How the U.S. Government Helped Rescue Artifacts from the Iraqi Jewish Community

February 24, 2016 | Joe Samuels
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In May 2003, U.S. troops in Baghdad searched the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s notorious secret police and found something quite unexpected. Joe Samuels—born in Baghdad in 1930—describes their discovery and reminisces about his own flight from Iraq:

[W]hat they discovered in the heavily damaged and flooded basement of the building were Iraqi Jewish artifacts. These included 2,700 books, some dating back to the 16th century. They found Torah scrolls, prayer books, and tens of thousands of documents. The Baath party, headed by Saddam Hussein, [had] looted and confiscated public and personal items from dozens of synagogues, schools, and community properties. After the discovery, with the approval of the then-provisional Iraqi government, these remains of the once thriving, millennia-old Jewish community in Iraq were brought to the United States. . . [T]he U.S. government has restored and preserved these artifacts. . . .

By November 1947, anti-Semitism and discrimination by [Iraqi] government officials was regularized and implemented in earnest. Then, following the United Nations vote to partition the British mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the oppression increased drastically. . . .

After graduating from al-Adadiah High School in Baghdad, I was accepted at three universities in the U.S. Because I was Jewish, I was denied an exit visa to leave Iraq. To be considered for an exit visa, I needed to deposit 3,000 dinars. Let me offer a comparison to demonstrate the enormity of the amount; at the time, an Iraqi working-class family [normally earned] four or five dinars a month. Fearing for my life after some of my friends were arrested, I was fortunate to be smuggled out in December 1949. My father, an importer of cloth, had to leave behind our family villa, his office, and a warehouse full of merchandise.

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