Aaron Zangi was released from jail on the very day - 27 January 1969 - that nine equally innocent Jews ( among them four underage students from his home town of Basra) were executed by hanging in Iraq. The JIMENA blog tells his amazing story in the Jerusalem Post.
Aaron hoped to join many of his high school classmates in leaving
Basra to study at university in England. However, come 1964, Iraqi
authorities had stopped granting the Jews permission to leave the
country. Aaron instead studied at the Iraqi University in Basra.
Aaron also had familial obligations in Basra that he could not
ignore. Aaron’s father was imprisoned three times for suspicions that he
was spying for Israel and also for smuggling Jewish children to Iran.
In order to maintain his father’s business and sustain his mother and
two brothers, Aaron cared for the business by day and took classes at
night. Twice a month Aaron would visit his father in a Baghdad prison to
discuss which merchandise to buy and sell.
Little changed for Aaron’s family when Ba’ath Party leader Hassan al
Bakr took over Iraq in 1968 - Aaron’s father was already in prison and
it seemed like their situation could not get much worse. But one
November afternoon while his father was still in prison, the mob came
knocking at the Zangi’s door in search of Aaron. They seized his brother
as a hostage until Aaron surrendered himself. Without a choice, he
turned himself into the police later that day. Aaron was taken to the
prison in Baghdad that night where he waited for the court’s verdict to
whether he had been a spy to Israel.
Aaron was next taken to an underground cellar in Gassra Nahaira, the
castle of the king, where he stayed for ten days. Aaron’s hands were
tied behind his back, only to be released when he ate. Aaron had no
mattress and he slept with the other prisoners on the ground. At least
once each hour each day and night, an official would come to get a
confession, which he never gave. He was later taken upstairs to be
interrogated by the prison officers who accused him of spying from Iran
after having been trained in weaponry. After Aaron denied the claims,
they brutally attacked him from morning until nightfall.
One day, the prison guards took Aaron to a room with a fan overhead. A
person hung from the fan as it swung around. “We’re going to do the
same thing to you,” the guards told Aaron. Still, Aaron refused to
confess. In the background, he remembers hearing the wailing of his
fellow prisoners both Jewish and Muslim.
Aaron was released on the 11th day of his imprisonment after the
authorities received statements vouching for Aaron’s innocence. Aaron’s
release saved him from execution; on January 27, 1969, nine innocent
Iraqi Jews were publicly hanged by the same spying accusations Aaron was
just acquitted from; the same men Aaron had known from Basra and had
recently shared a prison cell with. Aaron says that the victims’
families were not alerted about the execution’s date and had not seen
the victims before their death. The court had only spared three young
men, including Aaron and an old man.
Though technically innocent, Aaron spent the next year in prison.
Little information was given to Aaron’s family at this time. The police
told Aaron not to talk, and he obeyed.
He was eventually released from prison on the condition that he
return to Basra to remain on house arrest for six months and that he
would be watched for the duration of that time. Aaron only left his home
to buy small groceries from the store next door. Fearful that he would
be imprisoned again, he even remained at home following his official
house arrest. Still, Aaron was followed constantly; eventually Aaron
recognized his watchdog was a high school classmate.
One Friday night, Aaron’s mother announced that they were to
immediately leave to Baghdad, where she had learned that a man called
Naim Attar could smuggle them to Iran. As Shabbat was soon approaching,
they only had until Aaron’s watchdog returned on Sunday. Aaron, his
mother and brother only learned once they went to Attar on Shabbat
morning that he would charge 400 dinars to complete the operation.
Aaron’s mother promised Attar that her husband would send the money
later, as the men had worked together in the marketplace. The smuggler
refused, insisting he needed the money before he took them to Iran.
Desperate and fearful that her son would be captured again, Aaron’s
mother began crying.
Though it was Shabbat, Aaron went to the market. He approached a
Muslim man, Mr. Haji, who had done business with his father. Aaron lied
to Mr. Haji that he needed 400 dinars for to pay for his brother’s
surgery. Without hesitation, Mr. Haji gave Aaron the money.
That night they took the train to northern Iraq where a group of 33
Jews were waiting for them. A friend of Aaron’s mother brought her
14-year-old daughter, asking Aaron to smuggle her with him. Though he
feared that he would be hanged if they were caught, Aaron oversaw that
the girl arrived safely in Iran. Together the group did not sleep nor
eat until they reached Iran. They stayed with Tehran’s Jewish community
for four months. Aaron’s peers pressured him to help other Jews flee
Iraq, but he refused, knowing that he’d be killed if captured.
Instead, Aaron opted to stay in Iran and help Sachnut, the Jewish
Agency for Israel. His job was to help the Jews from Iraq with their
paperwork in obtaining visas to Israel. Aaron worked at the Jewish
Agency for four months until the Jews stopped coming from Iraq, after
which he decided to make aliyah and move to Israel himself. Aaron joined
his brother and aunt in Israel on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Aaron says that Israel immediately felt like home: he had freedom he
had never experienced in Iraq. Aaron also enjoyed meeting relatives he
had not known before. He attended Ulpan, followed by college, then the
Israeli Defense Forces where he served in the Yom Kippur War as a member
of the Israeli intelligence. But while Aaron was in Israel, his parents
and brother remained in Iraq; Aaron’s mother and other brother stayed
in Iraq until 1997, as Aaron’s brother supported them by working at the
government’s fertilization factory. Still, life in Basra’s shrinking
Jewish community was difficult. Aaron’s brother was unable to find a
Aaron eventually left Israel for the United States in order to make
living arrangements for his family. Sadly, Aaron’s father could not
leave Iraq due to his involvement in the Jewish community; the police
kept a close eye on him following his three imprisonments. Aaron’s
father eventually died in Iraq. Aaron is thankful that before his mother
died in 2000, she was able to visit Israel where she saw her sister
after 52 years apart.
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