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Farhud Day: Remembering the screams

Five years ago, 74 years after the Farhud, “Violent Dispossession,” the United Nations dedicated June 1 International Farhud Day. 

The terror erupted in Baghdad on June 1, 1941, and lasted exactly forty-eight hours. My mother, Khatoun, was just sixteen, a young Baghdadi Jewish girl. In 1941 Iraq was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, with two thirds of the country’s Jews living in Baghdad. The Farhud broke out when Iraq’s pro-Nazi party was dismantled by the British.

Anti-Zionist apologists for Islamic Jew hatred, continue to claim the Farhud was purely a European Nazi driven import. This flawed, dismissive explanation insults reality. The long history of dhimmi laws and pervasive cultural contempt for the offending infidel Jew, is the sad truth. 

My mother grew up like most Iraqi Jews, knowing her place, as a second-class citizen, without equal civil rights, in her own country. There is a name for this status in Islam, Dhimmi. A “protected minority” until the protection vanishes at different times. 

When my mother left her house to go to school she learned to duck the slurs and intimidation by keeping her head bowed and eyes down. She tried not to take in the terrifying threats, “Slaughter the Jews! We are coming for you! She saw her brother beaten up and daring not to fight back. She witnessed the Shia date merchant in Karbala dutifully wash his hands after doing business with her father, aYahud, Jew. An insult to Islam and humanity. 

In good times that meant just knowing your place, paying special taxes no matter how impossibly poor, bribes for this or that if you had money. In bad times money did not stop imprisonment and public hangings without a fair trial. 

“Even before the Farhud we were sitting ducks,” my mother explained. “There was nowhere to go, there was no Israel then… we had no choice but to keep quiet to stay alive.” 

The stage was set for the Farhud. Over a thousand years of Imams trashing Jews, centuries of anti-Jewish sermons, a wildfire waiting for the right conditions to ignite. Still, the Jews of Baghdad never imagined anything like it.

Jews were rushing home to prepare for Shavuot, the giving of the Torah to Moses. Suddenly the word on the street was go home, Jews were in danger, run. A Jew was violently taken off a bus and run over, “not once but twice,” my mother remembered. Jews caught on the streets were being attacked and beaten. The chaos spread hard and fast. 

For the Jews of the Jewish Quarter, home was no refuge. Rampaging mobs entered the gates and “violent dispossession” made its mark. “It always starts in the crowded poverty-stricken Jewish Quarter,” mom explained. 

My mother lived further out, in a mixed suburb of Baghdad. She ran like everyone else to the roof, to see where the screams and gunshots were coming from. “The screams, the screams, were something unbelievable,” my mother, grandmother and all who were there never forgot.

The screams kept getting louder and louder, punctuated by gunshots. My sixteen-year-old mother ran with her family from rooftop to rooftop, until they reached the house of a cousin. “There were men in that household, so we felt it would be safer,” she explained. My mother, her mother, grandmother, and siblings were spared the rampaging mobs but not the trauma. She slept with her shoes on for the next two weeks. 

The shock was palpable years later as she told me what she remembered..the slaughter, the untold numbers of girls and women raped, the mutilations, the survivors in rags begging at her door. In Baghdad’s business district, Jewish businesses were destroyed to the tune of millions. When she went to the Jewish Quarter to see relatives who lived there, “it was as if locusts came in and wiped out everything, not even a grain of rice was left.”

The Quarter had been decimated. The looters carried off all furnishings after the killings, the maiming, the rape of women and girls. 

My mother lived with the memories of the Farhud in her veins. She also lived with bitterness towards the British. The British, who had a base nearby in Habbaniya let the horror go on for forty eight hours, for two days instead of minutes. We made good scapegoats.

And then came the announcement on the radio, “Return to the Jews what you took.” Return what? The electrical appliances the Bedouin who came in from the outskirts of the city had no use for? The sewing machine, lamps, a sad piano, dumped into the Tigris? Return what? The homes and businesses burned down? The untold and unreported numbers of rapes, mutilations, the at least 300 dead bodies buried in mass graves, and minds traumatized for life?

Eclipsed by the magnitude and horror of the Holocaust, it’s easy yet unacceptable to ignore the Farhud. Nothing compares to the Shoah. To weigh Jewish persecution in comparison to the Holocaust is way too high a bar. 

I wish it had not taken more than seventy years to validate the severity of trauma Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community suffered. I wish my mother was still alive five years ago when the United Nations declared this indeed happened, and was worthy of remembering. 

 “It was our pogrom” she said, “most of my Ashkenazi friends never heard of it.”

Today Iraq is Jew-Free. Iraq’s 150,000 Jews were allowed to flee in the 1950s, forfeiting citizenship and all their worldly possessions for freedom. They left with one suitcase of clothing, and a one way exit. Most settled in Israel.



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