‘Like sending back art Nazis looted’: Iraqi Jews who fled persecution fight to stop U.S. from returning stolen artifacts to Baghdad

National Post 29 November 2013
By Joe O' Connor

Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, an Iraqi-Jew is seen here outside of her Thornhill, Ont., home. She was 14 when her family fled Baghdad. It took her 20 years to be able to talk about it.
Tim Fraser for National PostCaroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, an Iraqi-Jew is seen here outside of her Thornhill, Ont., home. She was 14 when her family fled Baghdad. It took her 20 years to be able to talk about it.

Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman was an exemplary student at Menahem Daniel Elementary school in Baghdad. She had a 94 in Arabic, 90 in math and science and 100 in English, grades that stood her first overall in her Grade 6 class and a point of youthful, scholarly pride, that the 56-year-old Iraqi-born Jew, now a Canadian physician living in suburban Toronto, had not really thought about for over 40 years until a friend and former classmate, Lily Shor, in Israel, sent her an email on Nov. 20 at 12:55 a.m.

“Dear Caroline!!” the email reads. “Have you seen this??”

“This” was a web link. Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman clicked on it and up popped her Grade 6 report card, along with her school photo, two items that, unbeknownst to the top student at Menahem Daniel were recovered — along with thousands of other Jewish documents and books — from the flooded basement of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in Baghdad by American forces in May, 2003.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty ImagesOn March 20, 2003 the United States headed a coalition with UK and other forces to invade Iraq. The country's leader Saddam Hussein was eventually captured, stood trial and was executed by the newly established Iraqi government.

The Americans struck a deal with the Iraqi provisional government of the day that the items would be transported to the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C., to be restored, and preserved, with the agreement they be returned to Iraq at some future date. Now, a decade later, a sampling of the artifacts — Torah scrolls, a Babylonian Talmud, Hebrew calendars and rabbinic commentaries — are on display at the Archives while thousands more, including a young girl’s report card, have been catalogued Online as part of an exhibit examining Iraqi Jewish heritage. The salvaged items are due back in Iraq in 2014.

Finding her old report card in an archive that houses the Declaration of Independence was “kind of cool” for Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman. But mostly it wasn’t cool. Mostly it made her angry, and sad, and brought back a tide of bad memories from her childhood, from the Iraq of the 1960s where a once vital Iraqi Jewish community lived in fear, never knowing who would be arrested nex

“I really felt violated seeing my report card because I knew the Iraqi secret police had no way of getting it unless they took it from our house,” Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman says. “All I could think about was somebody being in the house I grew up in and stealing this document and storing it in the basement of the Mukhabarat — the secret police of Saddam Hussein.

“Sending these items back to Iraq now would be like sending art that the Nazis looted from Europe’s Jews back to Germany. But it’s even worse, because I am nobody. I am not famous, and I am still alive, and there is no inherent value to these items. Nobody in Iraq is going to care about looking at documents and photos of Iraqi Jews that they don’t even know and that have no value to them, or the Iraqi government, or anyone — except the people they were stolen from.

Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman
Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-ZaltzmanCaroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, age 4, in Baghdad

“It is my report card.”

And she wants it back, and she is not alone among Iraqi Jews in feeling that way. The Iraqi Jewish diaspora is scattered about the globe in Israel, Australia, England, the United States, with about 5,000 in Canada, primarily in Toronto and Montreal. They are refugees from a 20th century atrocity, a crime that erased Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish culture and left its physical remnants — divorce records, information about kosher slaughter, religious texts and family photographs, rotting in a secret police headquarters far beyond the reach of its rightful owners.

Today there are reportedly five Iraqi Jews living in Baghdad. Five, out of a population that numbered around 150,000 in 1939 and comprised about one third of the population of the Iraqi capital. Jews were doctors, merchants and high-ranking government officials. There were some 60 Jewish schools in Baghdad, a Jewish hospital and a Jewish history in Iraq, referred to as Babylon in Old Testament times, stretching back to 600 B.C. Antisemitism existed, but for the most part Jews were an integral part of Iraqi life and mixed as friends and colleagues with their Muslim and Christian countrymen.

Hitler’s rise in Germany and nascent Arab nationalism changed things. A pro-Nazi government briefly seized power in Baghdad in 1941. There was an anti-Jewish pogrom, and a systematic stripping away of Jewish civil rights and scapegoating of Jews by successive Iraqi governments. Tens of thousands left for Israel in the early 1950s. Only 3,000 or so remained by the mid-1960s, including Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman’s family.

Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman
Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-ZaltzmanCaroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, age 7, center, with friends at a birthday party.

Set against the historical backdrop, the impending return of the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq has angered an ex-patriot community scattered by tragic circumstance. American and Iraqi Jews worldwide are urging the U.S. government to return the Jewish items to the Iraqi Jews. A petition signed by 47 members of Congress was delivered to Secretary of State John Kerry on Nov. 13, asserting that the “Government of Iraq has no legitimate claim to these artifacts,” echoing earlier statements from New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

Alexey Maishev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images
Alexey Maishev/Host Photo Agency via Getty ImagesForeign Affairs Minister John Baird

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, added his voice to his American counterparts in an email to the National Post Friday. “It is unfortunate that Iraq is simply not prepared to openly chronicle this tragic history as a monument for the people of Iraq, towards a meaningful reconciliation, or towards the historical preservation of archives and other items that document the ancient heritage of Iraqi Jewry,” the minister wrote.

“There also ought to be justice for those who were forced to leave with nothing and have an opportunity to reclaim not only their irreplaceable personal property, but crucial pieces of a past that is so vulnerable to being forever lost.

“For the last Jews in Baghdad and their descendants in Canada and beyond, Iraqi Judaica is ultimately their history to preserve and cherish.”

AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File
AP Photo/Jerome Delay, FileA U.S. Marine watches a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Firdaus Square in downtown Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

The Iraqis, meanwhile, insist the items be returned, as per the original agreement — a position the U.S. State Department currently supports. An adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently told the Reuters news service that the Jewish documents are part of an “Iraqi legacy owned by all of the Iraqi people and belong to all the generations, regardless of religious, ethnic or sectarian affiliations.”

Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman is sitting at the kitchen table of her spacious Thornhill home. She is petite, with coppery blond hair, tanned arms and a hard to identify accent. She pours me a cup of green tea, adding a generous dollop of sugar. English is her first language, though she does summation in her head in Arabic. She confesses that she doesn’t know what, exactly, she is: Iraqi? Canadian? An Arab-Jew?

Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman
Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-ZaltzmanCaroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, 6, with brother Felix, age 5 in their backyard.

She was 14 when her family fled the country. It took her 20 years to be able to talk about it. The past was too painful. But she is speaking out now because she is afraid the past is being forgotten; that the Iraqi Jews, deprived once of their cultural patrimony, are at risk of being robbed of it a second time.

“I have very few good memories of Iraq,” she says. “I never ate in a restaurant, went to a movie theatre or slept over at a friend’s. I went to my Jewish school and came straight home.

Tim Fraser for National Post
Tim Fraser for National PostCaroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, seen here in Thornhill, Ont., holds a wedding band that belonged to her grandmother, Rose Raby. It was one of the few items that her and her Iraqi-native Jewish family was able to flee the country with.

“Jews weren’t allowed telephones, or passports. Every letter we received had already been opened. We carried yellow identity papers. My father, David, couldn’t work for a Muslim, or hire a Muslim.

“All our neighbours in Baghdad were Muslim and Christian. But I don’t ever remember talking to them. By the time I was old enough to be aware we were already so isolated, as Jews. I was a little girl and I was always afraid. My parents, on the other hand, have some very fond memories of Iraq. My father was an accountant and worked for a Christian family until it became too dangerous for them to employ him.

“So as a kid I remember my Dad always being home and I remember I’d come home from school not knowing if he would be there.”

Two of her uncles were tortured by the Ba’athist regime, which first seized power in a 1963 coup. Iraqi Jews were cast as Israeli spies. There were show trials. Public hangings.

Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman’s parents are still alive and live nearby. Her father tells the story of his daughter as a toddler. Regime thugs barged through their front door and began searching the house for weapons. Little Caroline spoke to the men in English, a language she used at home since the family was always preparing to leave — always had a bag packed and a dream of starting over someplace else.

Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman
Courtesy of Caroline Bassoon-ZaltzmanCaroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, right, age 6 with friends.

Hearing a little girl speak English was enough to get her father arrested. The Bassoon family walked out of their house, with its beautiful garden, in an old Jewish corner of Baghdad, at 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, 1971. They were packed as though they were going on vacation and left practically everything — photos, heirlooms and report cards — behind. A childhood friend of David’s, a Muslim, secreted money to the family. Bribes were paid to Kurdish smugglers. Three days later they were in a hotel in Tehran. Two weeks after that they were in Israel. They moved to Montreal in 1976.

Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman is heading to Washington with her husband next week to visit the archive.

I was a little girl and I was always afraid

“I don’t even know if I’ll be able to see my report card,” she says. “But I am going to try and get it back. I am going to see what I can do.”

And then she laughs, because it all happened so long ago, and because so much about her life since — Canada, the two kids, the loving husband, the great career — has been rich and rewarding and safe. She is not a scared little girl anymore. The bad memories are faded, like an old photograph or an old report card, finally come to light.

“Thank God I did so well in school,” Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman says, grinning. “I always told my husband I did well and he always joked about how he wasn’t so sure, because he didn’t have any proof.

“Now I have proof.”
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