How I became an artefact
Edwin Shuker’s Iraqi school report turned up in an exhibition at the US National Archive. He told a Limmud audience the remarkable story of how it got there
IN MAY 2003, in the wake of a monthlong invasion of Iraq which saw the toppling of the country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, a man approached an American army unit with a story — and an offer.
In front of a spellbound audience at the Limmud Festival, Edwin Shuker, Vice President of the Board of Deputies, told the story in full.
“The man said, ‘I want to make a deal with you… I was the head of the Intelligence Service [Mukhabarat] unit in Iraq that deals with Israel and the Jewish people.
“‘I have been hiding. In return for safe asylum, I will show you a treasure of Jewish archives and documents which will blow your mind.’
“At the time, luckily, there was a guy there known to many of us as Harold [Rhode], who was embedded into the Pentagon’s unit, but he is a scholar in Semitic languages, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew — and he’s an Orthodox Jew.
“He was negotiating with the man, and the deal was ‘take me there, I’ll decide if you are telling the truth, and if so the Americans will consider giving you asylum.’”
Mr Shuker was born in Iraq. He and his family fled the country in 1971 in response to the increasingly repressive treatment of Jews by the Iraqi government, a key member of which was Saddam Hussein.
He described how the man took Mr Rhode and colleagues to a “huge building in the centre of Baghdad… which
had been penetrated by a colossal, unexploded bomb.
“The guy said ‘in the cellar, you will find everything I promised you’. And Harold with his team and the guy went into the cellar. What they discovered was that the bomb actually destroyed the water system of the building, and that cellar was in 5ft of dirty water.
“Harold started picking things up from the floor, and he realised that the entire cellar was full of documents. He pulled out a Sefer Torah, and papers that had been in water for days. Harold called his general and said, ‘I want you to send people to drain the cellar.’ The guy’s answer was ‘we are an army at war; you think we are a drainage service?’ and put the phone down.”
Mr Shuker, who knows Mr Rhode, said that he and others had been calling him and asking him what was happening in Baghdad.
“He was literally in tears. At that moment, Natan Sharansky calls him from Jerusalem. And Harold says, ‘I’m watching our people’s history disappearing in front of my eyes.’
“Natan says, ‘I have one person in mind who may be able to save this.’
“He made a call — I am not at liberty to say to who — but suddenly the Americans went into action and the National Archives of the United States of America — for the first time — dealt with something which is not American.”
As Mr Shuker described, the Americans sent a Boeing 747, equipped with a giant freezer — “because the way to
The US sent a Boeing 747 to take the archive away The boy was me. I swear to God the boy was me
deal with documents and archives of that nature in water is to freeze them to start with” — to transport over 27,000 documents, primarily concerning the 20th century Iraqi Jewish community, but also containing works dating back to the 16th century.
There were other fascinating occurrences along the way. Mr Shuker said that the transport plane landed at a military base in Rhode Island, where it was demanded, as a “national security” measure, that the electricity on the plane be switched off. Those flying with the documents made it clear that this would not be possible but officials were firm. In the end, the flight team demanded to speak with the commander of the base.
“The head of the base comes in, with a kippah on his head,” Mr Shuker said. There were no more issues with the flight’s electricity.
The documents were transported to a facility in Maryland, where they were worked on for the next decade.
“Out of 27,000 documents, ten per cent were written off — they were buried in Washington with a beautiful ceremony.”
Fast forward to 2013; Mr Shuker was in Washington, speaking to a group, when he found out that the National Archive was due to exhibit items from the Iraqi Jewish community. He went to the archive and persuaded the curator of the exhibition and the president of the museum to give him a preview.
“We started working through the
exhibit. ‘This is the oldest Torah — 16th century. This is the oldest Talmud.’ They were exhibiting 24 items — out of 27,000.
“And then they said ‘these are personal items’ — divorce documents, marriage documents, very personal — and they said ‘We also have an example of the Iraqi Jewish school called Frank Iny School, and these are the school reports of children.’
“I said, ‘that’s where I went’.
“There were two school reports, one for a boy and one for a girl. And the boy was me. I swear to God. The boy was me.
“I thought, ‘This cannot be’. I was looking for a candid camera around. I asked, ‘Excuse me, why did you choose this boy and this girl out of all the thousands?’
“She said, ‘We are experts in preserving letters, but not pictures. These reports had pictures — almost all of them were underwater and we cannot recover them, except this little boy, whose picture was just perfect.’
“I said, ‘Well, that little boy is me’. And she looked up, and you can imagine the emotion. We hugged each other.”
This, however, was far from the end of the story — and this was where Mr Shuker asked his Limmud audience to consider some issues with potentially very far-reaching consequences for Jewish communities.
“Recently the West has become very conscious and sensitive about things they have taken from the East — antiquities and all sorts of things,” he said.
He described how, “on a recent visit to the Foreign Office here, as part of the Board of Deputies relationship with the British government, they told us, in a great announcement, that they had managed to convince the British Museum to send back to Iraq some surplus material… as a gesture saying, ‘This belongs to you, please have it back’.
“And the great news that they wanted to share with us is that most of these are Jewish heirlooms.
“Similarly, the State Department is now making bilateral agreements with all these countries, saying, ‘We will not allow any of your items, especially the failed states of Libya, Syria and Iraq — we will not allow stolen and looted things from your museums to be traded here. We will seize it as stolen property and return it.’
“Wonderful. But then it actually states in the agreement, ‘including all the Jewish items and Jewish archives that are there’ — which is a huge market, by the way, Sifrei Torah.
“That agreement would mean that anything that Jews from Arab countries have left behind now has to go back.
“There are synagogues in the United States thinking, ‘We are going to have to justify why we have a Sefer Torah from Baghdad, which has to be returned’. It could be interpreted like that, if somebody wanted to.”
The idea that Jewish items, which were seized by Middle Eastern countries from Jews, are now to be returned to the governments of those countries by the UK and US is a painful one to many Jews, especially those from Arab lands.
The Iraqi archive is a case in point, with ramifications and implications far beyond this collection.
“When the Americans took the items, they were very sensitive that the Iraqis should not think that they [the Americans] were taking their culture away from them,” Mr Shuker said.
“So the State Department signed an agreement in black and white that the United States are borrowing this archive for the purpose of preservation, and it will be returned to Iraq as soon as that is done.
“As soon as this 2013 exhibit came along, the Iraqi embassy and the Iraqi government said, ‘Thank you very much, you’ve done a fantastic job, now we want it back.’
“They made a temporary agreement which ended in September 2018, which said ‘in September 2018, the entire collection goes back’.”
However, Mr Shuker has, as he has described, been “the lead in a Class A lawsuit” on this issue. After all, one of the documents in question is demonstrably his.
He believes that the school report would have been placed with the other archival material because of what would have happened when his family fled the country.
“There is a racist, antisemitic law in Iraq, which is still there today, started in 1951, law number five, which states that any Jew who leaves Iraq for more than three months automatically is considered to have renounced his Iraqi nationality and has no right to get it back. Even today.
“When we escaped from Baghdad in 1971, there was an announcement in the newspaper: ‘These are the runaways, you have three months to report back, otherwise your nationality will be taken away and your assets’, meaning they would go back to our home and strip it.”
Much of the rest of the archival material was taken directly from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein’s officials, Mr Shuker said.
“We went to people — still, 50 years on, people who worked in the Iraqi Jewish community at the time — they would not give their names in court. Most of these files were at the offices of the Iraqi Jewish community.
“In the early 80s, people came to them and said, ‘Saddam Hussein would like to have a museum for his Iraqi Jewish community. We want all your papers, all your archives.’
“The leaders said, ‘Of course, we would love to — please take everything.’ What else would you say to Saddam Hussein?”
There are understandable fears that the archive will be mistreated if it is returned to the country, with concern centred on how Jewish shrines in the country have been treated — in particular, the shrine of the prophet Ezekiel — since 2003.
“Nouri al-Maliki [Prime Minister of Iraq from 2006-2014] gave a tender to an Iranian company,” Mr Shuker explained. “They took over a huge area and constructed a very large mosque, which completely incorporated the shrine of Ezekiel. The graves were desecrated, the bones thrown out.”
Despite the agreement being that the archived items would be returned in September 2018, Mr Shuker told the audience, “We have been managing to delay the sending back by telling the US State Department, ‘We will hold you responsible if these archives go back to the same sewage waste that they came out of. What guarantee have we got that they are actually going to be treasured?’”
He confirmed that there had been a “three-year extension, which is not yet formal, you will not see it on the internet... to allow the Iraqis to come up with a proposal as to where are they going to keep it, how are they going to make it accessible — especially to the owners of those things, so that Edwin Shuker can take his son and say, ‘This is my certificate, this is the place they took from me’ — is that going to be open for us?”
However, Mr Shuker suggested that there were grounds for hope.
He described how “the new Culture Minister of Iraq, appointed last Tuesday, is a wise, kind man who loves our culture — many of us can call him a friend.”
He also cited an upcoming deal in Egypt which might provide a road map for other Arab countries in dealing with this issue. “In the next few weeks, the Egyptian government will announce that it is going to take over responsibility for the upkeep of certain synagogues,” adding there will also be a new board which will include members of Egypt’s tiny remaining Jewish community as well as experienced former members of Egypt’s Jewish community who now live in the diaspora.
Whether other countries will follow suit remains to be seen, but in Iraq, certainly, such an initiative seems needed.
“There are four synagogue properties in Baghdad alone,” Mr Shuker said.
“And in the basement of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, there are 400 Sifrei Torah”.
There are fears the archive will be mistreated if it is sent back to Iraq
Inside the Baghdad building where the artefacts were found. Right: Shuker’s school report
Shuker in Baghdad. His family fled Iraq in 1971
the trunks used to transport them to the US
A US researcher with one of the Iraqi-Jewish documents
Soiled documents and (right)