Jews from Arab countries have found a willing listener for their stories: Professor Henry Green of Miami University, whose Sephardi Voices archive project is building up a head of steam. The Miami Herald reports:
As a boy, Ted Bekhor remembers swimming the Tigris, the ancient river mentioned in the Bible.
The Bal Harbour resident remembers the friendly neighbors – Jews and Muslims – and his family’s sprawling Baghdad estate.
But all that changed after World War II when a restless Middle East and North Africa wanted to break free of European colonists (a gross oversimplification: in fact conditions for the Jews deteriorated in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism - ed).
As tensions mounted, his frightened Jewish parents sent Ted, who was then 8, to a European boarding school in 1949, the year after Israel became a nation.
He never went back to Iraq.
By the late 1960s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was publicly hanging Jews on trumped-up charges.
Memories of the the terror are still too real to Bekhor’s younger cousin, Gladys Daoud, who remembers Iraqis being invited to picnic on the execution grounds.
“We just left with a suitcase,’’ said Daoud.
Now someone wants to hear their story.
The University of Miami’s Department of Religious Studies is partnering with Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Sephardi Voices United Kingdom to interview the Middle Eastern and North African Jews who have resettled all over the world. University of Miami professor Henry Green is leading the international effort task to assemble oral histories from the Sephardi Jews who fled North Africa, the Middle East and Iran after World War II.
Researchers began filming survivors in London in 2010. Others will be interviewed in Israel, Canada, France and the United States.
Green calls it the “forgotten exodus.’’
“If we don’t capture their stories, there will not be witnesses and their memories will be lost,’’ he said.
The project is modeled after Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute that has recorded the memories of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors.
The Sephardi Jewish refugees are grateful for the attention.
“It hurts so much that it is a hidden exodus,’’ said Liliana Zanzuri Leitman of Pembroke Pines whose parents were forced to flee Libya in 1949 when Leitman was still a baby. A relative was killed in Tripoli during a mob frenzy, she said.
Her extended family lost property in both Libya and Tunisia, Leitman added. An office building still exists in the Tunisian capital, Tunis that her extended family owned before they left the Middle East.
“Now we can’t even get in the door,’’ she said.
Once there were thousands of Jews in Libya, Leitman added. Today, she said, “None are left.’’
Leitman appears before any group that will have her to speak about what her family went through.
“People come up to me and say ‘we had no idea,’ ” Leitman said.
The refugees’ story especially resonates this holiday season as Jews celebrate Passover, when Moses led the Jews from bondage in Egypt, said Green, founding director of the Jewish Museum of Florida and former director of UM’s Judaic/Sephardic Studies.
Passover, he said, “is not just a story of the past. It has contemporary meaning.’’