My parents were Polish refugees in World War II who obtained US immigration visas after waiting for nearly three years with my mother’s Viennese Tante Elsa in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. They fled to the US in the spring of 1941, a week or two ahead of the Nazi invaders, no thanks to the obnoxious delaying tactics of the US consular official, whom we now know was following a directive of Under Secretary of State Breckenridge Long to make it as difficult as possible for Jews to obtain visas.
In part of my parent’s epic three-month journey, they crossed into Iraq from Turkey directly into the custody of mounted Iraqi border guards. “Yahud?” [Jew] they guessed as three bedraggled Jews made it across the river. The Iraqi police were actually helpful in readily granting them transit visas and even in hiring a car and driver to take them to the train station in Baghdad. The driver was so afraid of the police commander, who had carefully instructed him on exactly how many dinars to charge, that he would not accept US dollars, the currency my parents and Tante Elsa were mainly traveling with. He insisted that my father go to the bazaar to find a Jewish money changer to get dinars.
Having finished their business in Baghdad, they took the train to Basra, Iraq’s major port. My father reported that the conductors were all Jews with whom he conversed in Hebrew. In Basra, they wangled passage on a British troop ship that had brought reinforcements to put down the pro-Axis Iraqi rebellion, while shipping off German and Italian prisoners of war down in the hold. So my parents made it to Karachi — then British India, now Pakistan — from whence they took a British cruise ship to Bombay where they boarded the American liner, the President Harrison, as it steamed to Cape Town, Port-of-Spain (Trinidad) and Hoboken.
My father recalled that this was a very tense time in Iraq. In fact, the pro-Nazi Iraqi rebels were being directly organized by Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, the exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who was an active ally of Hitler during the war. They knew enough not to dawdle in Baghdad. During the first week of June, 1941, exactly 67 years ago, over 130 Iraqi Jews were murdered in a major pogrom when the remnants of the defeated rebels vented their rage on the Jews before the British managed to restore order.
Finally, in the June 1 issue of the New York Times, there is something in the mainstream media on Iraq’s once thriving Jewish community of over 130,000, now moribund. It feels spooky to me that in discussing Iraq’s genuine mosaic of multiple ethnic and religious communities there is no mention or recognition that this ancient Jewish presence has disappeared practically without a trace.
Iraq’s not-so-ancient enmity toward Israel is concretized in a main drag in Baghdad called Haifa Street. We may also recall that a favorite haunt for Saddam-era foreign correspondents was the Palestine Hotel. Even though Iraq has no border with Israel and was not threatened by it in any real way, Iraqi troops were dispatched against Israel in three wars: 1948, 1967 and 1973. And in 1991, even though Israel was not part of the coalition assembled by George H. W. Bush against Saddam Hussein, the latter sent 38 missiles crashing into Israeli soil.