The Escape from Iraq- A Personal Account

by Maurice Shohet


The deliverance of Iraqi Jewry, that rose almost as one man and migrated to the newly founded State of Israel, in the years 1948 - 1952, could be considered not only as a glorious chapter in the annals of Zionism, but also as a demonstration of the potency of the Zionist idea.
The exciting tidings of the establishment of the State on the one hand, the persecution and feeling of insecurity that often beset members of the community in Iraq on the other, combined and joined together with the love and yearning for the Land of Zion and Jerusalem, giving birth to a wonderful phenomenon. Almost an entire Jewish community, of about 120,000 souls, the most ancient of the Diaspora – if not the oldest of all – picked itself up, young and old alike, and immigrated to Israel; first by way of illegal and convoluted routes, and later as an officially sanctioned airborne migration. If the concept of Zionism has any meaning, then this combination is its fullest realization.
Only some five thousand members of the community opted not to leave Iraq and move to Israel. They gained nothing by their willingness to be good citizens, and only suffered from general animosity, torture, imprisonment and the gallows, each time another shockwave swept over Iraq.
Although it seemed that the Jewish community’s status had improved, from time to time periods of fear and anxiety descended on this community, when either because of weakness or wickedness, the regime could abandon the Jews to mercies of the hostile street, sometimes even goading the aggressors on, and adding further restrictions and unfavorable decrees.
Yet, the Jews condition underwent the most radical change not as a result of internal development within Iraq itself, but as the result of an intensification of the Jewish Arab conflict. The Arabs’ defeat - including the Iraqis - during the Six-Day War, caused a severe setback in the Jews’ condition, this time beyond repair. No longer deeds of an incited, unruly mob, but a systematic persecution on part of the government itself, which imprisoned, tortured and put to death innocent Jews. Some were hanged in public, under the gaze of the celebrating and inflamed crowds, while others lost their lives in dark dungeons by the hands of their torturers. They were chosen as the most convenient target for venting the feeling of revenge.
Fortunately, the existence of the State of Israel was what stood by the small and the helpless Jewish community this time, as the Israeli government engaged in extensive - but silent - diplomacy and political action, and assisted in developing illegal routes that eventually saved the community.
The majority of the members of the community who fled Iraq at the time, did so by risking a great danger and following winding roads; most of them immigrated to Israel.
It so transpired that Jewish fate on the one hand, and the Iraqi regime’s hatred on the other, once again reunited the last descendants of the original exiled Babylonian Jewry, bringing them back to the Land of Israel.

Maurice Shohet

The Jews Of Iraq Ceased To Be Passive

In the summer of 1970, early every morning, I would leave the area where I live, and I would go down along the street leading to the river bank of the Tigris and to the swimming station, where swimming enthusiasts among the Jewish community, would meet every morning.
It was the end of June, when I arrived one morning as usual at the swimming station, and met my friends. They were all talking about the same topic:
A Jewish family fled the country and arrived safely to Iran with the assistance of Kurdish smugglers.
It was hard for us to rationally comprehend, that after two years of the Baath party in power, during which some twenty Jews were publicly hanged or otherwise disappeared without leaving a trace, a Jewish family would get up and risk leaving the country illegally.
But more and more, the urge to live Iraq was breaking down the obstacle of fear. A competition began among the Jews: who would leave first? Every time we met, one subject only was on our lips: So and so had escaped!. Close friends dared not speak with one another about their plans to escape. All of a sudden someone would disappear and everyone else knew he had left Iraq.
The number of my friends decreased from day to day. It became too much to bear. It was impossible to wait any longer when it became known that the Kurds were operating an exit route from Iraq. Jews endangered themselves in groups and as individuals in order to be free.
When we saw that the number of those who had left Iraq and reached safely to Iran came close to 50, we decided, my brother and I, to approach our parents. After a short discussion they were convinced, agreeing with us and even approaching my maternal uncle and few friends, who quickly agreed in turn to join us with their families. It was our Jewish neighbor who fled the country few days earlier, who provided us with a smuggler’s name and address.

The Escape From Iraq - A Personal Account

From Baghdad To The Northern Resorts

It was September 2nd, 1970. We left Baghdad - 13 people - and traveled to the town of Shaqlawa in the Erbil Kurdish district in northern Iraq. Our goal was the “Jamil’s Place. This Jamil was a smuggler, a member of the Kurdish minority, who had close ties with the members of the semi-regular army of the Kurdish Democratic Party. The Kurds were engaging in a guerrilla war against the central government seeking to achieve an autonomous rule for their people in northern Iraq.
After traveling for about six hours we arrived at the provided address. It was a small restaurant. The owner Jamil received us. We were hidden in the restaurant’s side room for five days. On September 7th at 7:00 p.m., a large jeep parked in front of the Jamil's Place”. Two armed Kurdish personnel stepped out of it and approached Jamil, who gave them a list with our names. We quickly packed our belongings, got into the jeep and left Shaqlawa escorted by the two Kurdish men. The vehicle drove right through the main street of town towards the resort of Salah El-Din. There at a local coffee house, we saw about 25 Jews who were also on their way to flee the country with the help of a different group of smugglers. We ignored each other out of fear. After a short rest, we continued traveling towards Gali-Ali-Beig – another attractive resort in the north -. At about 10:00 p.m., we reached Haj-Omran, the most remote Kurdish stronghold on the Iraq-Iran border. The car stopped in front of one of the houses, which was surrounded by armed men.
Get off quietly, one of our escorts said, “straight into the house; here. In a moment we all jumped out of the cars, with our belongings in our hands. At the entrance to the house stood two Kurds in their traditional attire: wide pants, wide brodka cloaks and turbans covering their heads. Their mustaches were properly tended to. They directed us to a large room in one of the wings of the house, in which four armed men and three Kurdish women were sitting.
A young woman served us a hot tea. One of the men briefed us before our departure: We are leaving for Iran. A moment of weakness and insecurity could reveal you and ourselves and then, as you surely must know, we should be in serious danger.
We will proceed by foot for three hours and will reach another country. The path is neither paved nor safe. You will have to obey our orders all along the way until we arrive at our destination.
By foot?. We were caught by surprise. It was in Baghdad where we were told that we will be crossing the border by cars as other Jews previously did, but the reality turned to be different. We did not expect that it was going to be an easy escape from Iraq, but we never imagined that we had to take circuitous paths, less than 20 years after the open airborne migration of Iraqi Jews in the early 1950’s. We were seized by fear and thought to ourselves: :whatever will be, will be.
The four smugglers who would accompany us in our escape, asked us to leave our belongings behind so they could be transported on mules the following day. It was a clear indication of their willingness to keep them.

An Uncharted Route

We set forth on our way, over hills and mountains. The evening was cool and pleasant, and in our hearts we hoped that this clean air harbored with it a change in our situation, a change for the better. A new step towards a new life. The moonlight aided us seeing our way. The area was full of smugglers carrying different type of merchandise on mules* .
From time to time , and whenever we realized a suspected movement in the mountainous area, we had to stop and hide. After an hour of walking, sometimes running, we reached a swamp and traversed it, though it wasn’t easy. Few of us fell down and were injured. A 30 year old woman from our group who was slowly walking at the end of our “convoy”, was exposed to unwelcome advances from two of the smugglers.
“Wait for me”. She kept imploring. It was inconceivable for any one of us to relate to the perpetrators uncouth behavior, while simultaneously they were our life-savors.

We continued in our escape. Now we had to climb a mountain, the peak of which seemed tall enough to be “the roof of the world. Suddenly we heard a dog barking. From every side, searchlights were directed at the mountain. We stood still and stared at one another, tears filling our eyes.
Lie down!, shouted our guides. Frightened, my uncle began to smoke nervously. I will shoot you right here, if you don't turn off the cigarette, screamed one of the smugglers at my uncle.
All our guides quickly ran towards where it seemed the barking had sounded from. They left us alone to the mercy of God at the middle of the mountain. My uncle turned his face towards me and angrily said: “The son of a bitch tells me, ‘I will shoot you!!!
Our end has come, we said to ourselves. We looked at each other, unable to express the last Good Bye words.
After ten minutes, during which we were waiting for our fate to be decided, the searchlights went out, the barking was heard no longer, and the four guides rejoined us. It seemed like a miracle was happening **.

We could ask no questions, but to listen to orders. We were instructed to continue on our way.
None of us believed we were safe. Privately we wondered whether we should feel glad or prepare ourselves for the worst to come. We continued.
After about ninety minutes at 2:00 AM on the 8th of September, we saw an armed sentry patrolling near by a tall watchtower.
That's an Iranian soldier”, one of our guides told us.

* We got acquainted to one of the smugglers' business methods of operation:
Once a whistle was heard from one group of smugglers, a similar response was immediately echoed back from the other group, a sign of a “friendly” presence. The two groups will then continue on their own routes.

** Our own interpretation of what took place, was that our smugglers might have known the Iraqi border-guards, and they might have left us to go and make some kind of arrangements with them. In return the guards had closed their eyes on our escape. After all, this kind of cooperation have always been a way of life at the long Iraq-Iran border. We ourselves had previously paid our smugglers a large sum of money in return for their help in our escape from the country.

The Last Look

The pounding joy in our hearts cannot be described. We had an opportunity to throw a last glance back at the country where we had grown up and lived. Thoughts welled up in my mind about the country we were about to leave behind. We had loved Iraq more than many Iraqis do. I recalled the memories of the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates. As in a movie, I saw pictures passing through my mind, of the school where I had grown, of the synagogues where I prayed, and of the tombs of the prophets where I visited ***.
I thought about the descendants of the ancient Iraqi Jewish Community that dated back to the time of the Babylonian Empire, and the end that had befallen the Jewish community in this Arab country after the State of Israel was established. I thought of the miserable Jews on whom Iraq had vented its wrath after being shamed, when its army shared defeat together with other Arab armies during the Six Day War.

*** I knew well enough that I would never get to see again the real camera pictures I have had of these places, since they were all left behind with our belongings at the Kurdish house in Haj-Omran in Iraq.

The Migration To Israel

Inside the Iranian border, we were driven by a military truck to the tiny town of Khana. In the morning, we took the train for a long trip to Teheran.
After staying for three weeks in the Iranian capital, I immigrated to Israel to start a new life. Since then, more than 2,600 Iraqi Jews have immigrated to the Jewish State. It was a vision come true for the 2,500 year-old community. The dream of a hundred generations was fulfilled in its entirety. The Diaspora that was situated on the banks of the rivers of Babylon since the destruction of the First Temple was redeemed and could return to the land of its forefathers, to build it and be built in. The words of the Prophet Jeremiah with respect to Babylon and the exile of Judea were not refuted:

We would have healed Babylon,
but she is not healed;
Forsake her, and let us go every one
into his own country;
For her judgment reacheth unto heaven,
and is lifted up even to the skies.
The Lord hath brought forth our victory;

Come, and let us declare in Zion
The work of the Lord our God.”

(Jeremiah, chap.51:9-10)

Facing The Memorial For The Victims Of The Rulers In Iraq

The date - July 19, 1972. The place - the Modiin area, near the tombs of the Maccabim in the forest of Ben-Shemen in Israel. Two young children, in the company of Golda Meir the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, reveal the memorial for the Jews of Iraq who were put to death in prison, hanged in public trials or fell on their way to Israel.
“We remember the Jews of Babylon for being loyal Jews, for their longing for Israel and their resistance to surrender. With their lives they paid for the vengefulness of those who could not destroy our state, and yet the heart refuses to accept all that befell them [1].
Golda Meir is giving a speech at the ceremony.

I stand in a far corner and my gaze falls on the two small children. They were the sons of Isaac Dallal, who was executed in August 1969. Scenes from the life my family shared with that family pass through my mind, remembering when we had lived in the same neighborhood and only two houses separated us.
I recalled the sufferings of Isaac Dallal’s widow, from that moment on, when her husband was taken from her never to return. She had to deal with the difficulties of making a living. The woman, who had been able to get anything her heart desired just by sending her hand into her silver purse, was unable to buy her children even the cheapest food.

Many memories passed through my mind. In front of my eyes rose the figures of those who had been executed in Iraq, and others who had been sacrificed in order to bring about historic turning point, the salvation of the survivors of the Jewish community of Babylon.

I was overcome by many memories and I swore an oath to write down, even if only a few lines, about the suffering of the Jewish community in the years following the Six- Day War, of which the world knew so little, and about the adventures of Jews who left Iraq.

"The day is yet to come when we can hear from the mouths of these people how they were able to withstand adversity and put up such a glorious struggle. It is not yet possible to relate, there are still chapters on this issue of which we say the hour has not yet come”, but as the hour has come to tell so many things that ten or twenty or thirty years ago could not be told, so there will come a day and young and old people who came from there will stand before us. And there are such wonderful ordeals that the simple mind fails to comprehend. Whoever comes into contact with these phenomena stands amazed by the fortitude of the Jewish spirit, upon which such great forces descend upon it and yet it does not surrender to the cruelty of those who believe that it is a good deed to do harm to a Jew” [2]. Golda Meir

[1], [2]. Baghdad Hangmen Assassinated My Husband - Hebrew -
Maariv's Weekly Magazine, May 18, 1973.

Maurice Shohet is President of Congregation Bene Naharayim, and Vice President of A.A. Society, Inc., and American Friends of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel - three Iraqi Jewish Organizations in New York.

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