It was a moving, yet dignified ceremony at Europe’s oldest functioning synagogue, Bevis Marks. Dignitaries joined congregants and relatives of the dead to recall the hangings 50 years ago of nine innocent Jews executed in Baghdad and their bodies suspended in Liberation Square. The day was declared a national holiday as half-a-million Iraqis came to sing and picnic under the suspended corpses. Over 40 Jews were executed, murdered or disappeared in the years to follow. Jenni Frazer writes for Jewish News:
The names of the men and women murdered by the Iraqi regime 50 years ago rang out in the crowded congregation of Bevis Marks on Tuesday night.
And many of those in the centuries-old synagogue, the families of the dead, wept as they paid tribute to their loved ones, hanged, murdered while in custody, or simply missing, their fates unknown.
One of the key results of the killings — which began in January 1969 with the public hangings of 15 men, nine of whom were Jews — was the fleeing of the majority of the Iraqi Jewish community (Only 3,000 of a 150,000 -member community remained by the late 1960s – ed). Many of them began new lives in Britain.
In an emotional keynote address, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi community, recalled the glory days of the Iraqi Jewish community, the cornerstone of diaspora Jewish scholarship for hundreds of years, and “part of the national psyche of the Jewish people”.
For centuries, he said, “we not only survived in Arab lands, we thrived”.
He spoke of the “glory and grandeur of Jewish life in that country”, but, while acknowledging the pain and suffering of the loss of that life, urged the community to “stand taller, not slouch, be stronger, not sad. Lift up your hearts”.
The evening began with a candle lit by the S&P Sephardi community president, Sabah Zubeida, in memory of Ezra Naji Sion Hesqel Zilkha, and his own father, Daoud Sassoon Zubeida.
The January 27 1969 hangings had been “the beginning of the end” for Iraqi Jewry, he said, a “terrifying time, in which Jews were the easiest target”.The bodies of the nine Jews hanged on that January day 50 years ago were returned to the Jewish community for burial.
But many more, who died at the hands of the regime in prison or were simply rounded up and killed, were never seen again, never buried — but always mourned.
In tears, Samira Elias lit a candle in memory of her brother Hesqel Salih Hesqel and her sister Suad Kashkush; Faiza Saigh lit one in memory of her brother, Daoud Ghali Yadgar, and Nouri Dallal lit a candle in the name of his brother Daoud Hesqel Barukh Dallal.
Other candles were lit by Chef Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who recited Psalm 137; Rabbi Abraham Levy, who had, as a young man, led a demonstration against the hangings outside the Iraqi embassy in London, but who today also rejoiced in the contribution made by Iraqi Jews to Britain’s Jewish community; Bishop Graham Kings, representing the Church of England; Lord Pickles, the UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues; and Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, who spoke of Iraqi antisemitism and its echoes today, in “vile tropes on social media, relating to dual loyalties and undue influences”.
The actor and musician Noa Bodner linked the event with a series of readings outlining the terrible events of January 1969.
A memorial prayer was led by the rabbi of Lauderdale Road Synagogue, Rabbi Israel Elia, while Rabbi Dweck recited kaddish.