The last goodbye

It is 56 years since Jack Stevens risked arrest, or even death, to escape illegally from Iraq to Israel via Iran. I’m posting this extract from his memoirs, Iraq as I knew it (Lugus 1997), on the 58th anniversary of Israel’s Independence Day – as a tribute to a state which has given sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees.

“At the end of June 1950, after my parents and brothers had left Iraq for Israel, I felt confused, lonely and aimless. I stayed in the empty house which, although in theory was still ours, could not be sold or rented since its rightful owner, my father, was no more an Iraqi citizen. Under the immigration legislation of 1950, Jews who wished to leave the country permanently could do so at the cost of forfeiting their Iraqi nationality and consequently, their assets and properties. So here I was, alone, in the same house in which my brothers and I were born and grew up, the house of my father and my mother, now an empty house which I would call my house no more, a house which I was allowed to continue to use, at the mercy of the authorities, until they decided one day to take it, most likely to accommodate families of Palestinian refugees. I decided to leave the house and move to my aunt’s house at al-Karrada in the south of the city, where at least I could be with relatives whom I loved. They were waiting to receive their emigration documents, while carrying on with their normal lives. (…)

I was living in a dreamlike world and continued to work at the bank, but my thoughts were with my family. The registration for immigration continued to speed up but the flights were few and slow to pick up. At that rate, I figured that even if I chose to register in July or in August, my turn to leave the country would not come until a few years later. I concluded therefore that playing the Jewish hero, by committing myself to remain in the country for the defence of my brothers in faith until the last of them left, was nothing more than the quixotic fantasy of a naive young man. I began thinking seriously of leaving the country illegally as soon as this could be arranged.

(…) I began to make enquiries about the possibility of getting out of the country via Iran. Soon I made contact with an experienced smuggler who arranged illegal border crossings with the help of a group of Muslim guides. The cost was exorbitant (100 dinars, worth over $400), over five times my monthly salary at the bank, but I had no choice.

One day during the first week of December, the smuggler made his contact and advised me to be prepared at an hour’s notice. Other than the necessary clothing I was not allowed to carry with me anything but a small handbag with a few personal items.

Stevens was taken to a house on the outskirts of Baghdad. He was one of a group of eight Jews; they were told to wait there until the signal was given for their departure. They were not allowed out. If they had been caught they could have been sentenced to seven years with hard labour, if left alive.

(…) Finally the fateful day came. It was in mid-December, freezing cold and drizzling. We were driven in the evening to the railway station and we all boarded the train heading north. Before midnight we had reached the city of Khanaqueen. As planned, we all left the train as if that was our destination, but instead of heading towards the station, the smuggler told us to move quietly across the railway tracks to the other direction into the dark and empty fields. The drizzle now turned into rain and mud covered our shoes. We saw nothing and we heard nothing. The darkness and the silence were nerve-shattering. W e followed the leader blindly and soon we were joined by two Arabs wearing the customary rural garments. After an hour or so walking in the cold, the rain and the mud, we reached a spot with bushes and trees. There we saw for the first time our means of transportation for the journey across the border and into Iran: five donkeys.

We quietly rode our donkeys and followed our guides who had not uttered a word to us. Although the darkness was complete, they seemed to know where they were heading. After a couple of hours of donkey riding in the cold and the incessant rain, without food and without rest, I felt my body aching all over, with my pelvis suffering the harshest pain. As I looked around through the darkness I could only see hills, the same hills I had seen hours ago. I could hear the two guides murmuring for a few minutes, then they stopped moving. We gathered around them, awaiting their instructions, but they told us they seemed to have lost direction because of the persistent rain and that we could either continue , hoping we were on the right track, or wait until the first sign of dawn. In both cases we could be in danger of being killled in some Kurdish ambush or if lucky get caught by the Iraqi border guards and sent back to Baghdad for trial.

The group opted to continue.

(..) A short time later, dawn began to break, the rain almost stopped, and shades of huts and mudhouses began to appear far on the horizon: the small village of Qasr Shireen, Iran. This was the last time I stood on Iraqi soil, the last time I saw my country of origin, my ancestors’ and my parents’ home, my first home. That was the last goodbye.

As we crossed the border we were stopped by some Iranian guards. Our guides exchanged with them a few words and told us that from then on we were in the hands of the Iranian authorities. They took their donkeys with them and turned back towards Iraq. The first thing the Iranians asked us was how much money we had. We all realised that we had to give them something for their cooperation, otherwise they could easily arrest us, or worse, throw us back to the other side of the border. I had with me about ten dinars in bills and coins which I hid in different pockets and even in my underwear. Each one of us gave them a dinar or so, swearing by God that that was the total sum in our possession.

The Jews finally reached Tehran where they heard about a camp for Jewish refugees in the city run by the Jewish Agency under a permit from the Iranians:

We all headed to the camp and the representatives of the Agency told us we could stay at the camp until our turn came to get on one of the flights to Israel. I had seen a refugee camp before and the conditions were much worse than I had thought. People were crammed on wooden stalls on two levels like chicken in a huge barn. I could not imagine myself staying there, especially since I was lucky to have my cousin Rachel, her husband and their two children living at the time in Tehran.

(…) On December 25, 1950, after saying goodbye to my cousin, her husband took me to the airport and I joined a group of immigrants for the last phase of my journey to the ‘Promised land’. I was so excited that I could not believe that in just a few hours I would see my family again and join them in a new life in our young and independent country. “

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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