Sunday, March 23, 2008

A story of Jewish nostalgia and British betrayal

The Haaretz columnist and 'new' historian Tom Segev reviews the late Violette Shamash's newly-published Memories of Eden:

"June 1, 1941 was the date of the festival of Shavuot. On that day, Arab hoodlums burst into the Jewish neighborhoods of Baghdad. The riots continued the next day, too. The rioters raided the houses, murdered, raped, looted, burned a synagogue and shops. Nobody knows for certain how many Jewish residents were killed; their number is generally estimated at over 150. Many hundreds were wounded. The pogrom, which is known as the Farhud, was stopped by the Baghdad police. Arabs, too, were killed and wounded.

"Less than 24 hours earlier, Baghdad had been transferred to British rule. Churchill ordered that the short-lived regime of Rashid Ali al-Gilani, who had seized power with the help of the Nazis, be brought down. The British entry into Iraq was considered part of World War II. The Farhud of Baghdad marked the beginning of the end of the most ancient Jewish community in the world, and some compare it to Kristallnacht in Germany and Austria 70 years ago.

"A young couple, Violette and David Shamash, were celebrating the holiday with relatives; they had left their baby, Mira, with an Arab nanny. They experienced hours of terrible anxiety until the nanny brought the child to them. Meanwhile they began to move the furniture, in order to block the doors. Violette heard women's screams from the neighboring houses. Afterward she discovered that many of the Arab neighbors had volunteered to protect the Jews.

"This is a very Jewish story, not a Zionist one. Violette and David Shamash described themselves as Arabic Jews. The Farhud spurred them to leave their country. Like many Iraqi Jews, they settled at first in Bombay, but the British were about to leave India; Violette and David Shamash came to Jerusalem. The British were about to leave the Land of Israel as well, so the Shamashes settled in Cyprus. After the British left there, too, the couple moved to London.

"Violette Shamash liked to write. When she died about two years ago at the age of 94, she left behind a large collection of letters and diary entries that describe the daily routine of the last generation of a community that had lived in Iraq consecutively for 2,500 years: What they ate and what they wore, how they fell in love and how they mourned. Aware of the changing times, she wrote about the appearance of the first matches and the first wristwatches, and also diligently recorded what happened to the Jews of Baghdad whenever a new ruler came to power.

"Mira, the baby, grew up and married Tony Rocca, who was a Sunday Times correspondent, and the two edited Violette Shamash's letters and diary entries into a captivating autobiography; shortly before her death, she managed to witness the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue. The book, which has just been published, broadcasts nostalgia; it is entitled "Memories of Eden."

"Rocca researched the events of that day and for the first time suggests a fully documented answer to the question of why the British did not act to prevent the Farhud. Its essence: The British ambassador, Kinahan Cornwallis, did not obey the instructions he received from London; he did what he wanted. As one of those who had invented the Iraqi nation, the ambassador thought that the residents of Baghdad should not be angered and should not be given a feeling that the British were imposing a puppet government on them. Therefore he left the army outside the center of Baghdad and allowed the Arabs to harm the Jews. The Arabs hated them, one reason being that they were considered allies of the British in Iraq; and they also hated the British, one reason being that they were considered allies of the Jews in the Land of Israel.

"Everyone knew what was about to happen; ambassador Cornwallis didn't care. Lawrence of Arabia described him as a man "forged from one of those incredible metals with a melting point of thousands of degrees." The honorable ambassador spent the hours of the Farhud playing bridge."

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