This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, but it also marks the demise of the last Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa. In Iraq, the Ba’ath regime wreaked its revenge on the last 5,000 Jews for the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel. In January 1969, nine Jews were executed and their bodies strung up in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. Dozens of Jews were arrested and never returned to their families. Terrorised Jews, their phones cut off, bank accounts frozen, expelled from universities and jobs, were denied passports to leave Iraq.
View of the Tigris river, Baghdad
In 1971, a ceasefire was signed between the Iraqi regime and Kurdish fighters. An opportunity opened up for Jews to escape illegally through Kurdistan into Iran and some two thousand were to flee in this way.
Vivien Mazin and her family were desperate to leave Iraq. They wanted to join an older married sister, Farah, who lived in England with two young children. The sister was suffering from terminal cancer. After paying a hefty bribe and numerous pleas to the authorities, their sick father managed to obtain a passport. He needed an escort: Vivien left with him for England.
Farah Shina El-Kebir, whose outstanding school record was discovered in the Iraqi-Jewish archive shipped out for restoration to the US in 2003. Farah, seen here with her two young chikdren, died of cancer in England.
Vivien’s mother was never to see her dying daughter again, and never recovered from that tragedy. Together with her daughter Nadia and son Freddy she took the smuggling route from Baghdad into Kurdistan. They were arrested by the Iraqi authorities and thrown into separate jails. Now in London, Vivien appealed to Amnesty International for their release, but her plea fell on deaf ears. Had they even heard of the plight of Iraqi Jews?
Eventually Vivien’s mother and sister were released but found that strangers had moved into their house in Baghdad. They managed to rent a flat in a building once owned by Vivien’s father. It had been confiscated after his departure.
Official restrictions relaxed a little and the two women managed to leave with a passport in November 1971. Vivien’s brother Freddy had successfully escaped through the north of Iraq and had reached England in June that year.
In the aftermath of the hangings, and while still living in Baghdad, Vivien was asked to replace non-Jewish teachers who had fled the Frank Iny Jewish school. She had just graduated in Business from Hikmat university, but was expected to teach subjects like Accounting and Economics she knew little about.
Every morning, another student would be missing in the classroom, their desk vacant. Families slipped out to Kurdistan, as if they were going on holiday. They just locked up their houses and left in the dead of night, never to return. Because the smuggling operation was secret, nobody, not even the milkman, could be told. Vivien recalls milk bottles accumulating on the doorstep of Jewish homes. She felt sorry for the milkman, who would never be paid!