Month: January 2021

Grouchy Jean-Pierre Bacri mourned by French cinema fans

Followers of French cinema are mourning the comic actor and screenwriter Jean-Pierre Bacri, who has died of cancer aged 69. He was born in Castiglione, Algeria, but this Guardian obituary makes no mention of the fact Bacri was Jewish. His collaborator (and long-term partner) Agnès Jaoui is from a Tunisian-Jewish family. 

Jean-Pierre Bacri, known for his gruff charm and hangdog look

 Any admirer of French cinema over the past 40 years will have developed a soft spot for the hangdog looks and gruff, rumpled charm of the actor Jean-Pierre Bacri, who has died aged 69 of cancer. In the tradition of Walter Matthau, he brought sympathetic comic shading to even the most irredeemable worrywart or miseryguts. His speciality was a saturnine impatience with life that was nonetheless susceptible to glimmers of optimism; he could mope and hope with equal conviction. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, praised his “laconic and sensitive humanity”, calling him “the tenderest of our grouches”. 

 Those qualities were present also in Bacri’s award-winning screenplays, written mostly with his longtime partner Agnès Jaoui; their collaboration outlived the end of their relationship in 2012. They co-wrote and starred in a series of urbane and insightful comedies of manners, which Jaoui also directed, and which earned her comparisons to Woody Allen. In Under the Rainbow (2013), it was Bacri who took the Allen-esque role of a disconsolate driving instructor convinced his number is up after a fortune teller predicts the date of his death. “You’re shut tight like a vault,” his girlfriend tells him, prefiguring a pleasure common to many of Bacri’s performances: that slight eventual unclenching as his characters start to entertain the remote possibility of joy. 

 The couple’s biggest success was The Taste of Others (Le Goût des Autres) (2000), Jaoui’s directing debut, in which Bacri played a philistine factory owner besotted by the lead actor (Anne Alvaro) in a production of Jean Racine’s Bérénice. It was an international hit, and a surprise Oscar contender for best foreign language film.

They won the best screenplay prize at Cannes for Look at Me (2004), starring Bacri as an arrogant publisher who behaves cruelly toward his overweight daughter. 

In their follow-up, Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008), he was a struggling film-maker. Their final project together, Place Publique (2018), cast him as a washed-up TV presenter.

“I would have made more egocentric movies without him,” Jaoui said in 2008. “He is self-taught, and when he knows something, he knows it forever.” She called him “my favourite actor and writer” and “the man that understands me the best and the quickest”. 

The affection was reciprocated. “It’s a vacation when I work on a film with Agnès,” Bacri said. “We talk, smoke joints … We like each other.”

The critic David Denby said the couple had “mastered the art of complex narrative. They have a story to tell, but they go so far into manners, quirks, and undertones that we feel, at the end of their films, that we have understood not just a dramatised anecdote but an entire way of life.” Denby called Bacri “a master of the many shades of half-interest and sullen boredom. His expression asks, ‘What’s the point?’” 

 He was born in Castiglione (now Bou Ismaïl) in Algeria, the son of a postman and a housewife, and raised in Cannes; he traced his love of film to his father’s weekend job at one of the town’s cinemas. He was educated at the Lycée Carnot in Cannes, then moved to Paris in 1976 to become an advertising copywriter. He studied drama from 1977 at Le Cours Simon and won a prize two years later for his play The Sweet Face of Love.

French film and television work followed, with early parts including a pimp in Le Grand Pardon (1982), a would-be actor in postwar Lyon in Diane Kurys’ Entre Nous (1983), and a cop in Luc Besson’s stylish thriller Subway (1985), for which Bacri earned his first César nomination. He met Jaoui in 1986 when they appeared in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They began writing together soon after.

Read article in full

Biden, don’t send the Jewish archive back to Iraq

This year, the US State Department is set to send back the Iraqi Jewish Archive, the collection of Jewish documents and memorabilia found in the flooded basement of the secret police headquarters in Baghdad and shipped for restoration to the US. This JTA article by Carole Basri and Adriana Davis, written on the anniversary of the Baghdad hangings,  is a timely attempt to plead with the Biden administration not to add insult to injury by legitimising the dispossession of a persecuted community. (With thanks: Eta)

For the Basri family, leaving Iraq meant leaving behind not only our own personal belongings but a vast collection of material belonging to the Frank Iny School, the last Jewish school to operate in Iraq.

 Frank Iny was my grandfather, and his school was an island of security for Jews as the fires of anti-Semitism raged around them. School records, photos and more were lost, we thought forever. 

Frank Iny at his wedding to Muzli

 However, by a series of miraculous events, in 2003, the communal and personal property that had been stolen by the Baath regime was discovered in a flooded basement of the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s secret police by US troops. 

The United States undertook to salvage and restore the collection. Presently, the collection is in the custody of the U.S. National Archives, where they were restored and displayed at various locations.

But now, this priceless collection is once more in danger of being lost forever. 

 The Iraqi Jewish Archives chronicles the 2,700-year history of the Jews of Iraq — a history that ended when the Iraqi Jewish community was forced to flee. The collection contains tens of thousands of items, including a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible, a 200-year-old Talmud, Torah scrolls, Torah cases and other sacred books including manuscripts by the Ben Ish Hai, the late 19th-century Baghdadi scholar, as well personal and communal records. 

 Until Saddam Hussein was deposed, many Iraqi Jews were afraid to speak publicly about their heritage. Today, when we interviewed members of the community for our latest film, “Saving the Iraqi Jewish Archives,” one woman we spoke to told us how the discovery of the archives strengthened her desire to protect the remnants of their past for future generations. 

We filmed other Iraqi Jews touring the archives and, for the first time in 50 years, seeing images of themselves and their records as young students at the Frank Iny School.

Now, the historical record of this once flourishing community is in danger. The State Department plans to return it to Iraq in 2021. We are now in danger of losing the tangible proof of our very existence in Iraq. Only the Administration or U.S. State Department can prevent this from happening. 

 The US State Department has signed agreements with various Middle Eastern states, including Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Syria, about sending Jewish cultural and religious artifacts back — material that had been stolen from the Jewish communities when they were dispossessed of all their property (and sometimes of their lives). 

The Iraqi Jewish Diaspora is fighting against such a miscarriage of justice.

If the Iraqi Jewish Archives are sent back to Iraq, it will be another step in the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Jews. These agreements could have far-reaching consequences for all Judaica that had been saved from these countries and are now in use in synagogues or in museums and cultural centers in the United States.

Read article in full

Shoah survivor tells her story to Arab audience

 With thanks: Michelle

An unprecedented Zoom meeting brought together an audience of 200 Emiratis, Bahrainis, Moroccans 15 Saudis and even a Syrian woman to listen to a Shoah survivor tell her story. Report on Israel’s Channel 12.

The survivor, Vera Grossman-Kriegel, a twin, underwent experiments by the satanic Dr Mengele in the Auschwitz conentration camp. 

The initiative comes from Sharaka, a ‘partnership’ between Israelis and Arabs and would have been unthinkable before the peace agreements reached between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. It is a breakthrough and vitally important. 

 However, as with theAladdinproject, there is a danger that the Arab participants in this exercise will come away with the misconception that Israel was established in respsonse to the Shoah, a purely European story.

 Arabs are shown touring Yad Vashem, the Shoah memorial in Jerusalem, where evidence of the complicity of the Palestinian Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini in Hitler’s extermination project and the enduring legacy of Arab and Muslim genocidal antisemitism, has been downgraded.  


How one Iranian Jew survived the Shoah in Europe

 Menashe Ezrapour was one of a few Iranian Jews in Nazi-occupied France during WW2. He had been studying there and survived internment. (Some 2,000 MENA Jews are thought to have been deported to death camps in continental Europe.)  Karmel Melamed tells Ezrapour’s story of miraculous escape  in this 2006 Jerusalem Post article:

Menashe Ezrapour: miraculous escape

He said he stayed in the Grenoble home of a Christian woman for two weeks and used false identification papers to get around. He was ultimately arrested after the woman was tricked by a police officer into revealing his whereabouts. 

After 45 days in jail, Ezrapour said he was convicted of using false papers and sentenced to serve 40 more days in the Shapoli work camp. From Shapoli, he and other Jewish prisoners were taken to the infamous Gurs concentration camp, 80 kilometers from the Spanish border. 

According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Gurs was the first and one of the largest concentration camps in France, with approximately 60,000 prisoners held there from 1939 to 1945. According to the 1993 book, Gurs: An Internment Camp in France, the internees included approximately 23,000 Spanish Republican soldiers who had fled Franco’s Spain in 1939, 7,000 International Brigade volunteers, 120 French resistance members and more than 21,000 Jews from all over Europe.

 Ezrapour said that  living conditions there were unbearable, with too many people crowded together into small barracks and very little food. “Every day, the only food available was one bowl of watered-down turnip soup and 75 grams of bread, which is the size of a teaspoon,” he said. Gurs held thousands of Jews prior to their final deportation to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor.

 However, more than 1,000 detainees died of hunger, typhoid fever, dysentery and extreme cold. 

After a month at Gurs, Ezrapour said he and 40 other prisoners were sent to a work camp near Marseilles called Meyreuil, instead of being deported to Auschwitz with thousands of other Jews. “After two days there, an officer issuing identification cards asked me if I was Jewish, and I told him I was not, and he luckily did not identify me as a Jew,” Ezrapour said. 

“This was an incredible miracle, because later in 1944, two Gestapo officers came to the camp and saw my Jewish name on the list and asked for me. The camp commandant told them I was an Iranian-Iraqi, and they didn’t ask for me any further.” 

Ezrapour said he was subsequently sent to labor long hours in the coal mines near Meyreuil. He also worked as an electrician. In August 1944, he said, Meyreuil was liberated by American forces, and he left the camp. He sought refuge with rebels in the Spanish underground living in a nearby border town. For the remainder of the war, Ezrapour returned to Grenoble, where he completed his education in engineering.

 He returned to Iran in June 1946 and worked in the spare auto parts business. 

Read article in full

Baghdad hangings: the family which got away

Exclusive to Point of No Return

Corpses hanging in Liberation Square on 27 January 1969

Today is the 52nd anniversary of the public hangings of nine Jews in Liberation Square in Baghdad on trumped-up spying charges.

The date  is especially meaningful for Dora Saddik and her family.

Dora will never forget the night of 27 January 1969 when  nine Jews, who had been given a hurried show trial, were executed. Then aged 24, Dora was jailed, also on trumped-up spying charges, together with her mother and twin brothers aged 22 and a younger brother aged 16. 

 Only one wall separated Dora from the condemned men.” We were forced to clap hands and call them traitors,” she recalls. That same night a helicopter picked up the corpses and ferried them to Liberation Square. Half a million Iraqis came to sing, dance and ‘eat chocolates’ the next day under the gallows. The regime had declared a public holiday. 

Dora is convinced that she and her family would have been ‘next on the list’ for execution. They were freed following a visit from the Red Cross, which came to see if there were any Jews in Iraqi prisons.

During the three months that Dora and her family were in jail, they were tortured. Her brothers were strung up to the ceiling fan and hit with rubber hoses and iron bars. That was the least of it.

On their release, the family were told that if they said they were treated badly, their house or car would ‘accidentally’ catch fire. 

 The family were finally able to to be smuggled out of Iraq in December 1971. Some 2,000 Iraqi Jews took such illegal and risky routesout of the country. Dora has lived in Israel since. She has vowed never again to set foot in an Arab country.

Montreal  ZOOM Commemoration of the Baghdad  hangings


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.