Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Jews of Iraq in the Great War


This Ottoman stamp bearing the words '"In British occupation"was in circulation shortly after the British conquered Iraq from the Ottomans in 1917. The British did not have time to produce new stamps so they overprinted existing Ottoman stamps (With thanks: Lily Shor).

This year marks 100 years since the outbreak of World War 1. Since 1909, the Jews of the Ottoman empire - hitherto dhimmis exempt from the military on payment of the jizya tax - were, for the first time since becoming equal citizens, liable for compulsory drafting into the Ottoman army. Many went into hiding and the wealthier families among them paid out hefty bribes to keep their sons from being conscripted.

It was a terrible time for minorities. As we know, the Ottoman Turks massacred a million Armenians and Assyrians. Jews were deported from Palestine.

Violette Shamash in her memoir Memories of Eden describes the atmosphere in Baghdad of the time:

"Terrible hardship was experienced everywhere. Women and children were left behind, neglected and abandoned. Young men hid in attics  or basements and dared not venture out on to the streets. Many managed to escape to other countries, or to Basra in the south where the British had established control. Some bought their way out of service with large sums of money, although there was no guarantee against future harassment. Yet they were the lucky ones: the able bodied Jews who had been mobilised wer sent untrained ill-equipped and in great haste to the front to fight for the Sultan, an ailing ruler who shared few of their traditions of values. Few ever reached it; none came back. Faced with defeat, the Turks turned on the recruits and killed them all.

Salim Fattal in his autobiography In the Alleys of Baghdad recalls hearing how his grandfather hid deserters in his home. His younger brother Menashe had been pressganged by the Ottoman authorities and sent to the northern town of Suleymaniya. Menashe managed to escape and make his way back to Baghdad. Salim Fattal's grandfather hid him in an airshaft. But he was recaptured  by the police and eventually sent to the Dardanelles. Menashe froze to death on the western front.


Violette Shamash  tells how in 1915 men in Turkish uniform took her grandfather away, along with other prominent members of the minority communities. They were rounded up and deported to Mosul on suspicion of cooperating with the enemy. They walked or rode mules under German or Turkish guard.

Then inexplicably, her grandfather was allowed back home, perhaps so that he could hand over his savings to the depleted Ottoman treasury. Those who could not pay ended up drowned in the river Tigris.

Salim Fattal relates this dreadful episode:

" The Turks imposed a reign of terror on Baghdad. Anyone caught engaging in espionage activities was sentenced to death. One group was executed in 1915, including a Jewish merchant, Joseph Shkouri, in the Ras al-Qarya neighbourhood. The community leaders recounted that others sentenced to death, icluding a Jew of the Sofer family, were sewn into burlap bags and tossed into the river. The Turks hoped that the appalling sight  of bodies dangling from the gallows or thrown into the river in Baghdad or Damascus would serve as a deterrent against further acts of subversion."

Here is another account of the abuse of Jews and horrific drownings in the Tigris.

In 1916, Violette Shamash's grandfather decided  to go into exile again, fearing that Baghdad was no longer safe for men of military age. A group of Jews set out for the Persian border without their families. Some Russian soldiers (allies of the British) stopped them at the border, wanting to take them prisoner.

"Eliahu Meir, who had fair hair and a light complexion, spoke to their officer in English," Violette Shamash relates,"explaining that he was the group's captain (..) and so they marched away, looking confident. However, after three days making hard progress through the mountains, they were set upon by robbers who literally stripped them clean. They took all their money, possessions and clothes, leaving them with nothing but their underwear."

Eventually the group reached Hamadan in Persia, where they spent the rest of the war.

Eliahu Meir was my grandfather.


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