When Jewish Baghdad ceased to be Eden

In the issue of the Manchester-based Jewish Telegraph of 7 March, the co-author and editors of Memories of Eden, Mira Shamash and Tony Rocca, talk to Simon Yaffe about the terrible pro-Nazi pogrom suffered by Iraq’s Jews in 1941.

Known as the Farhud, Iraq’s 2,000-year-old Jewish population was forced to shelter – terrified – in basements and blacked-out houses, hiding from gangs of angry Iraqi Muslims.

“It is an astonishing story”, said Tony Rocca, who has co-authored a book, Memories of Eden, with his Iraq-born wife, Mira. The book is a journey through Jewish Baghdad, taken from the stories of Violette Shamash, who was forced to leave Iraq after the Farhud.

France-based Tony, a former journalist with The Sunday Times and Daily Mail, said: “When Mira and I left England in the 1980s to go and live in Italy, Violette was rather upset.

“In those days there was not as much communication as there is today with email and the internet.

“She was reluctant to do so, but we told her not to worry about the actual composition, just to write it down and send it to us in the post – which she did for 20 years.”

When Violette was born in 1912, Mesopotamia (Iraq’s former name) had been under the rule of the Ottoman Turks for 400 years and Baghdad was, amazingly, one-third Jewish. Today, there are an estimated six to eight Jews left in the whole of Iraq. Mira, 67, said: “My family and I are extremely proud of our Iraqi Jewish heritage.

“But I do have mixed feelings – I would love to go back to Iraq, but I know Jews who have been back have been disappointed – not a lot of what they remember is still standing.”

Independence for Iraq in 1932 changed everything. The country slipped into the hands of Nazi sympathisers and during the Farhud, more than 180 Jews were killed. Mira added: “The Muslim religious leader (The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini – ed) whipped up feelings of antisemitism in Iraq for the young people.”The older people there were not antisemitic or even anti-Zionist and lots of our Muslim neighbours sheltered the Jews.

“In the book, Violette describes the Jewish community of Baghdad as being “beautiful, civilised and full of cherished memories”.

Mira – who has a brother, Simon, and sister, Lena – added: “My mother and father (David) longed to go back to Iraq.

“When they left, any chance they could they listened to the Arabic radio stations, trying to hear news on Iraq.”

Non-Jewish Tony, who grew up in Gatley, south Manchester, said he was astonished to first learn of the Jews of Iraq. He recalled: “I did not realise just how big the community in Iraq was. ” One of my favourite stories is that when Baghdad’s chamber of commerce used to close on a Shabbat, because most of its members were Jewish, many shops came to a standstill. “The Muslim city of Baghdad closed down for the day because of the Jews.”

Mira said she approved of the American and UK invasion of Iraq five years ago, but claimed that the Allied powers were not fully prepared.

She explained: “At the time I thought it was a good idea, because the Iraqi people were suffering under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. “America and Britain did not prepare themselves for the aftermath – what is happening there now, with the Iraqis killing each other, is terrible.”

Mira, who left Iraq with her parents when she was six months old, said she would like to return to visit one day.

She added: “What a lot of people do not realise is that there are many Jewish shrines in Iraq and members of the Jewish community used to visit regularly. Luckily, the shrines were venerated by the Muslims too, so they were not damaged.”

Memories of Eden, published by Forum Books, is available for £14.99. Visit the website.

Guardian book review

One Comment

  • Tom Segev is more of a journalist/propagandist than a true historian. Nevertheless, his drivel can do a lot of harm. I have seen his book about the British mandate period [“One palestine complete” or some such title]. My impression from reading parts of the book is that he is an apologist for British rule. He dares to portray the mandatory govt as fair, committed to civil peace between Jews and Arabs, etc. This view is false. What strikes me is also that he is considered a “leftist” [whatever that means today] although he whitewashes British imperial rule in the country which in fact encouraged Arab attacks on Jews, including the Hebron massacre of 1929 [see Pierre van Paassen’s books, Forgotten Ally, and Days of OUr Years].

    I have a number of posts on my blog about Iraq from contemporary and Arab sources, such as Majid Khadduri, the Arab nationalist historian, etc. Several of these posts concern the Farhud.

    I am not surprised by Segev’s smartaleck response to the US Congress decision. He has trouble taking seriously what does not fit his prejudices.


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