Recalling the Farhud, 76 years ago

 Today is the first day of Shavuot. For Iraqi Jews who survived the Farhud pogrom, this festival will be associated in their minds with a horrific pogrom which occurred 76 years ago. I am re-posting an article written by Sarah Erlich for the Jewish Chronicle on the Farhud ‘s 70th anniversary.

June 1 and 2 this year mark the 70th anniversary of what became known as the Farhud ( “violent dispossession” in Arabic). As significant as Kristallnacht,
the pogrom sounded the death-knell for the oldest community in the
diaspora and was a clear demonstration of the hatred exported to the
Middle East by Hitler. The Farhud
brought to an end 2,600 years of Jewish settlement, yet little has
been written about it, very little is taught in Holocaust studies about
it, and the British role has never been fully investigated, although
many survivors still bear a lifelong distrust of Britain.

The
Jews of Iraq had been living peacefully for millennia in Baghdad since
the time of Babylon and by 1941 numbered around 150,000, over a third
of the population. Professor Heskel Haddad, now an ophthalmologist in
Manhattan, was 11-years- old at the time and recalls a happy and secure
early childhood. “We had many Jewish and Arab Muslim neighbours and we
were very friendly with them. I was Jewish in religion but I felt very
much Iraqi. I loved Iraq and I loved the people, whether Muslim or
Jew.”

One month before the Farhud a
violent coup brought a rabidly pro-Nazi lawyer, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani,
to power, forcing the country’s regent, a friend of the Jews, to seek
British protection. Rashid Ali brought to his side the Grand Mufti of
Jerusalem, a man with strong ties to the Third Reich who had fled from
Palestine. Together, they indoctrinated the country with Nazi
propaganda; children in Iraqi schools were taught to praise Hitler and
that Jews were the internal enemy; Radio Berlin began regular
broadcasts in Arabic. Their aim was to rid Iraq of the British presence
and turn the country’s oil reserves over to the Germans.

Next,
Rashid Ali ordered Iraq’s military to destroy the British RAF base in
Habbaniya, west of Baghdad –– a non-operational flight training centre
equipped with antique planes, manned by cadets. Despite the odds, the
Iraqi campaign failed drastically. With his forces humiliatingly
defeated and British ground troops advancing on the city, on May 30
Rashid Ali fled the country leaving the capital in a vacuum.

The
regent’s return was announced two days later, to the relief of the
Jews celebrating Shavuot. Their joy turned to horror however when the
Muslims mistook their celebrations to be the result of the country’s
downfall at the hands of the British. A huge mob gathered, armed with
knives, swords and guns, chanting “Ketaal al yehud
(“Slaughter the Jews”). Eleven-year-old Haddad was with his family
having a festive meal. “Suddenly we heard screams, ‘Allah Allah’, and
shots were fired,” he recalls. “We went out to the roof to see what was
happening – we saw fires, we saw people on the roofs screaming,
begging God to help them. There was a guy across the street from our
house screaming: ‘Help me! Give me water!’ and my father didn’t let me
give him water because he was afraid that I might be killed by the
gangs. The voice of this man ended an hour or two later when I guess he
died.”

Salim Fattal was also 11, living with his family in the
Jewish quarter of Tatran. Like everyone, they were completely
unprepared for the violence that hit the city. “We were hiding with all
the children and women in the cellar listening to the whistling of
bullets around our house,” he says. “We had no weapons and there were
four men trying to defend 21 women and children with just some sticks
and knives. We knew we couldn’t defend the house against these armed
invaders. It was terrifying.”

Taken by surprise and with no
protection, Jews either defended themselves with whatever they could
find or else bribed Iraqi policemen to protect them. Fattal’s mother
found one near their alley and approached him with a parcel of money.
The policeman agreed to stay with them until midnight.

The
violence worsened during the night and the mob was soon in its tens of
thousands, targeting every Jewish home in the city. The task was easy
as a red hamsa – a traditional hand symbol – had been painted on the
exteriors.

“We could hear screams from our neighbours which was a
horrifying sound,” continues Fattal, even now crying at the memory.
“All of them all started to shout and scream and it would last for two
minutes or so, and then the sound died. Then the same sound would renew
from other directions. These voices have never left me. They were so
strong, so close and so clear.”

By the second day, Fattal could
see from his balcony that the mob was attacking his neighbour’s house.
“We could see them right under our noses and if they had decided to
attack us then, no one could have stopped them as it was very easy for
the rioters to move from roof to roof. So we called our armed policeman
from outside and begged him to fire a few bullets in the air to scare
them away. Our policeman insisted on more payment and my Uncle Naim
argued that we had already paid him generously. But our policeman kept
repeating: ‘How much will you pay?’ while our situation was getting
more and more threatening by the minute. Finally they agreed upon half a
dinar per bullet. Had he refused, we would have taken his gun. The
policeman fired two shots and paused and then two more shots, until he
saw the rioters move away.”

There were also accounts of Muslims
acting heroically to save their Jewish neighbours. Steve Acre was nine
at the time, living with his widowed mother and eight siblings in their
landlord’s house. “Our landlord was a devout Muslim called Hajji who
wore a green turban, and when the mob came, he sat in front of them and
told them that there were orphans in his house and that if they wanted
to kill us, they would have to kill him first. So they moved on across
the street.”

Acre, who has been living in Montreal for over 50
years, sees Iraqi Nazism as the direct cause of the Farhud, but also
blames the British for not having stopped it when it was within their
power. (…)

Tony Rocca, who researched and co-wrote Memories of Eden
with a survivor of the Farhud, Violette Shamash, agrees. “To Britain’s
shame, the army was stood down while hundreds of Jews were killed in
rioting that raged over two days with damage estimated at £13 million
by today’s values. Archive material points to one man who deliberately
kept the troops out. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Britain’s ambassador in
Baghdad, for reasons of his own, held our forces at bay in direct
contradiction to express orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill
that they should take the city and secure its safety.”

The
violence was stopped only when it appeared the rioters were getting
carried away and entering Muslim areas. A curfew was called, and Iraqi
troops began shooting looters. But the death toll of around 800 and
thousands more injured is a memory Acre can never forget. “When you
hear yelling and screaming of women and children, it stays with you
forever.”

Read article in full 

More about theFarhud

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