Nita Jay

We have just marked  Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.  Such a huge event that sent its ripples way beyond Europe. But nobody  mentions the Farhud.

If you read Wikipedia, it will tell you that the Farhud was a ‘pogrom’ that erupted on June 1st & 2nd, 1941, in Baghdad. 

It’s odd to hear of the Farhud described with a Russian/Yiddish word.

Jewish historical award-winning writer Edwin Black sees it as part of the Holocaust.

The word Farhud means Anarchy. So, it was a time of anarchy, with severe violence directed solely against Jewish people.

And as it took place on Shavuoth, today I would like to commemorate it.

It’s such a huge event, and when Kim invited me to speak to you about it, I had to ask myself how?

How do I describe such a horrific massacre that upturned a 200,000+ Jewish community that had lived in the Land Between the Two Rivers for over 2500 years and that set the stage for the displacement of 1million Jews across the Middle East.

I don’t want to recount horrors. I often avoid reading or viewing Holocaust material because I find it so horrific and devastating. So how can I do that to you? And it’s not the full story.

Then I remembered a book that I had read many years ago. It was the personal story of a holocaust survivor, a Hungarian artist living in Sydney, the late Eva Quittner. The book was called Pebbles of Remembrance.

What gave her story its impact, was the fact that for over half the book, (as I remember), she spoke about her happy childhood in Hungary before the war.

And if I think about my parents, they often told me about the wonders of life in Baghdad, its food, its people, its music, its warmth. They were happy there.

But they refused to speak Arabic to their children because it carried so much sadness. The unspoken speaks volumes.

When I asked the late Albert Yehudah, whose father’s name, Sassoon Yehudah, graces the Sephardi Synagogue in Hotham St., to tell me his life story, he began with the words, I was born, on April 20 1920, in the beautiful town of Baghdad…

And every Iraqi Jew I have known described the city with love for its beauty, sitting as it does, on the banks of the Tigris, in Mesopotamia,  the land between the two rivers.

Even though Baghdad was inland, far from the sea, my late mother always loved visiting the seaside here. She’d simply park her car and stare at the water, in all weather, because it reminded her of the Tigris. She never considered the Yarra a proper river.

Jewish people first came to Mesopotamia with Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE and again in 586 when he conquered the Holy Land.

Both Bony M and the Bible tell us that by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept. (psalm 137:1)

And we even wept in the palace. King Nebuchadnezzar said to us, What are you crying for? Jerusalem is a backwater. You are in Babylon! This is the New York of the entire world. Stop your crying!

We are about to eat dinner. Take out your instruments and play.

In the 1950’s, over 2000 years later, when the Jews of Iraq were airlifted out of Baghdad to Israel, the majority were musicians. 

The Jewish community of Baghdad was basically a contented community. They loved the land and they loved the people, even though nothing was ever perfect.

And I had the priviledge of hearing the story from the other point of view, from a native Iraqi Moslem. 

Some years ago I met an Iraqi refugee by the name of Aamer Sultan who now practises medicine in Sydney. He told me that when he was a boy, his mother used to tell him bed-time stories, like fairy stories, of how good life was when the Jews lived in Iraq.

So from both camps, life in Baghdad was good.

But actually, there were three camps. There was also a large population of Iraqi Christians.

All three communites got on very well.  Sort of.

The Christians and Jews were the dhimmi, the lower class non-Muslims, who had to pay a special tax.

A Jew, because of risk of contaminating the Muslim, could come to a public coffee house but had to bring his own coffee cup and take it home with him.

If a Muslim sold something to a Jew, he would go down to the river to wash the coins.

And Jews were restricted in their education and professions.

On another level of Middle Eastern complication, the Christians were often envious of the Jews. As neither Jew nor Moslem ate pork, they were socially closer than Moslem and Christian. (I speak in general terms here.)

During the Farhud, I’m told it was the Christians who were the most vicious.

But, by and large they all got on very well, and my mother’s best friends from primary school to university were a Moslem girl and a Christian girl.

To survive as a Jew, you needed protection. The words I heard over and over from many sources were:  If you had a Moslem to look after you, he would protect you with his life.

And many Jews were saved during the Farhud by their Muslim neighbours.

With the second WW came  German influence, anti-British sentiment and rising anti-Semitism.

Berlin radio propaganda, directed against the Jews, was  broadcast from King Ghazi’s palace 24-hours a day. Iraq woke to call Achtung! Achtung! every morning.  

And finally, in April 1941, the coup of nationalist and Nazi sympathizer, Rashid Ali, saw every Jewish home in Baghdad marked with a red HAMSA.

HAMSA, the hand against the evil eye, in blood red, was painted on every Jewish home, an open invitation to raid, maim, murder, and the first step in a plot toward Jewish extermination.

Not the red mark of Egypt where the angel of death passed over.

My late Aunt Suad tells me that on her way to school one day she saw her neighbour, a handsome young man, blue eyed, who had a lovely young family, hanging in the street. And after that, his head was staked on the gate.

May 31, today, 76 years ago, British troops amassed outside the city. The government fled.

There was a power vacuum, and the floodgates opened. Every soldier, policeman, lout, criminal took up knives and guns. Jews barricaded their doors with chairs and tables and armed themselves with bottles and stones.

The Farhud took place during Shavuoth. That year, 1941, no Jew celebrated Shavuoth.

It’s worth noting how it was normally celebrated, for over two thousand years, until the  Farhud in 1941.

Of course, they studied Torah all night and read the Book of Ruth.  But there is more. I’ll read you what my late mother wrote of Shavuoth.

“ It was called EID 'L ZIAGHA, the feast of visits.

The people of Iraq made quite a holiday of this feast and

celebrated it by visiting the shrine of EZRA HASOPHER

at Kut on the Tigris and the shrine of NABI HISQAYAL AND THE SEVEN PRIESTS with its accompanying yeshiva at Alchifil on the Euphrates, where they would be woken at midnight for the special prayer for the Beth Hamiqdash.

Both these towns were beautiful, surrounded by orchards and

palm trees, and not too far from Babel, the capital of Hammurabi

and in the vicinity where the Talmud Babli was written.

The pilgrims arrived in hoards on barges that carried them

from Baghdad down the river.

The journey itself took a couple of days and was  a source of much merrymaking.

Families brought their tambourines and DUNBUK (small drums)

together with all the food and cooking utensils that they would

need for the duration of the pilgrimage.

They cooked on deck amid singing and dancing, and the festivities began the minute

they hit the deck!

On arrival, they had the choice of staying at the shrine itself, or in the small inns called\KHANS, strategically placed to cater specifically for the pilgrims.

At the Feast of Weeks these towns came to life. They overflowed with visitors., those who came to ask the prophets to grant their desires and those who came to pray, and those who just came for the fun of it all.

Horses, donkeys and camels took up as much space as people, as they provided the only means of transport there on land.

As these towns were near the port of Basra they had access to many goods from Persia normally not available in Baghdad itself, and the vendors made full use of the feast to flog their wares.

The shrine area would fill with life and happiness, with vendors trilling their voices to the highest notes to sing the appeal of their wares, foodstuffs that were truly delectable that filled the air with their aroma, and all kinds of silks that people took home with them for gifts for those who could not make it,  and all was accompanied by the beat of drums and the tunes of the flute.

You saw people eating, drinking, clapping and singing in thanks to HASHEM for their prosperity. They sang the Psalms of David, or the Praises of Halevi, or the glorification of Ibn Ezra with CHALGHI BAGHDAD, a popular musical band.

On top of all this, the voices of women were heard making ZAGHAREED or TAHLEEL, musiclike sounds that are made with special movements of the tongue in exhilaration. This needed real skill, as not everyone could produce these sounds that were helped along by placing the hand over the mouth and then letting go in rhythmic movements. This usually accompanied spontaneous compositions in honour of the Nabis.

Charity boxes at the shrines would be filled to overflowing and the poor would have a field day.

You have to be happy! that was the motto of Shavuoth!

Those who were unable to take the trip to Kut and Alchifil at the Festival of Weeks, made sweets such as Luzina, blanched almonds mixed with sugar and rose water and lightly baked, and sent these to relatives or close friends on that day.

They awaited the return of the pilgrims eagerly, looking forward to all the delicacies and goods that they would come home with.”

The month of May, 1941, the coup of Rashid Ali, and the escalation of violence against the Jews culminated in the Farhud 1-5 June.

The British waited outside the city.

The horrors were terrible. All through the night and day you could hear screams and people crying for MERCY.

The late Albert Yehudah sheltered with his sister in the home of their Armenian neighbours.

One of his relatives was found lying on the ground with knives in his ears. When the family took him to hospital, a nurse warned them don’t accept any  medicine for him. It was understood the doctors would have prescribed him poison.

Albert left Baghdad as soon as he could in 1941 and never ever went back. Many others, like him, left for India. Others tried to forget, and remain in the land they loved, but the fairytale was over.

There are conflicting writings as to the numbers killed that Shavuoth.

I’ve read from 200-600 killed, buried in a mass grave. And then there were the horrific injuries and disappearances.

How did it stop? My late mother writes:

“On 2nd June, around midday, instead of hearing the usual Achtung, Achtung on our radio, we heard the voice of the virtuous preacher, Al Allama Jalal Il Hanafi. ….He called, ‘People of Baghdad! I now stand here to warn you! Jews are the People of the Book and are under our protection according to the teachings of our prophet Mohammed.’ ….

As we sat in that room downstairs with bottles and stones for defence, we were suddenly relieved and amazed. We knew that was the turning point. “

The Farhud was the precursor to the displacement of a million Jews throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and untold deaths.

My heart goes out to those who lost their lives, and to those whose lives were broken forever.

Thank you for helping to remember those lost in the Farhud, this often ignored arm of the Holocaust in Iraq, on Shavuoth today.


L-R. Albert Yehuda, Anwar Jawary & Richard Saleh, Melbourne 1949

Speech delivered May 31, 2017, Temple Beth Israel. Remembering the Farhud, by Nita Jay.