

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