Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How the Jewish archive was discovered

 An empty tik case, used to house a Torah scroll, floated by...

Barbara Bensoussan has written the most detailed account yet of the discovery and the recovery of the Iraqi-Jewish archive.  Here is the first part of her article, which appears in Mishpacha (no link yet available). With thanks: Carole:


Baghdad, 1984 :  Two trucks arrive at the Meir Tweig synagogue, the only synagogue still in use by the handful of Jews still remaining in Baghdad.  The trucks have been dispatched by Saddam Hussein, the country’s cruel dictator, charged with the mission of delivering yet another slap to the face of the Jewish community.  
 
Saddam’s men go upstairs to the women’s section, where a large stash of Jewish seforim, documents, and artifacts have been consolidated and safeguarded, cherished relics of a Jewish community that has largely fled.  The men confiscate everything they can find, load the trucks and drive off, leaving the synagogue’s occupants terrified and bereft. 

 A woman at the scene will later recount these events to Dr. Harold Rhode, a frum Middle East expert who has traveled widely in the Arab world and served for 28 years at the Pentagon. A coalition of U.S. and British forces has invaded Iraq, on the belief that Saddam has been able to stockpile weapons of mass destruction.  Saddam is nowhere to be found, and nobody has found any WMD’s either. It’s a warm Monday in May, with the Coalition and the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in control of Baghdad.  An Iraqi informant, probably seeking to curry favor with Iraq’s new leadership, approaches INC leader Ahmed Chalabi and tells him that he used to head the Jewish section of Saddam’s intelligence service. 
 He claims there is an entire trove of Jewish artifacts, including a  7th century Talmud written on parchment, still lying there in the Mukhabarat, the building that had housed the intelligence center (Iraq’s CIA and FBI rolled into one).
Chalabi immediately calls two long-time friends currently in Baghdad: Harold Rhode (Rhode worked with the INC from 1991-2003), and journalist Judith Miller of the New York Times.  Miller has been embedded with the 16-member team Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, a group searching for those elusive nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.  Rhode, Miller, Team Alpha, and a few Iraqis from the INC jump into their jeeps and head for the Mukhabarat.

 They’re not really sure what, if anything, they might expect to find there… So off we went, and our informant points to two windows down below in the basement,” recounts Dr. Rhode, now retired and safely back at his home in Potomac, MD.

“The next time we looked around, he had disappeared into thin air. “We went around to the main entrance to try to get in.  We found stairs leading down, and saw there was water waist-high in the basement. Many buildings in the area had been bombed; in this case, through some strange hashgachah, a bomb had penetrated several stories of the building and lodged outside it. But it did take out the water system, which created the flood.”

Some of the Team Alpha people began wading in. The first room they got to in the basement was the Israeli section, and they started pulling out whatever items they could. Down the hall, an empty tik [hard case to house a Torah scroll, used in Sephardic communities] floated by from the Jewish section; they passed it up along with some books and papers.

From what New York Times writer Edward Rothstein later called “the muck of the Mukhabarat,” the team began to salvage piles of books and documents—mostly in Hebrew, some in Arabic or English. But this was obviously an undertaking that required help—pumps to empty the basement, people to sort through whatever was there. “Out of his own pocket, Chalabi offered to provide workers to come with trucks to pump out the water,” Dr. Rhode relates. “The electricity wasn’t reliable, so sometimes the work had to stop. The pumps were small, but within a couple of days the water had receded from waist height to ankle height.”

Over about a month, the team worked day by day to rescue as much material as they could. In the Jewish section, they found everything from fragments of sifrei Torah and seforim to old calendars and school report cards.  In the Israel section, they found pictures of the Dome of the Rock, a Soviet map of the Dimona reactor, and signs that said, “Who will be the one to send the 40th missile to Israel?” [39 were fired during the Gulf War. Chalabi allowed the team to lay the materials they removed to dry in a courtyard of his own headquarters at the Orfali Art Gallery.  “Their first move was to put the documents out in the sun to dry out a bit,” says Ilana Lewin, an officer of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

“But that was actually the wrong move, from a preservation point of view. ”Rhode actually called Hebrew University to ask how he should best preserve the materials, knowing some of the items were of historical value or at the least needed to go to a geniza.  “They told me to keep them cool,” he says, then laughs: “It was 115 degrees in the shade, and we had little electricity!  There was a woman on the team who was an archivist, who tried hard to advise us as well, but since the US government wasn’t interested in helping at that point, she wasn’t able to give much help.

”Chalabi had already gone the extra mile for his friends, but he couldn’t fund this undertaking forever.  Through a mutual friend, Rhode contacted his friend Harvey Krueger, a now-retired CEO from Lehman Bros. Since the American authorities seemed less than enthusiastic about getting involved, Rhode decided to go over their heads and call in the big guns:his friends Richard Perle and Natan Sharansky (whom he asked to call Dick Cheney).

 Perle called Donald Rumsfeld, who has since described the episode in his memoir, “When people are high up enough in the U.S. government,” Rhode explains, “they can ‘task’ their underlings with carrying out a project. In this case, Rumsfeld and Cheney got interested.

Then all of a sudden the Americans in Iraq became interested, and I became the go-to person. On June 5, which Rhode remembers as the second day of Shavuos, the Coalition sent in much larger pumps, which drained the basement quickly. The Coalition Provisional Authority then contacted Doris Hamburg, the Director of Preservation with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“I got an email saying, ‘We found some books and documents related to the Jewish community,’” she told Mishpacha by phone.“’They’re wet and moldy, what can we do to preserve them? Hamburg, who had worked on the restoration of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was flown to Baghdad via military transport to take a look.

“It was damp and hot, and everything reeked of mold,” she remembers. Freezing is the method of choice to stabilize water and mold damage, and although it wasn’t easy at that time in Baghdad, the military somehow managed to procure a refrigerated truck. The materials were put into 27 aluminum trunks, another gift from Chalabi, and flown to the U.S.

 “There was so much hashgachah pratit in how this all worked out,” Rhode recalls. “The courtyard where we originally laid the materials to dry was near a whole bunch of beehives, and I am allergic to bee stings! I didn’t even have an EPI pen with me--but they never bothered us.

 “Then just this past year, the same woman archivist who’d wanted to help us told me she had been on the small plane that took the trunks to the U.S. They had to stop for refueling at a NATO base in Rhodes. You can’t leave the engine running during refueling, and so the refrigeration stopped and all the trunks began defrosting and leaking. She asked the workers for electricity to keep the refrigeration going, but they refused. She kept arguing, until finally she radioed the head of the base directly. He also refused at first, not understand what was at stake. Finally he decided to come see for himself.

“So he walked out to the plane, and wouldn’t you know, he was wearing a kippah!” Rhode says incredulously. “I mean, what are the odds? The woman told me, ‘In all my years in the military, I have never seen a Navy person with a kippah.’

 “After that, she got her electricity.”

 The trunks were flown first to Texas, where the materials were vacuum-freeze-dried to halt the decay. In the fall, they were brought to the National Archives, where a team of preservationists began restoring and cataloguing the finds with the aid of a three million dollar budget allocated by the State Department and outside donors.

Preserving the Iraqi materials required a combination of art and science on the part of the team. Mrs. Hamburg explains that professional conservators go through one of three available masters programs in the US for a degree, studying a combination of science, history, and studio art.

“You also need the ability to do hands-on work,” she adds. Her team worked long hours to clean the material, delicately vacuuming dirt and mold, removing stains, sometimes putting torn pages together or sewing new bindings for books. The workers were often obliged to wear masks as protection against the mold and dust. So what did those three million American tax dollars go to preserve?

While some of the items are antiquities, much of the 2,700 books and thousands of documents recovered are Jewish ephemera—Hebrew calendars, alef-bais primers, school records, items most of us would have thrown in the garbage after a year or saved for the geniza.

 “There were heating bills, tax receipts, letters from the office of the Chief Rabbi,” Mrs. Hamburg reports.“But they give us a window into daily Jewish community life in Baghdad.I’ve since been able to meet some of the people who documents we found, and that’s been really interesting for me.”

Once the materials were restored as fully as possible, they were photographed, catalogued, and put into a database. They were stabilized and boxed. Ultimately, the staff decided to put some of the more historically interesting and culturally representative findings together as an exhibit.

1 comment:

Sylvia said...

Former Supreme Court Judge Edmond Levy has died and will be buried around noon in Ramle.

Iraqi-born, and the only non-Ashkenazi Judge at the Supreme Court, all his former collegues agree that he stood out for his extraordinary sensitivity towards the weak and the destitute, fighting discrimination where he saw it.

He was also the minority voice against the settlements early on.

Former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak:" Edmond Levy was remarkably sensitive to the "socially weak", but it has nothing to do with his origins."

Barukh Dayan Emet.