Over 30 years Naji Noonoo survived a pogrom, losing his job and assets, imprisonment and persecution in Iraq – in order to escape to Israel. Here is his harrowing story, (via The forgotten Million blog) as translated by Arieh Shamash and Yamin Nounou. (With thanks: Lisette)
1950s were very hard years for the Iraqi Jews. The authorities gradually removed
all Jews from their positions in government ministries and public companies.
the time I was a friend of the management of the trains’ authority. I got the
job by accident. Management was looking for someone fluent in in both Arabic
and English. I decided to go for an interview. My skills fitted the job and I was
accepted. Because of this, I resigned my previous job as secretary of one of
the senior judges at the Justice Ministry.
the time, most railroad workers were Jews. Why was the number of Jews working
at the Railway so high? In my opinion, there were a number of reasons.
1. 1. Salaries were low
The job locations were too remote
Railway jobs required people who were knowledgeable in English and Arabic. Jews,
graduates of the Alliance (AIU)school, were more proficient in these
languages than their Arab counterparts. Arabs who were proficient in English
did not work for low wages, but filled more senior positions in government
offices. Therefore most of the railway workers were Jews.
the 1950s, when they started to fire the Jewish workers, I was called for an
urgent meeting with the British Commissioner. As soon as I entered the room, he
told me, “Mr. Noonoo, I was instructed by the authorities to immediately fire
replied, “I’ll make up the list of employees and you decide which ones.”
he said, “No need, the Ministry of Justice sent a detailed list of those to be
dismissed, you only need to tell them.”
Reading the list, I couldn’t believe my eyes: all those being dismissed were
Jews. Not even one Arab name was included in the list.
me, sir,” I said, “Please list 451 fired.”
manager looked at me in wonder and asked, “What do you mean?”
am asking to be the 451st person to be dismissed”, I said.
next day I did not return to work in the Railways. My name was published in the
paper along with the other 450 dismissals.
survived all the tribulations, the pogroms, and the persecution in Iraq, such
as the Farhud that took place in 1941. I escaped in 1970 after the Ba’ath Party
purged the remaining Jewish community (in the 1960s).
the time of the Farhud in 1941, I lived in the Bataween neighborhood in Baghdad.
I was not personally impacted by the pogrom. An Arab friend, a lawyer by
profession, who was married to a Jewish woman, saved me and many others from the rioters.
the second day, after the end of the pogrom, when my brother Naim did not
return home, I went looking for him. I wandered through the hospitals, and
after a few hours of searching, I found him lying wounded without treatment in
the back of the room. He was all bruised from head to toe. No doctor came to
him for a whole day and night to treat him. Dozens of Jews were lying there
wounded and untreated. When I saw that the doctors ignored him, I immediately
took him out of the hospital and brought him home. The hospital director was
notorious for his hatred for Jews. Every Jew that was seriously wounded had to
be euthanized and did not recover, while the wounded were abandoned to their own
horrible days passed without anyone being punished. Also, a lot of Jewish
property that was looted and stolen was not returned to the rightful owners.
Jewish community had a deep emotional crisis following the horrible massacre
and plunder. Community leaders were quick to help the families affected,
especially for children left as orphans after their parents’ murder. In the
aftermath of the riots, the British entered Baghdad and things returned to the
way they were before the Farhud. The peaceful times enabled by British forces
that stayed in Baghdad led to economic prosperity. The economic bloom benefited
both Jews and Arabs.
The memories of the events of the pogrom began to fade.
I quit the Railway Board, I decided to establish my own business. My friends helped
me, and soon thereafter I started a housewares company. Luck shined on me, I
accumulated a lot of assets. In addition to good business, my wife inherited
from her father 18 plots, each plot being 1⁄2 acre.
decided to spend the money to build a mansion in an exclusive area in Baghdad.
For this purpose, I even mortgaged the plots that my wife had inherited. The
house was more beautiful than anything in the surroundings. I lived there only a short time.
The Iraqi authorities had begun their anti-Jewish policies. Many Jews felt
threatened and sought to sell their property, but the religious authority and
the national newspapers warned the public to avoid buying the property of Jews,
because the property would go to the Arabs soon anyway. These happenings made it
impossible to realize the real value of property. As a result, I had trouble
selling the house. Also, one local policeman coveted my house and in his capacity
threatened every prospective buyer. I finally had to sell the house for such a
small amount, I could not even cover the mortgage on some of the plots. I lost
my house to the policeman and the lots to the lenders.
the mass exodus of the Jews in the 1950s started, I had not made up my mind
whether to abandon Iraq. The news and rumours coming back from Jews arriving in
Israel were tough: immigrants from Iraq were living in tents under poor
conditions. They had no food and no work. They faced hard conditions, and many
of them got sick. These rumours increased my hesitation to leave Iraq.
As time passed, the window of opportunity to leave Iraq closed to a further
all Iraqi Jews had fled. Only 6,000 Jews remained scattered in several cities.
a small and insignificant minority, we lived in constant fear until 1958. That
year there was a coup. In place of King Faisal, his prime minister Nuri Said
and the regent, General Qasim came to power . The Qasim regime improved the treatment of the Jewish
minority. They recruited the Jews to do their work. I also
received a blessing, my work prospered, which allowed me to build a new house.
The positive attitude of General Qasim towards the Jewish minority enabled us to
develop good relations with our Arab neighbours.
General Qasim’s rule ended after another military coup. Qasim was assassinated
and replaced by General Al Bahar. The new ruling party did not sympathise with
the Jewish community and our movements again were limited. Restrictions
reached their peak after the Six Day War in 1967.
after the war I came as usual to the office; police
detectives were waiting for me at the entrance. I was asked to accompany them
for questioning. I did not know what for and why.
I got to the police station I was thrown into a cell size of 20 sq.m. There I met
420 Jewish prisoners, who had arrived along with me. After only a short time in the
cells, I was called to stand before a judge. Within minutes, my indictment was
read to me: “spying for Israel.” The judge asked if I pleaded guilty.
refused to plead guilty to this false accusation. As a result, I was thrown
back in the cage, along with all the other detainees.
For three months I stayed in detention, the inter
rogation going on daily. One day a new
prisoner was brought to jail, whose name was Albert Judah Noonoo. The man was
bruised all over his body, he was dying from all the torture in the basement by
the Iraqi secret police.
Jewish doctor named Albert Rabie, who was also among the detainees, began to
treat him with devotion. Gradually, he began to recover.
the interrogators saw that his physical condition was improving, he was
executed by hanging.
detainees were horribly abused. One of the detainees, Fouad Jacob Shasha, who
refused to plead guilty to the charges attributed to him, was hanged on the fan
in front of his father by his feet, his hands down.
a result of the investigations, harsh detention conditions, news of the
executions of Jewish youth, and lack of contact with my family, I lost half my
weight. My wife, after four months of wandering and searching, found the warden,
but could not identify me.
The memorial in Ramat Gan, Israel, to the Iraqi Jews murdered in the Farhud and executed by the Ba’ath regime
day, soon after the hanging of nine Jews, guards entered my holding cell,
opened the doors, and told us to go.
did not understand their intentions: they told us we were really free. Having
learned from experience, we feared they were sending us into a hidden trap. Why
did they open the prison doors? And if they were really going to free us, why
did our families not come to welcome us? We did not know where we were. With
grave misgivings, we left the
jail and began walking. After walking for hours, we found our way home.
after we were freed, we were taken back to jail. This time, they insisted that each
of us find an Arab to provide a financial guarantee that we would not break the
law after we were freed. This was not logical at all. I was lucky, I had a
Kurdish Arab friend who agreed to vouch for my release. Many were not so lucky and remained in detention. That way I was released a second time
For six months, my family and I stayed at home. We were afraid to leave the house.
The general mood in the neighbourhood was that Jewish blood was cheap.
wife and my family pressed me to take a chance and escape. I was afraid to do
it, but family pressure was strong and made me change my mind.
paid a lot of money to smugglers. We left late at night, we abandoned our
home and all its contents. The brothers of Naim Hayal’eli (who was hanged a
year earlier) ran away with us.
Only a long time afterwards did I find out why we were released from jail on the same day in such an
extraordinary and rushed way. It turned out that the hangings of Jews had caused a great
shock to world public opinion. Abba Eban, then Israel’s UN
representative, heard that there were many other detainees, so he asked for UN
intervention. Iraq’s representative denied that anybody was detained, and so he
agreed to allow a UN representative to come to Iraq to examine Israel’s claims.
why we were released unexpectedly that day. When the UN representative reached
the prison, he did not see any detainees. But, as soon as the UN representative
left Iraq, we were arrested again. The mechanisms of denial and deception were
very familiar to us.
addition to the physical and mental suffering I went through in prison, my
money of £ 60,000 that I had saved for years after working in Rafidan Bank was confiscated, and my home was seized.
came to Israel without anything, penniless and without any assets. I slaved to work hard to rehabilitate myself. At my advanced age, this was not a