Iraqi Jew:’ Israel is the only country we have’

Today Israelis celebrate their country’s independence day, Yom Ha-atzma’ut. Here is a pertinent and moving story by Sarah Ansbacher, who manages the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum:

In these hours as we transition from the somberness of Yom Hazikaron,
a week after Yom Hashoah, to the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, let me
tell you a pertinent story about a man who was born in Baghdad, Iraq.

He was looking at the Sefer Torah we have on display in the museum and
became a little emotional. He told me it brought back memories for him.
Then he then caught sight of the little Eliahu Hanavi chair and started
singing me a song he remembered from his childhood that was sung at the brit (circumcision) of a baby in the shul in Iraq. And he cried.

The little Eliyahu Hanavi chair at the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum

His family had a good life there until the Farhud of 1941, a pogrom
against the Jewish community which was in part influenced by the Nazis.
After that, everything changed, and as a result of the hardships that
followed, his family moved to Basra, and a few years later to Abadan in
Persia (Iran).

He’d heard stories of Israel and it captured his
imagination. But his father, who was a merchant, was not interested in
moving there. He’d rebuilt his life in Abadan and they had quite a
comfortable life with a house in the city, and a little summer house by
the sea. But the boy never settled or felt he belonged. He was still a
Jewish refugee from Iraq.

In 1953 at the age of just twelve and a
half, he decided to move to Israel. On his own. He ran away from home
without telling his parents. He took a train, by himself, across the
country from Abadan in the south to Tehran in the north. Once there he
looked for signs of Jewish life. He found a shul where he spoke to one
of the members and told him he was originally a refugee from Iraq and
wanted to move to Israel. They hid him in the basement, together with
several other children. After three days, a shaliach arrived. They were
taken by truck on a long journey from Tehran to Alexandria in Egypt.

Three weeks after running away, he arrived by ship in Haifa, Israel and
from there, he was taken to a kibbutz. The first thing he asked to do
was send an express letter to his parents to let them know he was OK and
where he was. They had been frantic with worry, not knowing what had
happened to him and they feared he was dead.

His parents were
relieved, but at first, also furious with him. They eventually forgave
him and a few months later they packed up their lives and moved to
Israel to join him. They were housed in a ma’abarah (camp for refugees)
in Or Yehudah, first living in a tent and then a hut. It was hot in the
summer and freezing in the winter. It was hard, but they rebuilt their
lives again here.

I asked him if he ever regretted what he had done in coming here?

“Not for a minute! “he replied. He told me that not only had he fulfilled
his army service, but he chose to do miluim (reserve duty) for six years past the
standard age, into his fifties. I asked him why? And he said: “Because I
love this country. It is the only one we have.”

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