Iraq plans to reclaim artifacts of Jewish heritage it shunned
US troops found archive after fall of Hussein
BAGHDAD - It was seized from Jewish families and wound up soaking in sewage water in the basement of a secret police building. Rescued from the chaos that engulfed Baghdad as Saddam Hussein was toppled, it now sits in safekeeping in an office near Washington.
Like this country’s once great Jewish community, the Iraqi Jewish Archive of books, manuscripts, records, and other materials has gone through turbulent times. Now another twist may be in store: Iraq wants it back.
Iraqi officials say they will go to the United States, possibly next month, to assess the materials found by US troops and plan for their return after an absence of nearly seven years.
Some Jewish authorities are skeptical, arguing that since most estimates put the number of Jews in Iraq at less than 10, the archive no longer belongs here. But to Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, it is part of a larger effort to rescue the cultural history Iraq lost during the invasion, and to put Iraqis on a tentative path to coming to grips with their past.
“Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity . . . To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic,’’ said Eskander.
The archive was found in May 2003, when US troops looking for weapons of mass destruction got a tip to check out the basement of a building of the Mukhabarat - Hussein’s secret police. Passing a 2,000-pound unexploded bomb on their way into the building, they found a flooded basement.
“It was really quite disgusting, to be honest, because it was about chest-deep sewage water,’’ said Richard Gonzales, the Army officer who led the team and has since retired.
The troops found no weapons of mass destruction, but it was worth the trip. Books, photos, and papers floated in the murky water. And not just any books, but Hebrew-language books, in a country that had been at war with Israel since 1948 and had once accused Jews of espionage and after a show trial hanged nine of them in a public square.
That the materials survived is remarkable, considering how much of Iraq’s cultural heritage was looted or destroyed after the fall of Hussein - more than a quarter of the National Library’s books and 60 percent of its collection of maps, photographs and records, Eskander said.
Gonzales knew he had something significant on his hands but he didn’t have enough people or tools to deal with it. So he went to Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi exile group whose discredited weapons of mass destruction claims had been the main justification for the invasion.
Chalabi got him a pump and some manpower. The materials were pulled out of the basement, laid out to dry in the sun, and packed in 27 metal trunks.
Accumulated over the years were photos, parchments, and cases to hold Torah scrolls; a Jewish religious book published in 1568; 50 copies of a children’s primer in Hebrew and Arabic; books in Arabic and English; books printed in Baghdad, Warsaw, and Venice - the lost heritage of what was once one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East, dating to the sixth century B.C.
Abraham of the Old Testament is believed to have come from the city of Ur, in what is modern-day Iraq, and despite periods of persecution, the community endured and thrived over centuries. But problems worsened when Iraq sided with Germany in World War II, and came to a head when Israel was created. By the early 1950s, Iraqi Jews were fleeing the country in droves. The few thousand who remained were harassed, too frightened to hold services, and their assets seized. In 1969, after Hussein’s Ba’ath Party took power, came the hangings.