The interview extracts in this post have been redacted and edited for clarity.
The Holocaust is primarily seen as a European tragedy; however, the impact of WWII was also felt throughout the Middle East.
Throughout the 1930s Nazi ideology spread throughout Iraqi population. In the early 1930s Mein Kampf was translated into Arabic and serialised in a national newspaper.
In 1941 the Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali led a coup against pro-British officials in government and declared Iraqi allegiance to Hitler and the Axis. After a month and a half of fighting, the British forced the Iraqi government to surrender. The British were to enter Baghdad within two days and all senior members of the Iraqi government fled to Germany. The masses, already inflamed by years of Nazi propaganda, were convinced easily convinced that the Jews had helped the British victory and were, amongst other things, the cause of their economic hardships.
On 1st June 1941, during the festival of Shavuot a violent pogrom, known as the Farhud, broke out in Baghdad. Jewish houses in certain parts of the city were marked in red and at daybreak the rioting began. Synagogues, homes and businesses were destroyed. People were murdered, raped and assaulted, and the violence only ended when British troops entered Baghdad.
The Farhud marked the turning point in the history of the Jews in Iraq and marked the start of the Jewish exodus from the country.
A recurrent theme throughout accounts of the Farhud is the ‘friendly neighbour’ who protected a Jewish family from the mob. Those Jewish families who lived in mixed, often slightly wealthier, neighbourhoods were more likely to have been protected.
“At that time, in 1938, there were four classes in Secondary School. They were only different in the second foreign language and most of the Jews went to the French and most of the Muslims liked German. There were almost no Jews in the German class. The boys, the Muslim boys, also went to the German Club. They got two hundred and fifty pence a month to write against Jews in the Club. They may be with my, my friend hand in hand and they write anti-Jewish things. The boys were paid two hundred and fifty pence a month and the teachers had payments according to their salaries. Two hundred and fifty at that time was enough for cigarettes, cinema and to eat many times in a restaurant. Because a meal in a restaurant was twelve pence, you can eat kebab and laban [yoghurt] and tea, and all for twelve pence. The cinema was twenty-five pence, so two hundred and fifty pence was enough. It worked very well, but we didn’t have any anti-Jewish incidents between the students. In writing things changed but our relations were like brothers.
‘The Farhud was in 1941. I was a teacher at that time. When the British Army had a victory against the government, all the government ran away to Germany. The British army was supposed to cross the bridge to the main part of Baghdad on the 1st of June I think, which was a Jewish feast, Shavuot. The Jews at that time were celebrating, and some of them went to see the British army as it crossed the bridge, but the British army did not cross the bridge and of those who went to the bridge to see them, not one of them returned. So Baghdad remained without a government for forty-eight hours and during that time, some people who came from outside Baghdad came and attacked the poor area of the Jews.
I was in my brother’s house during the feast and I had to go back home. My brother advised me not to go on the new street, but to go by the old streets. All those who went back from the new street were killed. They used to stop all the busses and see who is a Jew and they kill him. I and my relative went by foot on the old streets and we arrived home safely. Our family was in an area where these people did not arrive. They arrived very near but did not reach our house.
It was mostly people who came from all parts of the outside of Baghdad who had no work. It was mostly those people who did it. Not those who went to the German Club.”
“In the Farhud we were at home and some farmers were in the street and they came to our house, we were afraid to be at home. We had a neighbour, a doctor, a very well-known doctor. Actually, he was with the Germans, he liked the Germans, but as neighbours he accepted for us to stay with them. And he was a Nazi, but you know, we were neighbours for a long, long time and they knew us and everything about us, and so they accept us into their home. Believe me, I can see the lady, his wife, doing the beds for us herself.
Our house was on the corner and we had two doors, one door on one street and one door on the other street. When they came to attack us, these people, they came from one door and we went out the other door and we went to this neighbour. They went in and they took everything, all the furniture. On the other side of the house our neighbours were Jews, and they had a friend. He came to look for them because he was afraid – because everywhere the people were against the Jews. He came to the house and he saw,
‘It is getting burgled!’
So he took a gun and he shot one shot in the air and the people got scared and they threw everything on the street and ran away!
Actually, the lady who used to take care of my grandfather, to make the tea and coffee – her and her children – they were killed.”
The mob of the Farhud.
Otniel Margalit Collection, Photo Archive, Yad Ben Zvi. Accessed via https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/nazi-germany-farhud-iraq/
“And then the pogroms started. It was a time near Shavuot, at half past six, seven o’clock in the morning when my mother, my aunty, and the maid went to the kitchen, to prepare the breakfast. My cousins were grown-ups and they were at work. So they took the bus to go to town to work, and they looked outside and they found change, some disturbance. People were maybe dead, maybe not, on the street. So they turned back, took the bus back, and they said,
‘The city is not normal today. There is something, but we don’t know what.’
By that time, the milk woman, she used to bring the milk every morning, she came to the back door and she told my mother,
‘Let everybody stay inside today’.
We were still in our pyjamas, before breakfast, before anything. We followed her. They used to live, they used to live at the back of the property, in mud huts, mud houses. She took us to her hut, a small room, half the size of this room, mostly bedding. By the time we closed the back door the front door was broken down and the mob came in.
We didn’t see them, luckily, we could hear the noise, the bullets. We closed the door and we sat there. She told us,
‘Nobody to speak.’
We could hear bullets, we could hear screaming. We didn’t know what was happening. Our parents didn’t even know. They said to us not to speak, with their fingers on their mouth. We stayed there from seven o’clock in the morning ‘till half past five in the evening. No food, no water, hot.
A friend of my father, who was in the army, he was a good friend and he was looking for my father. His name was Kassam. He knew about the pogrom and he was looking for my father. So, he came in this car, to look for us and what he found – the house was empty. Literally empty. Even the windows were taken out, the doors were taken out, the banisters were taken out, and there were only papers in the house, and our cat. We used to have a cat, she was meowing all the time, and there was no sign of life at all.
There was the car that came, the Red Crescent, to pick up the dead and those that were killed. He looked in the car to see if he would recognise my father. My father wasn’t there, so he asked the people,
‘Where are these people who lived in this house?’.
One of the people who were standing there was in the army and he said to him.
‘No they are alright.’
He [Kassam] pulled his gun and he said to him,
‘I will shoot you if you don’t tell me.’
So he said
‘I know where they are and I will take you to them.’
So my father’s friend came in these little narrow alleyways, calling my father,
But this milk woman, Jamilah, told us not to speak and not to make a noise, so that nobody would know that we were there. We didn’t answer.
‘Saleh! Saleh! Saleh!’
At the end he came and he said,
‘Saleh! I am Kassam!’
So we came out. He took us to this car, we couldn’t fit. So many of us. Who do you leave behind? Those that are left behind would be killed. In those days, the car used to have a platform, and then you can open the door, so my cousins, they were men, they stood on the platform, put their hand round the windows and we all fitted in like that.
When we looked at the house, we had the shock of our life. there was nothing in it, nothing at all. Even some of the floor were taken out. Anyway, we went to our cousin, to wash our clothes. We used to wash, they put in the sun to dry it, and we put it on again, until we borrowed some clothes of our cousins or people of our own age.”
Ivy Shashoua (far right), with her parents and siblings.
“We had agricultural land [outside Baghdad] and we had a house there [in Baghdad]. We had a caretaker of the house [on the agricultural land] and the caretaker was a Muslim, he was very loyal and very trustworthy. Every chag [festival] he used to bring us a whole basket of produce for the and this pogrom happened in Shavuot, and he happened to be with us. Now they started, the mob, coming in our street, coming house by house, you know, ransacking, completely. What he did? He went outside and he closed the door behind him. When they got close, he got his gun, he shot in the air and he told the mob,
‘You have to kill me first before you enter this house’
and we were the only house saved completely, in the whole street, we were untouched.”
In Libya, Tunisia and Algeria Nazi policies had a direct impact on the populations. Libya, a colony of Italy at the time, saw fascist legislation introduced and by 1938 antisemitic racial laws had been put into place. By 1942, more than 2000 Jews from Benghazi had been sent to labour camps in the desert, or to the Giado Concentration Camp near Tripoli where many died of typhoid and other disease. In 1943 British troops liberated the camps and its Jewish prisoners were allowed to return to their homes.
“My father also used to work for a tailor, and he left my father a suit belonging to a very high officer, a fascist officer, to iron it. My father always liked women and girls - so she saw some of his girlfriends outside the shop and he went outside, and suddenly the iron made a hole in the suit, and it was a very important suit. Now, when the boss came back, he was very close with my father, like a big brother, and he said, [jokingly]
‘I have to kill you, the officer will kill me, what can I do?’
So my father was so upset, he went home crying. But the tailor apparently was a sort of maestro, and when my father had the courage to come back to work, he told him,
‘Listen, come back here, why did you run away? Where is the hole?’.
He couldn’t see the hole - he repaired it in a very good way. Now this created a very good friendship between the tailor and the officer.
Why is this important? Because after a while the secretary of the officer came to work crying. She was a Jew, and the officer was very close to this secretary, like a father. ‘Why are you crying?’
‘Because my fiancé left me’.
So he called the fiancé, you know, he is a dictator. He called the fiancé,
‘If you don’t marry her, I will kill three Jews’.
It’s a real story, everyone knows it. The man said,
‘Ok. Ok I will marry. Don’t kill anyone.’
So they planned the wedding and everything.
In the meantime, someone went to the fascists and went to the officer, and told him that the tailor is a spy, and they caught him and put him in prison. He and two brothers. Anyway, the man said he will marry the secretary, they prepared everything, she was there with her white dress and suddenly the man just disappeared, left Benghazi, disappeared and just didn’t come back ‘till after the war.
They took the three and they killed them. They killed them and this was a big tragedy. And the man, even when he came back to Benghazi, for a long time he was pushed to the side, because he could have married and then after the war he could have divorced or something. But he could have saved the three lives of these poor people, who were innocent. And my father was with the Rabbi who went to the place where they killed them, to read psalms and things, and he was shocked his whole life because he was close to this tailor.”