In the second part of her story, Lisette Shashoua Ades describes the dark days of terror and oppression directed at the small Jewish community after the Six Day War. But in 1970, a small glimmer of hope that she and other Jews might be able to escape Iraq, presented itself. (For Part I, ‘Palaces, parties and racehorses: my childhood in Iraq‘, click here. For Part 3, click here.
I have to stress the fact here, that us Jews, who chose to stay in Iraq after 1951, and after all the persecution, had nothing to do with Israel. We were too scared to mention the word Israel between ourselves, let alone out loud.
We called it “ that place “ or even “the other London”. Magazines with the slightest article or picture about Israel were banned from being sold in Iraq since 1950.
We grew up having no idea what Israel or Israelis looked like.
I once drew a few mini stars of David in the privacy of our living room – and immediately tore up the paper and threw it down the toilet; only for my Dad to discover a mini shred of paper that remained unflushed! He reacted with sheer terror; he rebuked me and told me that he would be sent to the gallows if anyone discovered that paper.
Unfortunately, we did have a maid, Mariyam, who lived with us. She would invariably threaten to tell on us : “they listened to Radio Israel!” That was whenever my grandmother would accuse her of stealing anything – and steal she did – .including a whole Persian carpet which she proudly had hanging on her wall. We actually had a spy living with us: of course, we did not dare sack her! I could not stand her, yet she stayed with my parents till they themselves left Iraq, .and she probably stole whatever she could carry to her house after they left.
We were members of the Mansour club and YMCA where we went swimming.
At the Menahem Daniel playground (Malaab) , we played tennis, ping pong, volleyball and basketball and also socialized with each other.
We became members of the Acropolis, a Greek club, where we played Bingo, had dinner and started to attend dancing and New Year parties.
We had dancing parties in our homes where we twisted to Chubby Checker, rocked to Elvis, swooned to Adamo and Enrico Macias and danced to the Beatles.
In February 1963 Abdul Karim Kassem (the co-instigator of the 1958 revolution) was killed by his former partner Abdul Salam Aref. The Ba’ath party immediately started to restrict Jews from many activities, including travel. Now, not only the properties of the denationalized Jews outside Iraq were frozen, but the properties of us Jews living in Iraq as Iraqi nationals were also frozen!
Then the Six Day War broke out. Israel won the war. To retaliate against Israel, Iraq tightened the pressure even more on the 3,000 helpless Jews still living there.
On the very first day of the war, all the clubs we helped build such as the Mansour, the Acropolis, and even the YMCA expelled all “ undesirable members” – with all our names listed outside their closed doors.
Our playground – the Menahem Daniel Malaab” which belonged to the Jewish Community – was immediately closed and confiscated.
The regime cut off all our telephones immediately after the war; they did not admit Jews at universities anymore, and those who were already attending university, like myself at Al Hikma, were constantly reminded that we could be kicked out any day. Some of my Jewish classmates were harassed, beaten, detained and even imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
The new government revoked all Jewish commercial licenses; they kicked out all Jews from employment and instructed all businesses to fire their Jewish employees. They froze all Jewish assets including our moneys in the bank.
Jews were only allowed to withdraw 100 dinars a month from their own bank accounts for expenses!
Unemployment insurance did not exist in Iraq, so the employees who were kicked out of their jobs had no money left to live on. They were too proud to admit it, until their children were fainting from hunger at school. The school administration, spearheaded by two wonderful ladies, started organizing food baskets for the families.
On 3 January 1968 my dear grandfather Eliahou Meir Heskel Haim passed away from cancer.
Even though he had a legal will, the Ba’ath Party decided that inheritance is determined according to Moslem law.
In Moslem law, every male member inherits twice the amount of his sisters.
Since my mother’s three sisters and two brothers were outside Iraq and already de-nationalized: my mother’s share was one eighth of the house; the Iraqi government confiscated the stakes of her siblings and became the senior partner with my grandmother and mother.
So, in 1968, my mom and grandma, in order to continue living in the house that my grandparents had built in 1927, were ordered to pay rent to the government for the stakes of my mother’s de-nationalized siblings.
Matters deteriorated so badly that a passing car in the night would cause me to wake up, kneel and pray that the car should not stop at our house and turn our lives into an even worse predicament!
It got so bad that my mother and I bought sleeping pills to commit suicide if ever they came to arrest us.
If someone disliked a Jew in his neighbourhood, all he had to do was denounce him or her as a spy to the authorities. This was a good enough reason to arrest that poor soul who was pronounced guilty from the outset, never given a chance to prove himself innocent.
I placed a book of tehilim (psalms) under my pillow and started to teach myself to read the three paragraphs of Shema Israel It took me an hour and a half the first time to read it aloud.
Each night I slowly advanced my pace.
In 1968, the random arrests intensified, men were tortured until they confessed that they were spies. (I will withhold from describing the gory details).
I was told by one of the survivors that the jail relied on an East German doctor to determine how much each individual could endure without dying!
Many died from the torture regardless, and they were reported on the radio as ‘escapees’.
Many of the Jewish prisoners gave in to the torture or to the fact that their wives, daughters or sisters were being raped in front of them; the prisoners falsely admitted to spying even though they were innocent to spare their loved ones, or themselves, further torture.
Many refused categorically to give in. Unfortunately, they were doomed to the same fate anyway. They were all murdered!
All these arrests and tortures culminated in a mock “Mickey Mouse” trial in December of 1968 and January 1969.
The defendants were not allowed to have their own lawyer; the State appointed a lawyer for them who further incriminated them as spies for Israel. The verdict was death by hanging.This verdict was carried out on the same night as it was announced.
We woke up on the morning of 27 January 1969. To our horror, we found out that fourteen innocent men were hanged in Liberation Square. Ten of them were Jewish!
At least three victims were less than eighteen years of age. The Iraqi courts jacked up their ages to make it legal for them to be hanged.
These teenagers were accused of blowing up a bridge that was still standing. Furthermore, they were tried for blowing that bridge back in 1962, meaning that they were less than ten years old when they committed this nonexistent crime!
The hangings in Baghdad, January 1969
Anyone with a brain could immediately deduce that all these wild accusations were fake! Yet the Iraqi mobs so hungry for blood, decided to buy into these blatant lies.
The country went into a frenzy of jubilation. Thousands of Iraqis, little girls dressed in glitter running to the square, danced and chanted in the streets around the dead bodies. Women were actually breast-feeding their babies and picnicking in front of the dangling corpses of thosepoor innocent martyrs.The radio was blaring that the country was now rid of their spies. It encouraged the public to continue denouncing the fifth column!
The horrors of that day would be forever emblazoned in the DNA of every Jew who was in Iraq and who lived through this trauma.
What made things worse for me, was that we were amongst the lucky ones to still be attending University. It was a double-edged sword since we were in constant fear of being kicked out, or worse, especially since we had to pass through a military zone every day on our way to university and our car was stopped at a checkpoint.
We were in the midst of our mid-term exams so it was mandatory to go to University that day.
I wrongly rationalized in my head that since we were going to be amongst the educated, surely the other students could tell that all these spy stories were fabricated.
It did not help. I was the first of five Jewish students to be picked up that day by the taxi driver we had hired for the school year. He had just returned from the square and was ecstatic.
He proceeded with a happy smile to describe the corpses he just saw…I could not scream or show my horror to him in case he thought that I too was a spy, yet, I dared ask him to refrain from further gory descriptions.
We arrived at the university after a long, forty-minute ride of silent tears and furtive exchanged glances, only to be greeted with banners applauding the hangings and demanding more such acts from the government from our so-called friends and university colleagues.
What is more, they were looking at us laughing! The expressions of utter glee and happiness of these supposed friends, whom we had often tutored and fraternized with, will be forever etched in my mind.
I will neither forgive nor forget.
We were horrified, yet we were too terrified to show our grief. Had we done so, it would only mean (in the mob’s mind) that we sympathised with the so-called “spies” and therefore must definitely be one of them ourselves! When Israel protested that none of these people were its spies and a world outcry ensued denouncing these fake accusations, the Iraqi government defiantly answered that it had enough Jews to hang all of us. You can just imagine the heightened atmosphere of terror that dominated our daily existence after that horrid day.
In order to get rid of his enemies, Saddam Hussein found it was more convincing to hang a few Jews as scapegoats along with his real enemies; this would make it more plausible for the public to believe …and believe they did.
There was some international pressure on Iraq after this to stop these fake trials, yet the reign of terror and the hangings continued (with a few less public spectacles). Eventually, a year later, a small window of opportunity for the Jews to escape presented itself when Iraq and Kurdistan reached a temporary, semi-truce in 1970.
The Iraqi government decided to turn a blind eye and let the Jews leave illegally. Apart from the fact that they were paid for each and every one who left, they could now seize all Jewish assets and possessions with impunity.
In August 1970, a hundred and fifty Jews (many of them my close friends and classmates) travelled to the north of the country looking for ways to escape:they were all rounded up in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, brought back to Baghdad and were imprisoned in the Ba ha’i center which the government had recently confiscated.
Our dear and close friends and their families; Linda Schemtob, Albert Sleeman, Edna and Vera Dallal, my cousins Solly and Abood Abdulezer, Dora Yamen and her brothers, Laurette and William Nourallah – they were all incarcerated along with their families.
Needless to say, how shocked and worried we were.
Freddy Sheena, my close friend Laurette’s brother, was also missing. His mother Salima went up North to look for him, she too got arrested.
While we were commiserating together, Laurette told me: “ as black as it is now, I still feel we will leave soon.” Somehow, that was enough to awaken a glimmer of hope for me as well.
My mom who stayed behind, told me later that Mrs Alkabir took a chance and wrote to her brother- in-law in Paris; she listed all the names of the people in prison . He in turn, informed Alain Poher , a senator in charge of a French human rights committee. When Alain Poher confronted the Iraqis, they denied having any Jewish prisoners, until Poher showed them the list that Mrs Alkabir had sent – and demanded that Iraq free them. Three weeks later, Gamal Abdul Nasser died, and miraculously all the 150 detained Jews, including Freddy and his mother, were freed one day before Rosh Hashanah.
What a relief. What a miracle! I went hopping from house to house to hug my cousins and friends who were freed that day.
Upon their release, they told us that the Amen ( national guards) were vicious to some of them, yet being together still gave them comfort. There were some terrifying instances when they were all being questioned, some were forced to sign false statements about connections to Israel. Others told us that they flushed their jewellery down the drain in case they were accused of smuggling what belonged to them, or squeezed antique watches into the cracks of a sofa while being questioned.
Some stories were funny, but of course only after the fact. We heard how one of the boys put an address in his mouth and swallowed it. When she saw this, the young lady beside him, asked him if he could swallow her gold sovereign as well!
Rosh Hashanah was the day after the release of all our friends and dear ones.
We went to the Meer Elias synagogue to pray and give thanks for their safety, with renewed faith, and yes – hope! !
By now, I had learnt the three paragraphs of Shema Israel and I recited them by heart in the synagogue.
All the Jews were gearing up to leave Iraq, but my parents and grandmother Sarah Khatoun Shamash were hoping that one day soon, they would be able to sell some of their frozen properties.
They made the futile decision to stay in Iraq and not flee in order not to lose everything.
I, on the other hand, had my whole future as well as possibly my own life to lose if I stayed. It was a no brainer; I had no choice, but to leave!
Both my parents and I knew that I was endangering my own life as well as theirs if I escaped – but we operated out of desperation!
I owe my freedom to the family of Haim and Amal Rejwan who accepted to take me with them as they fled.
To be continued