How Jews escaped Iraq in 1949: this is Joe Samuel’s story, as told in The Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily)
video surfaced in January of Muktadar Al Sader, the Shiite militia
leader, pleading for Iraqi Jews to return to help rebuild their
homeland. Right. Imagine me, my family or any Jew, walking the street of
Baghdad wearing a kippah or going to the synagogue today. How long
would I or my family last?
My story is one of the 135,000 stories of Jews
who fled, were forced to leave, faced torture, had their properties
confiscated and were made to live like prisoners in their own homeland.
We will never go back. No one in the Iraqi Jewish community is deranged
enough to even think of going back.
Al Sader’s words bring back harsh memories of my escape from Iraq.
In Basra, cold weather in December was
unusual, but in 1949 the temperature was in the 40’s, and it was
bitterly cold at 11 at night. I had put my life in the hands of two
Muslim smugglers and I wasn’t alone. There were 15 other teenagers,
including my younger brother, Nory. The underground movement to help
Jews escape out of Iraq had arranged for a boat to take us to Iran. We
boarded, one at a time, at varying intervals, in order to avoid raising
suspicion in the neighborhood. We had no luggage, money, food or water.
The boat, if it could be called that, was
about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide. It had no seats, beds, toilets or
motors. It moved by punting, a method of propelling the boat forward
with long sticks. It was designed to carry light cargo such as manure or
hay to the farmers in the delta. In their hay cargo, the two smugglers
had devised a false bottom with a space below that measured about 10
feet by 10 feet and about 2.5 feet high. We crouched in complete
darkness in this dungeon. I was appointed the person in charge for the
journey. The first thing I did was make holes in the hay so that we
could breathe. Our escape depended on luck, the tide and the bribed
So that our crossing would coincide with the
tide, at about midnight, the two smugglers pushed the boat out of the
tributary river. Our beacon of hope, Iran, was downstream and across the
river, two to three hours away. The sound of water splashing broke the
stillness of the night and was sweet music in our ears. As we moved down
the main river Shat el Arab, “the river of the Arab,” our hearts lit
with hope for freedom.
However, after about an hour that sweet sound
of splashing water stopped. All was quiet except for the sound of the
wind. I went out through the hole. The two smugglers looked worried. “We
can’t move,” one of the men said, “the tide is with us, but the wind is
I went back through the hole and told everyone to close their eyes and sleep a bit, while we waited for the wind to subside.
We docked inside a tributary of the river. The
hours passed quickly and I began to worry. My heart was beating faster
than the wind, as dawn started to break. We would not be able to move
during the day and we were going to miss our rendezvous. What about
food, drinks or toilets? What if some villagers were to spot us and tell
the muchabarat, the secret police? After all, we were leaving Iraq
illegally and this was a capital crime.
I couldn’t share my fears with the boys and
girls. One boy was only thirteen. Instead, I put on a stoic face and
assured them that everything was going to be alright. We had to wait
until darkness to move again. Some started to cry. I felt the same way,
but I held back my tears.
One of the boatmen went to get some food. I
warned him not to buy food in bulk, since that might create suspicion.
It was toilet time, in the early morning. One by one we got out of our
hole. One boy, a good friend of mine whose brother had been arrested on
Zionism charges just a few weeks earlier, shook so much he couldn’t
stand. The boatman returned after an hour with some bread, cheese and
dates. Like rats, two or three of us came out of the hole, ate something
and went back in, until the whole pack was fed.
I was in Arab garb and wore a long white gown
and a kafia on my head just like the boatmen’s. I wandered away from the
boat and sat under a tree in the shade. I closed my eyes and yearned to
sleep. I couldn’t. My life passed before me as if on a movie screen.
I remembered the Farhood of June 2, 1941 in
Baghdad, when the mobs murdered over 200 Jews and thousands of Jewish
homes were looted. I was 11. I survived. At 14, two Muslim boys ran
after me with a knife. I outran them. I survived. In May of 1948, after
Iraq and four Arab countries failed in waging war against Israel, many
Jewish youths were arrested, tortured or simply disappeared. Once more, I
Just a few days earlier, the secret police had
stopped me at the train station when I arrived from Baghdad. I was with
my brother and two other boys traveling to Basra. One of the policemen
asked me my purpose in coming to Basra. I told him that I was visiting
my cousin. When I mentioned his name, Agababa, the policeman’s eyes lit
up and his tone of voice changed. He became sweet and gentle and said he
knew my cousin well. He got his Arrow shirts from him. I survived
again. The other two boys were sent back to Baghdad. We never heard from
them or saw them again.
On the boat, the hours passed slowly. This was
the longest day of my life. A river patrol passed by, unaware of the
human cargo hidden in the stack of hay. I was frightened and frustrated.
I began to pray, “God, please let it be night so that we can make our
final escape.” I went back into the hole. I assured everyone that by the
next morning we would be in Iran and then in a few days we would be in
Finally, night came. My angels worked
overtime. We had the tide and a favorable wind. When the moment was
right, we were back on the move and before dawn we crossed the river.
Three worried men were going crazy looking for us on the other side.
They had been there from the night before.
“We are safe, we are in Iran,” I shouted
happily. One by one, my fellow rats came out of the hole, drained and
haggard; some with tears, others with a smile as wide as the river we
had just crossed.