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Shavuot In Baghdad In 1941 (The Farhod)

By Heskel M. Haddad, MD and Phyllis Rosenteur Jewish Press

In June 2 and 3, 1941, a pro-Nazi pogrom
(farhod) was perpetrated against the Jewish community of Baghdad with 900 Jews killed, thousands injured, and millions of dollars in property looted, burned
and destroyed. Many of the dead were not identified
and were buried in a mass grave. This is a personal
memoir of what happened during those two days in
Baghdad.

On Shavuot eve, the entire area would ordinarily
be bustling. This time last year, when I’d gone to buy
the bread for dinner, great streams of people had been
surging to and from the Quarter. With sunset hours
away, they still had time to stroll the street, stepping
to exchange good wishes for the holiday with friends
and neighbors. I must have heard “Sbah elkhair” a
hundred times before I reached the bakery.

Today, there hadn’t been a single woman on the
scene, and just a scattering of quickly moving men
all headed toward the M’halat-el ‘Yhud (Jewish Quarter). Not a soul was coming from the Quarter, and no
one sauntered leisurely along or made a sound that
wasn’t strictly necessary. The men moved swiftly,
hugging close to house walls, hiding in the narrow
strips of shade beneath the second story overhangings.
Clearly, others shared my father’s feeling that Jews
should shrink themselves this day and try to cast no
shadows.

True, he said, al-Gailani’s coup had been undone
and the upper echelons of insurrectionists had fled,
but their admirers remained under no control at all
now. “Until the King is back in Baghdad,” Baba
warned, “we have to watch our step.

As my father often said, he understood the Arabs well enough to know that even Arabs didn’t understand the Arabs. For the last two months, Y’hud
(Jews) haters had been running freely and unfettered,
and they knew as well as we did that the fun with
guns was coming to an end. Al-Gainlani’s rout would
be seen by them as victory for us, and who could tell
how they’d react?

Apart from exercising caution, preparations for
Shavuot fell into the old familiar pattern. Before
Shabbat and all the othur holy days, the house was
not just cleaned, but scoured. As usual, I helped
Nazima, my oldest sister, hose the hosh (courtyard)
and, as usual, I soaked myself from head to foot before we’d wet the wall. As always, father pointedly
remarked, “A woman your age should be working on
he, own walls.”

The jibe was as much a part of every holiday as
any prayer. For as long as I could recollect, Nazima
had refused the marriages that Baba wished to bring
about, while he continued to reject the only man she’d
ever want. Nana offered no support; it was a father’s
duty to decide his daughter’s future.

Elsewhere my mother might be self-effacing and
submissive, but in the kitchen, she was absolutely autocratic. I thought twice before invading her domain.
The Shavuot meal was mother’s yearly masterpiece,
and with every passing hour, the smells grew more
enticing. Usually we ate at six, but on the holiday,
dinner was considerably delayed. The summer sun
seemed nailed to the sky, and before it sank, I’d have
settled for a piece of bread. The round, flat wagon
wheel I’d brought home from the baker’s might not
look like much, but when khibz (Iraqi Jewish pitta
bread) was pulled apart – it wasn’t to be sliced – I
knew how doughy and deliubms it would be, especially
sopping up my mother’s spicy meatballs!

I could smell them now, simmering in the pea
soup. And I envisioned the khibz soaked with thick
lamb stew… the rich brown rivulets of gravy surrounding small but juicy “sparrows.” At sixteen, practically
an adult, S’hak, my oldest brother, was probably above
our customary squabbling over the bird-shaped bits
of lamb, and Avram, barely three, wasn’t big enough
to be a threat. The girls might look on longingly, but
being females, they couldn’t contest my claim. For
once, I’d have all the asphourria (sparrow-like lamb’s
meet). Anticipation helped to soothe the hunger pangs.

At last the action left the kitchen for the groundfloor summer living room. The ceremonial vessel, filled
with oil and water, hung above the center of the massive table. Of dark mahogany, it easily sat 50, and
laying the embroidered lined cloth required the coordinated effort of every family member.

Since work of every sort was forbidden after sundown, and Nana was concerned about encroaching on
the holy eve, she’d quit the kitchen 30 minutes early,
but everything, I knew, was safely simmering away
in warming ovens. Although the pots were covered and
clear across the open court, ambrosial odors swept the
room every time the ceiling fan revolved. I didn’t think
that I could stand it for another second.

Then mother took the “servant” lamp and
touched its flame in turn to each of seven hand-rolled
wicks that ads up the Kirayee (monarch). As she
began to speak the prayer “Baruch Ata Hashem”
Blessed art Thou, 0 L-rd, the gnawing in my stomach
stopped. As always, the solemnity and splendor overwhelemed all else.

In the light of the seven golden flames, Nara’s
face looked young and fresh, and their glow erased
the deeply graven lines in Baba’s brow as he intoned
the kiddush. An elation as old as history eliminated
all the strain and fear we’d lived with for the last two
months of pro-Nazi rule.

When Avram, as the youngest son, finished up
the blessing, then broke the bread, the mood turned
festive, and food again was all important. Along with
Nana, every mother in the M’halat el Y’hud (Jewish
quarter) was heaping plates and urging all “Eat. You’ll
need your strength.”

Fortification would indeed be necessary. In Iraq,
as nowhere else, Jews stayed up all night to celebrate
Shavuot. In every family, all male adults would take
turns reading chapters of the Torah from the first word
to the last. Only here was observation of the day so
much more than merely ceremonial, for what others
learned from rabbis, our families lived. For Iraqi Jews,
each Shavuot added still another link to a long, un-
broken chain attaching us to ancient Yisrael. It was a
very personal attachment.

All other Jews had split and scattered. We remained the only undispersed descendants of the exiles. Driven from Yerushalayim after the destruction
of the First Temple, our forebears fled to Babylonia,
Iraq of old, and-here we’d stayed until this day. When
we read the Ten Commandments, I could close my eyes
and summon up that long procession, ancestors
stretching back to those who might have heard these
self-same words from Moses.

By the time the dessert arrived, Osa (my youngnet sister) and Avram were much too sleepy, and the
rest of us too stuffed too care. Only Baba reached out
towards the bowl of polished fruits. Full or not, my
father never could resist a date. His hand stopped
short, however, and his fingers made a focusing gesture, shushing us. He seemed to hear some distant
sound, but though I strained my ears, they picked up
nothing. However, people said of Baba that he could
hear a fly buzz at the other end of Baghdad, so I listened hard, and then there was a sound… the merest
spatter of a shower, so I thought. But rain in June?
No wonder Baba’s ear had been alerted. It was unnatural, a true phenomenon. This time of year, the
air of Baghdad was as dry as dust.

Now I heard another distant noise, like the
muffed thrum of thunder. “People. Lots of people.”
Baba’s lips barely moved. Suddenly a high-pitched
howl pierced the hum. Before it faded, my father’s ear
was at the outlet of the ventilating chimney.

“It’s moving this way.”

When Baba started for the roof, we fell in line
behind him, but on arrival, he waved us from the six
foot wall that overlooked the street. The drone was
louder now, the crowd that caused it closer. The few
words we could clearly hear were in Muslim accent,
and the soft patter had become a crackle. In our own
dialect, an anguished voice cried out.

“G-d save us!”

“Us” quivered in the air, trembling above us,
frightening as a sword suspended on a fragile thread.
“Us” meant more than just a single Jew in jeopardy.
This wasn’t just another sickening but isolated outrage. The unseen sword hung over all of “us.”

S’hak (my oldest brother) and I joined Baba at
the wall, and he allowed us to remain. By standing on
the ledge, we could see that Kambar Ali Street was
empty, but overhangs of other houses hid from sight
whatever might be happening on either side of us. Not
that a wider field of vision would have helped a lot.
The blackout of the last eight weeks was still in force,
and Baghdad was a stygian black.

Over the ghetto, though, a grayish pall appeared
to be expanding, and as we watched, two straight new
plumes of smoke shot up. A bail of bullets from a
nearby alley told us that the trouble wasn’t only in
the Jewish Quarter but a whole lot closer to our house.

Baba snatched me from the ledge and Nana
waited, “They’ll kill us all.” All we knew for sure was
that “they” whoever they might be – had automatic
weapons. That, and that the ghetto was afire.

S’hak and my father had their heads together,
and Nazima had the kids in hand. No one seemed to
need me. There was nothing I could do except per-
haps divert my mother.

Even in the dark, it took me just a minute to
discover she was missing. Since she had to be inside, I
headed for the stairs full speed. Going anywhere without the baby, especially if danger threatened; was so
alien to my mother’s nature, that it seared me more
than anything else I’d seen or heard all evening.

Nana wasn’t in the kitchen or the courtyard, but
cutting back across the hosh and looking through the
grillwork. I saw her in the family room.

Appearing very small and vulnerable, she was
standing at the far end of the massive table, twisting
cotton wicks for the saucers filled with oil before her.
Head bowed, she touched a flame to each of the
k’nadeel (memorial light). First asking that Ezekiel
the Prophet intervene for us, next invoking Ezra the
Second Temple’s architect, and finally imploring the
aid of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness, the miracle maker of
Tiberias and one of Nana’s favorites in the courts of
Heaven.

Her murmured words were much too faint to
catch, but I could see the fear drain from her face. For
reasons that I couldn’t explain, I ducked from sight as
Nana left the room and headed for the roof again. Her
pact was private. She’d done her best. The matter
rested now with G-d.

I looked back at the three k’nadeel. As the ceiling swept over them, all the flames would flicker. However, when each disturbance, ended, the tiny lights
were still alive, defying darkness.

Following my mother to the roof, I realized that
the window on the landing of the second floor
allowed a look straight down the street. The ghetto
was a little beyond and to the right. With any luck
and a minimum of moonlight, I might just make out
something.

I stared into the blackness, as my eyes adjusted,
my hands locked on the sill. I wanted to run screeming to the roof for father, but what I saw glued me to
the spot.

Every entrance to the Quarter was awash with
Arabs, two streams to every street. Those entering the
ghetto were moving swiftly, but those departing inched
along like overladen ants. Some of the Muslims car
ried lanterns, and I could see what slowed them down.

I shut my eyes, but that was even worse. Divorced from sight, you’d say it was a great big, joyous
jubilee, the gayest, must extravagant of family gatherings. Bursts of laughter floated on the air, feminine
giggles mingling with the bass and tenor of the men
and boys.

When I looked again, I saw infants slung in
shawls and kids of every age following in their parents
footsteps. One youngster no older than Avram,
was clinging to his mothers abaya (apron) crying; the
mother’s arms were fully occupied and unavailable to
him. She was carrying a mammoth copper pot, exactly
like the one in Nana’s kitchen. Whose kitchen had it
come from?

My mind was functioning, but the rest ideas was
frozen stiff, as in a nightmare. The scene assaulting
me was eerie as a dream. There were squeals of plea
sure and sounds of scuffing. Metal clinked, something
crashed, and several times I heard a baby – babies?
– bawling. Each sound magnified in rising to the
roof, but none was synchronized with anything I could see.

In the light of swinging lanterns, disjointed fragments
flashed before me from the blackness. For the briefest instant,
every detail was disturbingly defined. In the strange illuallination, ordinary objects were unreal. Colors fluoresced and
steely edges glittered evilly. At times it seems that precious
stones were sparkling in the dark.

I shook my head to clear it and motion consumes effort
at control. My imagination had been running riot; I couldn’t
report such fantasies to father.

However, when I focused on them again, I saw that
jewels were blazing, and the glinting edges were the edges of a
real axe. A man with many gem-set bracelets hanging from
his belt like trophies of the a hunt had set his lantern down
and stood in a stationary pool of light. The precious stones
refracted it in fiery rays.

Another man paused within the pool to shift the heavy
linen chest that bent his back. When he straightened up, I
knew that nothing was illusion, but nightmare formed of flesh
and blood. From neck to knee, the man was one great smear of
gore, spilled so recently that it was still a rich and healthy red.

I raced upstairs, too late to sound the first alarm. Word
from the Quarter had passed from roof to roof until it reached
us on the outermost perimeter of Jewish homes. Baba said the
mob was leaderless and mainly after loot, but it was also armed
and in a mean explosive mood. Trying to protect our property
would only mean more burning more bloodshed. Our wisest choice would be complete inaction. Stay silent, out of sight,
save your life and let them have the loot.

It was the same advice that Jews had given Jews since
time began. Someday…

Baba broke into my musings with a curt command. “Go
help S’hak get the bedding.” He’d decided we’d be safest where
we were. In nonnal times, we’d have started sleeping in the
open weeks ago, but the revolution kept us off the roof. Too
sleeping Jews had fallen prey to prowling cutthroats.

We’d stay awake tonight, but not, as planned, to read
the Torah. Baba had long since doused the lights. Downstairs,
the K’nadeel burned, but they couldn’t be seen by anyone outside. Thinking of those three small beacons raised my spirits,
but I couldn’t help wishing that we had as many guns.

Even if we’d wanted to, we couldn’t have closed our eyes.
Drunk with banditry, and some, undoubtedly, with arak,
groups of stragglers wondered through the side streets, shouting out their daring exploits to each other. Directly beneath
our overhang, several almost came to blows over a stolen
sweater.

Shots and intermittent screams kept coming from the
Quarter, and then – much closer – from Kambar Ali Street
itself, and old, old voice, a Jewish voice, called weekly on the
L-rd to send him water.

When I started for the stairs, Baba grabbed my arm
and yanked me back. His face was haggard but, silently, he
shook his head ad held fast. We couldn’t help anyone. We
couldn’t even help ourselves.

He hadn’t said much, but I’d seen his eyes sweep cease
lessly around, searching every inch of the rooftop, seeking any
means to save us. There was no concealment, no escape. Sur
reptitiously, trying not to scare us even more, he’d bent to pick
an object from the rooftop – all we had as a weapon. I’d seen
him shove it up his sleeve, and all night long he held the heavy
length of pipe against his arm so he could slide it down for
instant use.

Periodically, we’d monitor the stairwell window and
watch, hour after hour, the endless streams singing through
the ghetto. In the glow of burning homes, I began to recognize
familiar figures in the flood of rabble. Many of the same ma
renders reappeared at intervals throughout the night. Energised by greed, they’d dumped their booty elsewhere and returned to ravage.

Close by, Baba muttered to himself-those mamzerim.
Don’t they ever sleep?” It jolted me as much as any of the night’s
alarms. Baba never used a word like “bastards.”

Unceasingly, seeping through the other sounds, the old
voice from the street below begged and wept for water. His
wail grew fainter as the night wore on, but I could hear him all
too well. If I hadn’t been ashamed to do so, I’d have stopped
my ears. As the first flush of the sun appeared on the horizon,
the entreaties ended, and the silence was more awful than,
any scream I’d every heard.

Dawn broke quickly, and in the glarea of day, each of us
was shocked to see how hallow-faced and leaden all the others
looked. With the exclaim of the kids, who’d slept like angels,
we were hollow eyed as much with horror as exhaustion. At
dawn on a normal Shavuot morning, Nana and Nazima would
be in the kitchen making mounds of kahee (pancakes) as
quickly as the batter could be poured. A whole night’s reading
of the Torah would have left us ravenous. Today, instead of
sugared pancakes, we had only tea and milk, but no one
minded. With the old man’s cries still ringing in my ears, we
could hardly swallow that.

By 8:00 am, however, even Baba was beginning to relax. For an hour now, we
hadn’t seen new smoke or heard a sound apart from normal city noise.
With the rising of the sun, the hordes had thinned and melted off. The daylight had dissolved the nightmare.

Before allowing us to I leave the roof, Baba went for one
last look. On his return, a moment later, his face had aged a
decade.

“Shiblawiyin!”

Daisy burst out crying, more alarmed by his expression
and the way he spat the word than by the word itself. For the
rest of us, the single word explained it all.

“Shiblawiyin” was a synonym for evil. It stood for thugs
and thieves and casual assassins, savages who’d steal a piece
of bread or rape or kill with equal equanimity.

Abu Shibl, the district of the city that had spawned the
name, was the rankest, most corrupt in the entire country –
and it almost touched upon the Jewish Quarter. No one was
safe from the shiblawiyin, not other Arabs, not even their own
neighbors, but the ghetto was their favorite place to pillage.
Last night, along with all the other M’slmin, they must have
picked it clean, and now, their lust for loot unslaked, they were
coming after us, on the outskirts of the Quarter where the
wealthier Jews had built their houses.

Father tried to stop me, but I had to see. Out there, in
the hot white light, the nightmare had started up again. Instead of
last night’s crowd of scrambling and haphazard hotheads, I
saw an army, well equipped and disciplined. The rabble had
acquired leaders and a plan of action.
In their first concerted effort to effect an entry, they
were unsuccessful in battering the door down. The street was
much too narrow for effective ramming, but the door, in any
case, would have stood against the heaviest assault. They
couldn’t know, as I did, that on Kambar Ali Street, the entrances to all the Jewish homes were, strongly fortified. A tem
pered metal strut anchored deep within a wall, braced an iron
bar across the six-foot width of each front door and frame.

My heart began to race when I heard a call for axes.
The leader had already learned what wouldn’t work. One
sharp command, and blades were biting through the wood.
Some hit the bar and broke, but others chipped a hole through
which a hand could reach and disengage the barrier.

The initial break-in took an hour, with all of them at
work. The second was accomplished in a quarter of that time,
and by a team only five. With an efficiency that chilled me,
the mob split up into a score of smaller groups, each taking on
another house and making ever quicker entry. Not that minutes really mattered much. Weaponless, if we had a week, we’d
still be at their mercy.

Beside me, Baba said, “At least there aren’t so many of
the mazerim.”The earliest invaders, staggering under loads
of stolen goods, were going home, but Baba knew as well as I
that, given our position, 50 were as powerful as 50,000. The
feeling of complete and utter impotence enraged me more than
all the mamzerim outside.

They were next door now. We could hear the splinter
ing of wood, then a heavy thud as the iron bar forced up and
out of place, fell to the floor. Father spread his fingers, signalling silence.When they got to us, we couldn’t stop their sacking of the house, but we still might save ourselves. Since everything of value was inside, they might not bother with the roof. About the best they could expect to find here were the water jugs and bedding, and they’d be rich enough already with everything else we owned.

When we heard our front door go, father ordered that we speak in whispers only. Thee pipe he’d clutched all night lay seemingly forgotten by the street inside wall. I picked it up, but when I took it to him and he turned to me, I understood why he’d abandoned it. His hand now held the longest knife from Nana’s kitchen. S’hak also had a shiny something he was trying to conceal from us.

During the night, father must have crept downstairs instead of staing at the second story window, but he hadn’t broght a knife for me. Did he think that I was scared? Was he afraid that I might shame him?

My stomach turned with such a sickening mix of anger and humiliation that I thought I’d vomit. Dear G-d, I begged, I don’t mind dying, but save me from disgrace. Don’t let me be an coward. An outcry from the house next door diverted my attention from my own despair.

“They’re in! The murderers are in the house!”

Like us, the Eizer family had taken refuge on the roof, but now that gutless Akram had exposed them all by shrieking out. The raiders could have heard him if they’d still been in the Quarter. And, of course, he’d put them on to us as well. The wall between our roofs was only one brick thick. Built for privacy rather than protection, it wouldn’t shield us from the shiblawiyin for even seconds. They’d investigate the shrieks, and once they finished with the Eizers…

My stomach heaved again, but this time from the impact of a wild idea that hit me like – like a brick. The shiblawiyin must be stopped before they reached the Eizer roof, and the wall would be our weapon.

I seized the pipe again and slammed it hard against the flimsy structure. As I suspected, the winter rains had eaten at the mortar, and a single blow broke through. Baba and S’hak swiveled at the sound, but the fury faded from their faces when I waved a brick and yelled out “Ammunition!” They understood at once. I was already on the Eizer roof, with bricks in both my hands, and they were just a step behind. Without a word from anyone, the women battered at the wall and built a mound of bricks within our reach. Each of us would be a missle launcher.

Drawn by Akram’s outburst, scores of the shibiwiyin were congregated on the street outside, and at least another hundred were already in the Eizer hosh. Since these had easiest access to the stairwell, we opened up on them.
As if we’d a plan and practiced, we spaced ourselves to cover the entire courtyard, then flung our bricks at Baba’s signal. While the first barrage was on its way, we launched a second salvo-and a third and forth. From below, a yelp of pain became a roaring chorus, and someone screamed “The dhimmiyin are killing us!”

Packed tight, the M’silmin panicked. The only exit open to them was the narrow L-shaped foryer leading to the door they’d forced, and as they scrambled for the safety of the road outside, we rushed to take our places on the parapet commanding Kambar Ali Street. Hidden from their view, we continued the attack.
Battered by the raining bricks, the shiblawiyin below us, already shaken by teh shrieks of their companions from the courtyard, stampeded like the buffalo in cowboy movies. Those fleeing from the house ran head-on into crushing hail. Deranged by shock, they lost all reasons, and we pelted them at random. Imagination did the rest. Eerily invisible, they mentally perceived us as an awesome army, and screeched to Heaven and each other, “El-yahood! They’re slaughtering us! Hundreds of yahood! Thousands! All around us! The Jalk-Allah (the rejects of G-d) are all around us!”

As they fled, we wordlessly deployed again. I checked for stragglers while S’hak took the side and Baba scanned the roofs around us.

Unlike the wall that ringed the outside of the roof, the one that ran around the hosh was hardly four feet high and made of metal bars instead of solid masonry. Through or over it, I could see each inch of Akram Eizer’s courtyard. The hosh was empty, except for several Arab sandals. Some of the shiblawiyin had literally leaped out of them!

And there was something in honor of Shavuot: from wall to wall a scattered patter of a thousand tiny polka dots, some larder patches of the same rust colored stain and few still widening still crimson pools. Blood. This time though, it wasn’t Jewish blood.

The sight was satisfying, and yet I felt no sense of pleasure I was sorting out the odd emotions that the scene evoked when something caught my eye in Eizer’s place. There was someone in their storage room. All the Eizer’s though, were still with us.

The shadowed figure made a half-turn the window. It was a muscular young Mislim, hacking at a heavy brass bound chest. Two candlesticks I’d often seen when visiting the Eizers were stuck like matching sabers through his habby belt, and Aikram’s brand new shoes were slung around his neck by long brown laces.

Unbridled avarice explained his presence. The chest was much to large to haul away and much too rich a prize to leave behind. Such chests contained the family silver, and over whelmed by lust, he couldn’t let it go. I watched his fingers scratching frantically at burnished brass while his dirty face dripped sweat, and an enmity I hadn’t heretofore experienced washed over me.

With my knowing how they got there, the bricks were in my hands. I threw one and the window shattered, spraying him with glassy shrapnel. Blood was trickling down his cheek when my second missile struck him on the upper arm and laid it open. He screamed and made himself as small as possible, cowering on the floor, I knew that he could see me standing on the rooftop, arm upraised. Staring up at such an angle, half blinded by the sun behind me blazing in his eyes, I much have looked like a colossus or maybe an avenging angel.

Certainly no Mislim would otherwise be screaming “el-khater-Allah!” (for G-d’s sake) appealing to a lowly Jew, and a lowly Jew of just 11. The lovely irony of it! Pleading “for the sake of G-d.” First ravaging Y’hudim in Allah’s name, now begging mercy of a Jew for the sake of the same Allah.

Our eyes had locked and neither of us moved a muscle. Slowly then his hand reached up for Akram’s shoes. At first, I thought he’s fling them at me, but he slid them to the floor and placed the candlesticks beside them. I realized only that I had another brick in hand – that I’d been holding it with elbow bent all set to heave it at his head. He knew I had him in my sights.

Eyes never leaving mine, he inched his way across the room, backing toward the door of the jam-khana. When he disappeared, I shouted the watching, wide-eyed S’hak, “Let him go.” It was enough to know I could have killed him.

When Shavuot came around again and the time arrived to read the Ten Commandments, I could still say, “Thou shalt not kill,” and thant the L-rd I’d kept the Law.

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