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

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY DANIEL SUGARMAN

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)

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