Iraq reclaims a Jewish history it once shunned

From the AP

BAGHDAD - It was seized from Jewish families and wound up soaking in sewage water in the basement of a secret police building. Rescued from the chaos that engulfed Baghdad as Saddam Hussein was toppled, it now sits in safekeeping in an office near Washington, D.C.

Like this country's once great Jewish community, the Iraqi Jewish Archive of books, manuscripts, records and other materials has gone through turbulent times. Now another twist may be in store: Iraq wants it back.

Iraqi officials say they will go to the U.S., possibly next month, to assess the materials found by U.S. troops and plan for their return after an absence of nearly seven years.

Some Jewish authorities are skeptical, arguing that since most estimates put the number of Jews in Iraq at less than 10, the archive no longer belongs here. But to Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, it is part of a larger effort to rescue the cultural history Iraq lost during the invasion, and to put Iraqis on a tentative path to coming to grips with their past.

"Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity ... To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic," said Eskander.

The archive was found in May 2003, when U.S. troops looking for weapons of mass destruction got a tip to check out the basement of a building of the Mukhabarat - Saddam's secret police. Passing a 2,000-pound unexploded bomb on their way into the building, they found a flooded basement.

"It was really quite disgusting, to be honest, because it was about chest-deep sewage water," said Richard Gonzales, the Army officer who led the team and has since retired.

The troops found no WMD, but it was worth the trip. Books, photos and papers floated in the murky water. And not just any books, but Hebrew-language books, in a country that had been at war with Israel since 1948 and had once accused Jews of espionage and after a show trial hanged nine of them in a public square.

The fact that the materials survived at all is remarkable, considering how much of Iraq's cultural heritage was looted or destroyed after the fall of Saddam - more than a quarter of the National Library's books and 60 percent of its collection of maps, photographs and records, Eskander said.

Gonzales knew he had something significant on his hands but he didn't have enough people or tools to deal with it. So he went to Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi exile group whose discredited WMD claims had been the main justification for the invasion.

Chalabi got him a pump and some manpower. The materials were pulled out of the basement, laid out to dry in the sun and packed in 27 metal trunks.

Accumulated over the years were photos, parchments and cases to hold Torah scrolls; a Jewish religious book published in 1568; 50 copies of a children's primer in Hebrew and Arabic; books in Arabic and English, books printed in Baghdad, Warsaw and Venice - the lost heritage of what was once one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East, dating to the 6th century B.C.

Abraham of the Old Testament is believed to have come from the city of Ur, in what is modern-day Iraq, and despite periods of persecution, the community endured and thrived over centuries. But problems worsened when Iraq sided with Germany in World War II, and came to a head when Israel was created.

By the early 1950s, Iraqi Jews were fleeing the country in droves. The few thousand who remained were harassed, too frightened to hold services, and their assets seized. In 1969, after Saddam's Baath party took power, came the hangings.

The secret police are believed to have confiscated countless books and other archival material from the Jewish community.

"Sometimes they would contact us when they had intelligence about such documents, Hebrew documents or books," said Kamil Jawad Ashour, the deputy director of the National Library. "On one occasion I went with them to a house in Basra of a Jewish family where they confiscated some documents and books from them. And there was only an old woman there."

After the 2003 invasion, Corine Wegener was working in Baghdad as an arts, monuments and archives officer - a rarity in the U.S. military - when she was asked to examine the materials from the basement.

They were still damp, and that meant mold, a preservationist's nightmare.

Only freezing stops mold, so a refrigerator truck was found and kept running 24 hours a day.

"I was out there three or four times a day with a food thermometer checking the temperature," Wegener said.

Agreement was reached, and later approved by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, to move the archive to the U.S. for preservation.

After being freeze-dried in Texas, the collection was taken to the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.
There the items were photographed, lightly cleaned, wrapped and boxed.
NARA and the Center for Jewish History, a New York-based nonprofit group, are using the photos to catalog the collection. But to handle and digitize it, more preservation work would be needed.

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