Dr Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, now living in Canada, and (right) as a four-year-old in Iraq
In the first piece to appear in the mainstream Canadian National Post, the Canadian foreign minister makes an unprecedented public call for the Iraqi archive to be restored to its rightful Jewish owners – outside Iraq. Dr Caroline Bassoon – Zaltzman, who will be visiting the archive exhibit in Washington DC – tells reporter Joe O’Connor that she wants her report card back. It was found among the 2,700 documents stolen from the Jewish community. (With thanks: Tony, Mira and others)
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, added his voice to his American counterparts in an email to the National Post
Friday. “It is unfortunate that Iraq is simply not prepared to openly
chronicle this tragic history as a monument for the people of Iraq,
towards a meaningful reconciliation, or towards the historical
preservation of archives and other items that document the ancient
heritage of Iraqi Jewry,” the minister wrote.
“There also ought to be justice for those who were forced to leave
with nothing and have an opportunity to reclaim not only their
irreplaceable personal property, but crucial pieces of a past that is so
vulnerable to being forever lost.
“For the last Jews in Baghdad and their descendants in Canada and
beyond, Iraqi Judaica is ultimately their history to preserve and
The Iraqis, meanwhile, insist the items be returned, as per the
original agreement — a position the U.S. State Department currently
supports. An adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently
told the Reuters news service that the Jewish documents are part of an
“Iraqi legacy owned by all of the Iraqi people and belong to all the
generations, regardless of religious, ethnic or sectarian affiliations.”
Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman is sitting at the kitchen table of her
spacious Thornhill home. She is petite, with coppery blond hair, tanned
arms and a hard to identify accent. She pours me a cup of green tea,
adding a generous dollop of sugar. English is her first language, though
she does summation in her head in Arabic. She confesses that she
doesn’t know what, exactly, she is: Iraqi? Canadian? An Arab-Jew?
Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, 6, with brother Felix, age 5 in their backyard. (Courtesy)
was 14 when her family fled the country. It took her 20 years to be
able to talk about it. The past was too painful. But she is speaking out
now because she is afraid the past is being forgotten; that the Iraqi
Jews, deprived once of their cultural patrimony, are at risk of being
robbed of it a second time.
“I have very few good memories of
Iraq,” she says. “I never ate in a restaurant, went to a movie theatre
or slept over at a friend’s. I went to my Jewish school and came
allowed telephones, or passports. Every letter we received had already
been opened. We carried yellow identity papers. My father, David,
couldn’t work for a Muslim, or hire a Muslim.
“All our neighbours
in Baghdad were Muslim and Christian. But I don’t ever remember talking
to them. By the time I was old enough to be aware we were already so
isolated, as Jews. I was a little girl and I was always afraid. My
parents, on the other hand, have some very fond memories of Iraq. My
father was an accountant and worked for a Christian family until it
became too dangerous for them to employ him.
“So as a kid I remember my Dad always being home and I remember I’d come home from school not knowing if he would be there.”
of her uncles were tortured by the Ba’athist regime, which first seized
power in a 1963 coup. Iraqi Jews were cast as Israeli spies. There were
show trials. Public hangings.
Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman’s parents are
still alive and live nearby. Her father tells the story of his daughter
as a toddler. Regime thugs barged through their front door and began
searching the house for weapons. Little Caroline spoke to the men in
English, a language she used at home since the family was always
preparing to leave — always had a bag packed and a dream of starting
over someplace else.
a little girl speak English was enough to get her father arrested. The
Bassoon family walked out of their house, with its beautiful garden, in
an old Jewish corner of Baghdad, at 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, 1971. They were
packed as though they were going on vacation and left practically
everything — photos, heirlooms and report cards — behind. A childhood
friend of David’s, a Muslim, secreted money to the family. Bribes were
paid to Kurdish smugglers. Three days later they were in a hotel in
Tehran. Two weeks after that they were in Israel. They moved to Montreal
Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman is heading to Washington with her husband next week to visit the archive.
don’t even know if I’ll be able to see my report card,” she says. “But I
am going to try and get it back. I am going to see what I can do.”
then she laughs, because it all happened so long ago, and because so
much about her life since — Canada, the two kids, the loving husband,
the great career — has been rich and rewarding and safe. She is not a
scared little girl anymore. The bad memories are faded, like an old
photograph or an old report card, finally come to light.
God I did so well in school,” Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman says, grinning. “I
always told my husband I did well and he always joked about how he
wasn’t so sure, because he didn’t have any proof.
“Now I have proof.”