Two narratives have been generated about the life of Jews in Arab lands. One claims that life was wonderful, the other claims that life was terrible. Saul Silas Fathi's account of his early life in Baghdad, related in his book, Full Circle, seems to bear out both versions. In fact the same could be said of the life of Jews in many places in the Diaspora. It was very good until it was very bad. Saul's father was director of the Iraqi railway system. His family lived well, but by the 1930s, the storm was gathering that would lead to the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad, the Farhud (or Farhood, Farhoud). Baghdad Jews gave the background for the Farhoud pogrom of 1941. This is Fathi's personal account of the Farhud, the 1941 Iraqi pogrom of of the Jews.
Farhood: Krystallnacht in Baghdad, June 1, 1941
Part II: Farhood
By the end of May 1941, my family was enjoying our evenings up on the roof since the heat of the summer months was upon us. My sisters and I usually played with dominoes. Since I was only three and Yedida was only four, we didn’t understand the real rules of playing with the tiles, though Berta did, who was six. Instead, we laid them out in long lines and pretended we were building railroads like our father did. But for the last few nights, our sense of play was muted by worried looks between our parents. Father had also told us yesterday that we couldn’t go out and play; we had to stay in our rooms. We had wanted to go with Mother to buy treats for Shavuot but couldn’t. In fact, Mother had not left the house and neither had Father gone to work. We thought it was because of our holiday coming. We would all go to the synagogue, but we had not done that either. We had only eaten a light meal, and Father had offered prayers. So, on the evening of June 1st, I wondered why we had celebrated a holiday alone and why no one wanted to play with me. We were put to bed early but none of us could sleep. We watched the stars as usual, trying to make patterns from the shapes of their lights. It was then that Berta sat up in her bed and said, “Father, why is the sky orange down by the center of the city?”
Father and Mother immediately jumped out of their beds and stood near the edge of the roof, facing the downtown area of Baghdad. We all got up to stand with them and look. Normally, Father would have told us to get back to our beds, but he didn’t tonight. His eyes were transfixed on the glow emanating from the city’s central district where the Jewish and Muslim communities abutted each other. As we watched the glow crept toward us, spreading from block to block. On the night wind, we caught a faint wailing cry welling up from where we saw the orange light. Mixed with that wail were crashes and booms. Mother began to weep, and Father’s jaw was clenched tight as he held onto Mother. As we watched the orange glow expand, we could see smoke against the growing light and an occasional lick of flame. The smell of burning wood was on the wind. Father gathered Berta, Yedida, and me, along with my baby brother Yeftah, who was already there whimpering, into our parent’s big bed with him and Mother. We clung to each other as we watched the fires and destruction creep closer hour by hour into the long night.
“That must be Sooq Ha-rage and Sooq Le-sfa-feer,” Father said, “the markets.”
After awhile, we could hear screams and distinct curses. “They’ve come to Bab-el-shar-gee and Taht-el-takya,” Father whispered. These were wealthy Jewish neighborhoods. Father held us tighter and began to pray softly. I was afraid, but I wasn’t sure of what exactly. All I could see was that this orange glow was alive and growing and it brought pain. I squeezed closer to my father and my sisters. Around two o’clock, crashing and pounding stopped and all we could hear was the soft wail the seemed to come from everywhere now. After a little while, my parents’ muscles seemed to relax and I fell asleep. I woke the next morning to screams and renewed crashing in the streets nearby. The destruction in the city was clearly visible now. We could see people struggling with men wielding knives. We saw Jews on faraway rooftops jumping from their roofs to their Arab neighbors’ roofs. Their neighbors quickly ushered them inside where they could hide.
The British army, which had now taken control of Iraq by then, remained just outside of Baghdad and was totally disengaged allowing the atrocities against the Jews to continue unabated.
The wave of destruction continued until about mid-afternoon. It was then that the Kurdish division of the military, ordered by the Regent, moved into the city, sweeping the neighborhoods, rounding up those responsible for this pogrom. By about two o’clock, Kurdish troops were beginning to take up posts in front of prominent Jewish homes. One soldier was stationed in front of our own door.
By Sunday afternoon, there were 180 Jews dead, 240 children orphaned, and 2,120 wounded. Countless numbers of women and girls had been raped and kidnapped. Babies had been disemboweled before their parents’ eyes. Rioters broke into marked Jewish-owned stores, especially those on Shorja Street, looting and destroying. Two thousand homes had been plundered and 2,375 shops had been looted. The property damage was estimated at £3 to £3.5 million. The Jews weren’t permitted to bury their dead themselves. The dead were collected by the government, and eventually, all were buried in one mass grave. The Iraqi government severed all diplomatic ties with Germany. Al-Sab’awi was arrested and hanged on July 20,1941. But no apology was ever made to the Jews who had been terrorized. Neither was any restitution given for property loss or recompense for loss of life.
Hussayni fled to Berlin, where he met with Hitler himself, and continued to incite Arabs to persecute Jews, only returning to the Middle East after World War II. Later, during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, it was he who would call on the Palestinians to leave their homes and join the Arab forces “to re-conquer it back and finish the Jews.”
This marked the genesis of the Palestinian refugee saga.
Excerpt from "Full Circle" Copyright by Saul Fathi. All Rights Reserved.
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