September 26, 2018

The Hottest Summer in Baghdad: 75th anniversary of the Farhud

The festival of Shavuot, which this year took place June 12-13, commemorates a time when Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It also marks the beginning of a new agricultural season, Chag Hakatsir (The Harvest Holiday). It comes seven weeks after Passover.

Shavuot in Baghdad marks the beginning of the brutal summer heat and dry weather. The temperature during the day reaches up to 110 degrees, and at times even 120 degrees. Air conditioning and refrigerators were unheard of when I was growing up in the 1930s. At night, it cooled off a bit. Everyone slept on the roofs of their houses. Poor people slept outdoors.

After a joyful celebration of Passover with family and friends, I remember we children anxiously waiting for the new and different celebration of Shavuot.

On the eve of Shavuot, my uncles and distant relatives would come to our house. They prayed and chanted throughout the night, reading the book of Ruth and studying Torah. Grownups and children would stay up late all night, enjoying delicious festive foods and sweets, and light candles for the departed.  One of my fondest memories is gathering around the kindled lights with my cousins collecting the wax and making different figurine and animals.

On the actual day of Shavuot, many families went on a Ziara (Pilgrimage) to visit the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel, on the Euphrates River, some 50 miles away from Baghdad. This was a great time for us children to play with others in the community and picnic with many of my Mom’s treats such as chicken rice with almonds and raisins, along with other snacks, such as mango and cucumber pickles.

The Shavuot of 1941 fell on June 1 and 2. On April 13, 1941, a pro-Nazi Coup was headed by Rashid Ali Algailkani and plotted successfully by the German attaché Dr. Fritz Grova and the grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husani. This inextricably lead King Faisal, the Regent Abdyl Illah and the Prime Minister Taha Al Hashimi to flee Baghdad.

Radio Baghdad, the government’s mouthpiece, along with other media outlets, began a steady stream of anti-Jewish propaganda. On the Daily, public hatred increased as the summer heat and shook up every Iraqi Jew to the core. Many stayed home fearing for their lives. I distinctly remember my father and my older brothers not being able to hide their sadness and worries of what was to come. They tried to put on a happy face, thinking that would protect me, 11 years old, and my 8-year-old brother, Nory. We were restricted from leaving the house, which made things worse for us. I began to have nightmares and sleepless nights. I found myself crying for no reason at all.

The Iraqi coup leaders in Baghdad, decided to do the next best thing — exterminate the Jewish population in a single blow. Jews were ordered to stay in their homes. The “proto-Nazi youth movement,” Al Futuwwa, marked the doors of the Jewish home with a red Hamsa (shape of a palm, a symbol that allowed the rioters to identify Jewish homes.

On May 31, the British forces arrived with fresh troops from Nepal and India on the outskirts of Baghdad. The extermination plot fell apart. The coup leaders fled, which created a power vacuum.

Bands of soldiers in concert with police in civilian clothing, and common criminals along with nondescript mobs, rampaged through Baghdad hunting for Jews. They were easy to fine. Hundreds of Jews were cut down by sword and rifle, some even decapitated. Babies were sliced in half and thrown into the Tigris River. Girls were raped in front of their parents. Parents were mercilessly killed in front of their children.

Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted and then burnt. The official government count shows that 180 were killed and 240 wounded; private estimates indicate as many as 400 were killed and 2,100 injured. There were no arrests, convictions or sentencing. Jews were afraid to report or file a complaint against any Muslim, for fear of retaliation and threats to their lives.

For almost two days, June 1-2, the carnage continued unabated. If it weren’t for some righteous Muslim men standing in front of Jewish homes with knives, daggers, and swords preventing the rioters from breaking into Jewish homes, the carnage would have been much more devastating. Those were the decent and honorable Muslims, the Righteous among the Nations.

We began fortifying our house. We reinforced the front door by stacking heavy furniture against it. My brother Eliyahoo electrified the chicken wire fence atop the stone wall on our side of the garden. I helped carry buckets of boiling water to the roof, ready to toss on marauders if needed. From the second-floor window, I saw looters on the street carrying away clothes and boxes. We stayed awake all night. Two of my brothers maintained contact with the neighbors via the roof, bringing any news downstairs. By afternoon the next day, June 2, the British soldiers had entered Baghdad and quelled the riots. We were safe.

My family was fortunate; we had moved a year earlier from the old city to Bab el Shargy close to the Tigris River. My Uncle Moshi and Uncle Meir’s houses in the old city were totally emptied. They escaped by jumping from their roof to the neighbor’s and then to another. They were lucky; they sustained minor injuries —twisted ankle and scratches.

This Holocaust-era pogrom became known as the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.” The Farhud left bitterness and hopelessness in the hearts of the Iraq Jewish community. Many wanted to leave after the Farhud, but there was no place to go to or a country that would take us in.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948, most of the Iraqi community, including my family and I, fled to Israel. We became refugees. We stood in line for free meals, slept on a steel bed anchored in the sand during scorching hot summers.  We had left behind our homes, our stores and other businesses, our land, buildings, schools and other property.

The memory of a few, decent and honorable Muslims’ and their deep friendship was overshadowed by the long history of fear, pain, suffering and humiliation. I doubt if there is one Jew from an Arab land or Islamic country who would ever entertain the idea of going back to live there again permanently. We are lucky to be out and lucky to be where we are.

In 1948, there were some 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Baghdad’s population was nearly 25 percent Jewish. By 1953, some 80 percent had left for Israel. The rest stayed, deluding themselves that they would be seen as loyal Iraqis. Over the years, they have faced systemic pauperization — their bank accounts were frozen, and they have faced trumped-up charges and forced confessions through torture.  In 1969, seven Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s public square, accused of spying.  At present, this 26-century-old Jewish community has now totally vanished. Only 8 Jews are reported to remain.

This Shavuot marks the 75th anniversary of the Farhud. It was commemorated in four cities — London, New York, Washington and Jerusalem — by lighting 27 candles, one for each century the Jews inhabited the land. It is also commemorated annually by the survivors, their descendants and every decent freedom loving person, I know.


Joe Samuels is a native of Baghdad who served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. He 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 Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, Los Angeles.