If you thought the Ottomans were tolerant and fair-minded to their Jews, prepare to have your perceptions shattered by this harrowing story of unspeakable cruelty. In 1916, the increasingly desperate Ottoman authorities, on the verge of defeat in the First World War, plotted to take their revenge on the Jews of Baghdad. In this ugly episode, recorded in 1937 for posterity by Raphael Shlomo Zion Rahamim of Jerusalem, 17 upright Jewish citizens, including his own father, were tortured and their bodies dumped in the river. (With thanks Robert H)
Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long;we are counted as sheep for the slaughter
'The first days of the month of Av are a fitting time for me to publish one instance of the deeds and cruelty of the tyrannical (Ottoman) governors of Baghdad during World War I. Here I will mention only a little of the great evil that was done to us, so that our ordeal of slaughter and murder may be preserved in the pages of history as testimony for generations to come.
"In the winter of 1916 Fayek, governor of the village of Bakuba near Baghdad, was appointed to replace Huali in Baghdad. He was promoted to this lofty position because of his tyranny and hatred for the Jewish people. His appointment shocked the Jews who knew him as one who loved collecting taxes and was a vengeful enemy. They knew it was a dark day for them. In the few months that he ruled Baghdad, murder and exploitation became the hallmark of his rule. Many Jews were imprisoned and exiled, and there were many casualties. With indescribable cruelty, seventeen innocent Jews were abused, among the best and most respected of the city.
"This oppressor of Israel, upon taking power in Baghdad, set about getting his revenge on the Jews he so hated by finding a charge to pin on them. Innocent blood spilt from time to time did not satisfy his bloodlust, and he searched for a way to destroy, kill and eliminate tens of Jews at once. He looked, and found it. Turkish currency bills had lost much of their value: he laid the blame on the Jews, and so he put his schemes into effect. In secret, he and his militia Khalil Bey and Said El-Din, chief of the police, sent inspectors to sell the Turkish bills to the Jews in order to entrap them into committing a crime. But it was God’s will that it became known to them, only after the decree had already been issued, that after a set number of days all the residents had to exchange their silver and gold coins for Turkish bills, and the offenders punished with all the severity of the law. Of course, no Jew dared to do this and the efforts of the inspectors were not successful. However, the inspectors did not despair and were advised to wait until Sabbath eve when the Jewish masses stocked up for the Sabbath from the Jewish market. Perhaps there they would manage to trap someone in their net? This time, they were successful.
"After many attempts, one of the policemen met a cantor - I remember his name was Aharon. They say that this cantor was losing his mind as his income had dwindled to almost nothing. He was at once touched by the inspector's pleas, who appeared before him as poor and needy, and asked him to exchange one Turkish bill of one pound for a silver coin of half a Magidi, that he desperately needed. And he took pity on this seemingly poor person, even though he was not an ally, and fulfilled his request, and did not know that his life depended on it. It appears that this policeman, who knew that he had captured a misguided and naïve man in his net, did not know that it would please those who sent him. Thus he let the poor soul go after following him to his house. But the chief of police, apparently, thought it correct to incriminate all the Jews with this nutcase's guilt, and after a few hours a policeman came with an inspector and took the poor man to the police station, and this is where the torture started.
"Fayek and the head of the police were present at the police station when they brought in Aharon. When the poor man refused, under interrogation, to incriminate Jews in the trade of the Turkish bills, the tyrannical oppressors started to torture him. Cruel policemen used all kinds of torture, to no avail. The torture victim's excuse was that he did not know even one Jew who traded in these bills. He cried, to no avail, begged, to no avail. The cruel individuals whose hearts knew no mercy closed their ears to his pleas and excuses. The more the poor soul cried and begged, the more the Cruel Ones tortured him. They cut his fingers, pierced his eyes and did not relent until he lost consciousness and fell in a pool of his own blood, fighting until bitter death.
"That Sabbath eve was a night of fear and horror for a number of Jewish families. After the Evil Ones abused poor Aharon until the late hours of the night, they were ordered to bring another sixteen Jews before them to take vengeance upon them. Following orders, a police unit went out again with a list of names of sixteen Jews. This time, it seems, the police numbered the greatest sadists among them. The police first knocked loudly on the doors of the Jews they encountered on their way, awoke the inhabitants and angrily forced them to identify each of the sixteen Jews on the list. They cruelly beat anyone who hesitated even for an instant. A man who hesitated between two Joseph ben Shimons was also beaten. And the Joseph ben Shimon whose house they found first, fell into the hands of the Evil Ones.
"During the night fifteen Jews were led off to the police station. Among them was the old man Baruch Dangoor, brother of Rabbi Ezra Dangoor who was later appointed chief rabbi of Baghdad. The victim was about eighty-five, an honest, innocent and modest man. His religion meant everything to him. In his old age and weakness, he used to sit at home and study Torah. In his last years he hardly left his house. This poor man was taken with his son Joseph, about 40, a well-loved man whose very face showed his innocence and honesty. From the same family they also took the wealthy and well-known Eliyahu Dangoor. Later they took the respected Yehuda Somekh and Sasson Sofer – upstanding people from good families.
"These five, together with another ten respected others – whose names I cannot unfortunately exactly remember – all honest and innocent people whom the oppressors could surely not suspect of a fraudulent trade in Turkish bills, were guilty only of the crime of refusing to accuse other innocent Jews accused by the Evil Ones of crimes they did not commit. The victims, while still trembling under their oppressors, offered up all their property in order to hasten their deaths, but the Cruel Ones, whose one and only intent was for revenge, turned a deaf ear all night long to their helpless pleas and cries of distress.
"During the first service that Sabbath morning when the people gathered in the synagogues, word spread about the police searches that night. Fear possessed everyone who heard the news, although they did not know yet the suffering and torture endured by the victims. People assumed that either the police went in search of those people whose names were found in a notebook on Aharon the cantor - individuals called to the Torah the previous Shabbat, who had not yet made their donations. Else, Aharon the cantor, while being tortured, and from the depths of his suffering, divulged names. It did not matter to these Evil Ones, whose only purpose was to abuse the Jews, to search out and capture only those on their list. Anyone similar would do. As the Gemara Chagiga 4b tells us, the Angel of Death who summoned his messenger to bring Miriam (who dresses women's hair) and instead brought him Miriam (who raises children), told him that since he had brought her, she might as well be included in the count.
"On the same Sabbath day the order went out to find the sixteenth man that the police had not been able to find the previous night, despite all their best efforts, as his name had been incorrectly written down. Two policemen went out and interrogated every Jew they met, asking the missing man's name. To this man’s joy, even when they found him they treated him well, and not with the cruelty that the police treated all the other Jews that night. They handcuffed the man to whom their investigation led, took him by force, and did not allow him to utter a word. These two policemen probably did not know what was in store - how those who sent them intended to abuse the Jews - and so they treated this man with patience. They acceded to his request and gave him the list so that he could see if his name appeared on it, and if he was their man. Reliable witnesses tell us that the man looked at the list and at once said that he was not the one they were looking for, but rather his cousin, who also had the same two names. When he saw that the police did not believe him - they told him that the cousin could not be the right man as they had done a thorough investigation - he offered to show them his cousin’s house, my late father Shlomo Zion's. They agreed to this, probably thinking that they would investigate later. This was at 1 pm.
"Abba (Father) had finished praying minha and had come home for the third Shabbat meal. While he was talking we heard a loud banging on the door of our house. Due to the crisis and the terrible rumours we were hearing, the banging alone was enough to make all our hearts tremble. The maid hastened to open the door and Abba’s cousins came in accompanied by the policemen. The cousin with the same first name waited with the policemen in the yard. Another cousin who went up to Abba and whispered something in his ear (to this day, we do not know what he said, and the cousins later never showed any interest in his fate) and then went back to tell the police that Abba was going with them. The police allowed the cousin’s brothers to return home safely. Abba accompanied the police. We small children at home sobbed; Imma cried with us. Abba mumbled something to quieten us down but at this point the policemen lost patience and arrested him. From the window we could see Abba going with the policemen. We kept on crying, as if our hearts knew he would never return.
"Relatives and acquaintances immediately took the necessary steps to redeem our father, but their efforts were in vain. So were those of the families of the other sixteen Jews. To quieten us children, they told us that the police had promised to release him the next day. Though we believed what we were told we could not accept that our father would not be released that same day. The idea came to us to run to the police station and hear again his last words as he left the house. At our age, this is all that mattered.
"The police station was housed in the building of the shipping company Lynch, an English company whose representatives left Baghdad at the time of the war. We circled it, trying to find a way in. On one side, we heard the cries of those being cruelly beaten and tormented rising to the heavens. We anxiously listened closely for the voice of our father, but we could not hear him. We were afraid to wait any longer. It was late, already night: this was not a place for Jews. We walked through the back alley, where the voices were coming from, ready to go home. Suddenly we were aware that the voices were hushed although we were closer to them. We waited a few more moments under the high window of the warehouse where we thought the voices were coming from, and then we heard the voice of our father. It was not just a cry: sobbing, he was reciting parts of a confession attributed to Rabbi Yehuda Halevy or Rabbi Ibn Ezra: “To you, my Lord is my passion.”
"We could not control ourselves and began crying and yelling, “Abba, Abba! What are they doing to you? Why are you crying?" His voice stopped immediately and we understood that he was trying very hard to overcome his sorrow and talk to us, but he could not. With great restraint and difficulty he said to us: “go home, my children and pray for mercy for us”. We waited a few more minutes and heard nothing. We went back home, upset and despairing. We begged our family to take desperate measures to release our father that night.
"On Sunday morning everyone learned of the torture of these poor souls. Their relatives’ efforts to redeem them at any price were in vain. The torment of Aharon the cantor, the first victim, was worse than those of his friends. He died 24 hours later, but his sixteen friends were tortured in ways that prolonged their agony in order to force them to implicate other Jews. These sixteen saintly men sanctified the name of the Lord, and did not under any circumstances mention the name of other Jews, though the Cruel Ones demanded to know the names of their friends and acquaintances. We kept trying to talk to our father through the high windows. At times we were answered, at times not.
"On Tuesday, the 28th day of the month of Shvat, at dawn, my esteemed uncle, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim went to inquire about my late father’s well-being. One of the martyrs, Sasson Sofer, answered that his brother, our late father, had been taken at midnight and had asked Sofer to notify the family. More than this he could not say. Over the next two days nothing more was heard of these saintly martyrs.
"On Thursday and Friday a rumour spread that, after the great victory of General Khalil Bey on the Kut-al-Amara front over the last few months, he had now suffered a great defeat and retreated with the rest of his forces. On Shabbat this rumour was reinforced. Further rumours of great losses caused embarrassment to the tormentors of Israel. The Jews had their belief strengthened that the Turkish defeats were divine retribution for the spilling of the blood of pure souls.
"That same day a body, missing several body parts, was found outside the town, and identified as Aharon the cantor by the members of his family. On Sunday, after the martyr's funeral, a modest affair due to fear of the enemy, rumours spread that the Turks had begun to evacuate Baghdad and to dig in at the city of Samara. During the week this rumour became fact and the three tormentors of Israel left Baghdad.
"On Sunday, the sixteenth day of the month of Adar, the British entered Baghdad. The Jews were relieved that the plot of the tormentor Fayek and his lieutenants to kill all the Jews of Baghdad had come to nought. On Monday a deputation of the relatives of the martyrs went to see General Maude, the conqueror of Baghdad, and asked him to question the chief of police Said El-Din as to what happened to the sixteen Jews he had tortured. It was rumoured that the British had captured El-Din. General Maude welcomed the deputation and told them that the tormentor Said El-Din was not among their captives. The relatives of the martyrs felt depressed and hopeless, not knowing what had happened to their fathers.
"On the 3rd day of the month of Nissan a large sack was found, full and sealed closed, washed up on the bank of the Ahidekel river, about 45 minutes away from Baghdad, in front of a Jewish qasr (palace). The sack was opened and in it was the body of our late father, on whose face no change could be seen. We speculated that on the night of that Tuesday the 28th of Shvat, he was taken from the police station to an unknown place and cast into the river. This would have meant that he was in the river for more than 30 days, though he looked like a man who had died in his bed. Our sages say [Gemara in Yevamot 121a] that water preserves the shape of the face and does not allow it to swell or become disfigured. His hands were handcuffed and in the sack were several large stones. Despite this, he was floating on the water - a miracle. Some attributed this to nature, saying that the British navy plying these waters caused the sack to float in the slipstream. But I, who saw the heavy stones with my own eyes, am among those who believed that it was a miracle. Our late father’s virtue was to his credit and his coffin was floating so that he would receive a proper burial.
"My late grandfather, the late Rav Rahamim, son of Rav Shlomo, aspired only to raise his sons to Torah and good deeds. This came to pass. Our late father, his oldest son, was born in Baghdad on the eve of the Sabbath, on the 28th day of the first month of Adar in the year 1871 and was named Shlomo Zion, Shlomo after his father and Zion for redemption. In his childhood he studied diligently in Yeshiva for several years and excelled in intelligence and diligence. His true love of God, acquired from his fathers and rabbis, accompanied him to his last day.
"In the year 1912 he visited the Holy land where he spent several months. He returned filled with wonder, wishing to wind up his business in Baghdad and live honourably in Israel. The Great War delayed his plans and the cruel ones who murdered him ended his hope. We are sure that his soul and the souls of his sacred friends are engraved in the Book of Life, together with the victims who died for noble causes and were killed under false pretences, and about them the heavens proclaim:
“Blessed be they that no being can stand among them”. (Psachim, 50)