Farhud survivor Steve Acre tells his story

In this 70th anniversary year since the Farhud pogrom, this eyewitness account (On fire in Baghdad AMI magazine, 3 August 2011) by Steve Acre – as told to Effy Fisher – is one of the most graphic you are likely to read (with thanks: Hilda):

Farhud—violent dispossession—an Arabicized Kurdish word that was seared into Iraqi Jewish consciousness on June 1 and 2, 1941. As the Baghdadi Jewish communities burned, a proud Jewish existence that had spanned 2,600 years was abruptly incinerated.

As a nine-year-old, I, Sabih Ezra Akerib, who witnessed the Farhud, certainly had no understanding of the monumental consequences of what I was seeing. Nevertheless,I realized that somehow the incomprehensible made sense. I was born in Iraq, the only home I knew. I was proud to be a Jew, but knew full well that I was different, and this difference was irreconcilable for those around me.

That year, June 1 and 2 fell on Shavuot—the day the Torah was given to our ancestors and the day Bnei Yisrael became a nation. The irony of these two historical events being intertwined is not lost on me.

Shavuot signified a birth while the Farhud symbolized a death—a death of illusion and a death of identity. The Jews, who had felt so secure, were displaced once again. We had been warned trouble was brewing.

Days earlier, my 20-year-old brother, Edmund, who worked for British intelligence in Mosul, had come home to warn my mother, Chafika Akerib, to be careful. Rumors abounded that danger was coming. Shortly after that, the red hamsa (palm print) appeared on our front door—a bloody designation marking our home. But for what purpose?

Shavuot morning was eerily normal. My father Ezra had died three years earlier, leaving my mother a widow with nine children. I had no father to take me to synagogue; therefore, I stayed home with my mother, who was preparing the Shavuot meal. The rising voices from the outside were at first slow to come through our windows. However, in the blaze of the afternoon sun, they suddenly erupted.Voices—violent and vile. My mother gathered me, my four sisters and youngest brother into the living room, where we huddled together. Her voice was calming.

The minutes passed by excruciatingly slowly. But I was a child, curious and impatient. I took advantage of my mother’s brief absence and ran upstairs, onto the roof. At the entrance to the open courtyard at the center of our home stood a 15 foot date palm. I would often climb that tree. When there was not enough food to eat,those dates would sustain us. I expressed gratitude for that tree daily. I now climbed that tree and wrapped myself within its branches, staring down at the scene unfolding below. What I saw defied imagination.

On the narrow dirt road, 400 to 500 Muslims carrying machetes, axes, daggers, and guns had gathered. Their cries—Iktul al Yahud, Slaughter the Jews—rang out as bullets were blasted into the air. The shrieks emanating from Jewish homes were chilling. I hung on, glued to the branches. I could hear my mother’s frantic cries: “Weinak! Weinak!” (Where are you?)

But I could not answer, terrified of calling attention to myself. Amidst the turmoil, I saw our landlord sitting by our door, wearing his distinctive green turban. He was a hajji, considered a holy man because he had made the mandatory pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Demanding, raging men were remonstrating with him, and then, inexplicably, they moved on.

For some reason, our home was left undisturbed. Only later were we told that our landlord had explained to the men that a widow with nine children lived inside and had asked for his protection. Kindnesses abound when least expected, and for this I thanked G-d.

The horrors continued to unfold. The killing of men and children and attacks on Jewish women were rampant. Four doors down—at the home of Sabiha, my mother’s good friend—a Muslim emerged carrying what appeared to be a bloodied piece of meat. We learned afterwards that Sabiha had been killed and mutilated. My mother’s sorrowful refrain would later ring out: “Sabiha! They attacked her! They cut her throat! They mutilated her!”

At the same time, Jews were scampering over the roofs, running for their lives. If not for the looting taking place below, more would have been murdered. No authorities came to help; barbarism ruled.

All the anger and jealousy that had been pent up over the centuries erupted in these horrific moments. Neighbors with whom we had shared a nod, a smile—and even attended their sons’ circumcisions—had metamorphosed into sub-humans intent on annihilation.

And then, the fires started. Houses were being torched amidst the cries of their destroyers. Black smoke ascended towards the heavens. The putrid smell of smoke filled my nostrils—together with the smell of burning flesh. I will never forget those smells. How long was I up there—one hour, two hours? I finally jumped down onto the roof, running into my mother’s arms. Shaking, she slapped me—a slap of love.

We later learned that after leaving Dahana, these teeming masses of men, joined by others, went on to rampage the other impoverished neighborhoods, later making their way into the wealthier districts. The red hamsa signified their targets. All along Baghdad’s main Rashid Street,Jewish shops that were closed for Shavuot were broken into and robbed. What the mob couldn’t steal, they destroyed. The multitude of synagogues lining the streets were equally ravaged—sifrei Torah going up in smoke.

The destruction was absolute and relentless. On June 2, the second day of the Farhud, an eerie calm descended. Again, I ran upstairs and climbed the tree. In the distance were airplanes buzzing and bombs dropping. The British, who had camped on the outskirts of town as our communities burned, were finally moving into the city and reclaiming what had so tragically gone awry. But for the Jews of Baghdad this was too little, too late. What had been witnessed and experienced during those 24 hours would ring the death knoll for Iraqi Jewry. Many of us now understood that after 2,600 years, it was time to move on.

As is the case with most acts of senseless violence, the Farhud did not erupt in a vacuum. It was a well-planned pogrom organized by nationalistic Arab-Nazis and carried out under the direction of Nazi Arabist and diplomat Fritz Grobba in cooperation with the Arab and Islamic world. It inspired an international Arab-Nazi alliance. Leading this alliance was Hajj Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al Gilani. Yet, I believe the Farhud was an equal consequence of theological and historically-based attitudes toward Jews.

Under Muslim rule, Jewish existence and welfare were extremely precarious. For Jews living in Iraq, as well as throughout the rest of the Middle East, much depended on the goodwill of the caliphs. Some caliphs were tolerant and offered the Jews economic and political freedom, while others were violently disposed toward them.

However, even in the best of times—as under the rule of Faisal I, the Hashemite appointed in 1921 by the British during their Mandate to preside over the Kingdom of Iraq—times were very challenging. Under Faisal’s rule, Jews were given absolute freedom to participate in Iraqi life,but, even so, it was universally acknowledged by Muslims that Jews were secondclass citizens. We were always dhimmis living under the protection of the monarch. In their view, we were unquestionably inferior.

Our Jewishness was visible. We had our own dialect and we dressed in Westernized clothes, although, when leaving the house, the women would put on the required black chador or abaya, a cloak that covered the body from the shoulders down. While most Jews lived in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, the Dahana neighborhood, where we resided, held a mixture of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

I always walked to my school, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, with my head down, hurrying through the Muslim areas as quickly as possible. I remember the day a Muslim spat at me and called me a dirty Jew. If a Muslim did not like you, he could easily call the police and denounce you for cursing Mohammed. It would then be your word against his. We were therefore consistently on the alert. Kidnapping was prevalent. There were many cases of burlap bags being thrown over the heads of Jewish children who disappeared and were never heard from again. I would protectively hold onto my younger brother’s and sisters’ hands until we were at school or back home. Everyday going to and from school was an ordeal.

When my mother married my father, Ezra Akerib, he was a wealthy produce exporter. During World War I, while the British were bombing Basra, my father’s ships were destroyed. Shortly afterwards, a fire consumed his warehouse. He was never able to prove it was sabotage. In order to pay his creditors, my father was forced to sell all his assets, including all of my mother’s jewelry. Financially depleted, we moved from Basra to Baghdad, leaving behind my mother’s family. My father died when I was six.

Although Jews made up a large section of the Iraqi middle class—many were lawyers, doctors, judges, merchants, bankers,and economic advisers—we were destitute. If not for the support of my eldest brother Edmund and a wealthy aunt living in the Baghdad district of Senak, I don’t know how we would have survived.

Our house consisted of a tiny kitchen, five bedrooms, and a living room surrounding

an open courtyard. We had dirt floors and no electricity. The kitchen had one tap and an open coal pit where my mother would cook rice and potatoes, our staples, that also included goat cheese, peanut butter, and bread. She suffered more than all of us. She went from being a wealthy lady with servants and a carriage to a woman forced to wash her family’s clothes by hand in a pot on the roof of the house.

However, to me my mother was the repository of our traditions. She would sing us the songs and tell us the stories of our heritage—stories of Eliyahu HaNavi and countless other Torah personalities.

She had the answers to all my questions. My mother also taught us the meaning of eib—shame: that one should never do something shameful. Even today, when I am tempted to act in questionable ways, I remember that word and my mother’s voice, and I refrain. The education I received from my mother bound me to my Jewish heritage. When Zionism was prohibited in 1935, the Hebrew language was outlawed, except for Torah studies. There were no yeshivos per se in Baghdad. My brothers and I would attend cheder for one hour a day after school. We would learn to recite the Torah directly from the Torah scroll.

Read article in full at AMI magazine (registration required)

More about the Farhud here (BBC Witness and CBC radio both feature Steve Acre’s story)

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