Pesach in Baghdad

Spring was always a welcome guest. The winter was wet and muddy and the nights were bitterly cold. The streets in Baghdad’s old quarter (Taht el Takia) where I was born in December 1930 were narrow, twisted and unpaved. Sanitary conditions were poor or nonexistent. There was no sewer system, and central heating was unknown. Drinking water and electricity were intermittently cut off. When the weather warmed up in March and April and the smell of orange blossoms filled the air, I knew Passover was coming.

Of all the holidays, Passover was the one I waited for impatiently. I usually got a new pair of trousers and a white shirt, a new pair of shoes, socks and underwear. I was happy as a lark and looked like a monkey. The trousers were too long, the shirt was too big, and my feet were swimming in my shoes. To prepare for Passover, my mother baked matzah at home. The helpers had to scrub, clean and wash the drapes, sheets and everything else. All pots and pans had to be dipped in boiling water. On the first night of Passover, the table was set lavishly with fine china, fancy cutlery and individual wine cups on an elegant tablecloth. I dressed up in my new clothes.

To start the seder, Dad blessed the wine and blessed us. We all kissed his hand. We gathered around to read the haggadah, the story of the Israelites’ exile that took place some 3,500 years ago.  We read and sang in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand, and translated into Arabic. We read about the Ten Plagues and the parting of the sea, and always wished to spend next year in Jerusalem. I was the seventh of eight children and had a beautiful voice — at least I thought so. I always sang with zest and patiently waited for the charoset, made of date juice and crushed walnuts, and eaten with romaine lettuce and matzah. After that, we had a festive dinner followed by a variety of sweets. Passover was the most joyous time of the year. 

Passover 1941 was different. I was 11 years old. We had moved to a bigger house near the Tigris River a year earlier. My father and my older brothers were sort of looking sad. On April 3, a pro-Nazi coup overthrew the government. King Faisal II and the regent escaped. Rashid Ali al-Gailani became the prime minister. General anxiety overcame the Jewish community. Some Jews were singled out, picked up, tortured and imprisoned. Passover fell on April 12. Our seder was cheerless and gloomy. I was frightened and scared. 

On May 31, British troops arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad. Al-Gailani and his accomplice, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and their clique fled the country. On June 1, crowds aided by police soldiers and slum dwellers stopped the minibuses, singled out the Jewish passengers, robbed them, killed the men, raped the women then slit their throats, and threw the babies in the Tigris River. We locked and bolted our doors and prayed. We were safe.

On June 2, British troops, aided by two brigades loyal to the king, entered Baghdad and stopped the rampage. The official government count showed that 180 Jews were murdered and 240 wounded. Hundreds of homes were looted and businesses burnt. There wasn’t any act of resistance or fighting back. The disaster would have been greater if it were not for the acts of kindness and heroism by some Muslims who protected and sheltered their Jewish friends. 

Life went back to normal, or so it seemed, but future Passovers never were the same. The farhud (looting and killing) of 1941 proved there was no guarantee for the future and safety of the Jews. I, too, felt there was no future for me in Iraq. I studied hard and dreamt of going to America after finishing high school.

Passover of 1948 fell on April 24. It came like a thick black cloud over dark skies. The United Nations had voted on Nov. 29, 1947, for the partitioning of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. While the Jews accepted, the Arab countries rejected the decision. All newspapers and radio stations were calling for the destruction of the Zionist entity and the liberation of Palestine. Zionism was declared treason. On May 15, 1948, the Iraqi army, together with the armies of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, went into battle against the newly created State of Israel. While we were celebrating in our hearts the establishment of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, we were terrified and uncertain whether Israel would survive the assault. 

Israel survived.

After the Iraqi army failed to eliminate Israel, the Iraqi government turned against its Jewish citizens, especially the youth. Many were picked up, accused of Zionism, tortured and imprisoned. This harassment culminated with the indictment and public execution of a prominent Jewish merchant, Shafiq Adas. When I saw the picture of his body hanging, on the front page of the newspaper, I was frantic and hysterical. 

I kept a low profile. It took me more than a year to get my student visa to the United States, but I could not get an exit visa to leave Iraq. Things were getting worse, with more arrests and disappearances. It was time for me to get out. In December 1949, I traveled with my younger brother, Nory, to the port city of Basra, and from there I was smuggled out to Iran. The Iranian government, headed by Prime Minister Muhammad Said Maragai, was gracious to let me and thousands of Iraqi-Jewish refugees pass through to Israel. On March 2, 1950, one day before the festival of Purim, I kissed the ground when I landed in Tel Aviv.

I left my home in Baghdad; I left my culture and history of 2,500 years; I left behind my faithful friends, among them Muslims and Christians; I left behind memories of fun and fear, of hope and despair, and I left behind my past and future dreams, never wanting to look back. I was certain of one thing — that I was lucky to be out and alive from that unpredictable heaven and hell. 

I became a homeless and penniless refugee, among the hundreds of thousands of other Jews who arrived in Israel from Arab lands. The only thing I had was my youth, my love of life and the determination to succeed. To allow the nightmares of the past to enslave my future would have made me a victim. On April 1, 1950, I truly celebrated Passover as a free man in Jerusalem.

Joseph Samuels was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 1930 and fled for Israel in December 1949. He served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. Samuels has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of JIMENA Los Angeles.