Jewish escapee from Iraq fears for the Kurds

 Jimmy Ezra and his siblings were among more than 2,000 Iraqi Jews who were
helped by Kurdish Peshmerga to escape from the Ba’athist regime during
the 1970s. Here he talks to Ben Cohen of JNS News about his fears for the Kurds following the disastrous referendum on independence. (With thanks: Janet)

“One day in 1970, my brother Farid was walking in the street when he
was stopped for an ID check,” Ezra recalled. “He had a permit exempting
him from serving in the army, and on every page it was written in red, yahudi, yahudi, yahudi (Jew).”

Farid was arrested and imprisoned on a spying charge. His voice
breaking, Ezra recalled how his brother was beaten and tortured by his
jailers until he suffered a nervous breakdown. Farid was then
transferred to a prison for the criminally insane.

“In the hot summer, the prisoners would all run outside to drink the
unfiltered river water that was brought in by a truck in the morning —
they would fight over the dirty water,” Ezra said. “My aunt would send
me with food and clean water for my brother, and he would beg me to take
him away.”

At this point, Ezra said, he and his sister Gilda decided that it was
time to leave Iraq. He ventured north to Iraqi Kurdistan, then enjoying
a measure of autonomy under an agreement with Baghdad that was soon
reneged upon by Saddam Hussein. Arriving in the Kurdish town of Haj
Omran on the Iranian border, he came across an Iraqi Jewish family he
knew who were taken across the border into Iran that same night. Ezra,
meanwhile, was given a mattress in a room where he bedded down with ten
Kurds. “I told them about how the Jews were suffering,” he said.  “They
promised to take me to Mustafa Barzani the following day.”

Masssoud Barzani in his youth

The next morning, Barzani’s aides hatched a plan that involved Ezra
and another Jewish family returning to Baghdad to collect their
relatives, after which they would travel to a meeting point back in
northern Iraq. “That was on Monday; on the Thursday, back in Baghdad, I
woke up my brother Farid, who was suffering badly from his trauma in
prison, and I told him, ‘Come on, you and me and Gilda are going on a
short vacation,’” he said.

Had they been stopped and discovered at one of the many security
checkpoints along the way, certain imprisonment in a Ba’athist jail
would have awaited — and, indeed, the family was pulled over by a
soldier. “Luckily, the guy was an idiot,” Ezra remembered. “He couldn’t
understand why my brother had an exemption permit from the army, so our
driver kept explaining, ‘He’s not well, he’s not well.’ Eventually, the
soldier said, ‘Ok, ok, you can go.’”

Arriving at the meeting point agreed with Barzani’s advisers, Ezra
remembered that a high-level Kurdish intelligence official “came out and
started briefing us.”

To maintain secrecy around Kurdish assistance to escaping Iraqi Jews,
the official instructed Ezra and those with him to personally approach
Masoud Barzani, who would be sitting in a cafe at an agreed time, and
pretend they had a brother imprisoned by Kurdish forces. “We had to
act,” Ezra said. “We had to beg and plead in front of Masoud.”

Following this ruse, the Ezra siblings got into a jeep alongside
 Masoud. At the border with Iran, Masoud got out and bade his farewells.
“We had a gift for Masoud and his adviser,” Ezra said. “It was a Parker
21 pen, that was a big deal back then. We wanted them to take it, but
they refused and refused. They said, ‘We are doing this because we care
and we want to help you.’”

“They never took any money, any gifts, unlike the smugglers who would
rob the Iraqi Jews they were supposed to be helping,” Ezra continued.

After crossing into Iran on September 1, the Ezras survived a long
and arduous journey to Tehran, where they stayed at the aptly-named
Hotel Sinai — then full of escaped Iraqi Jews in transit with the Jewish
Agency’s assistance. “On October 2, we arrived in America,” Ezra said.
“We came to New York.” Many other Iraqi Jews who escaped around the same
time went to Israel, as well as the UK, Canada and other countries.

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