Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fearful of arrest, my mother bought us suicide pills

Qasser Shashoua, one of the family's properties, served as the king of Iraq's temporary residence.

Chantal (not her real name) and her parents sank to the depths of despair in the dark days of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime's worst persecution of the Jews in the late 1960s. She and her mother even contemplated committing suicide in case they were arrested. She managed to escape for Canada, leaving behind her parents, who vainly hoped to salvage their properties. They were not to see each other for 20 years. Here Chantal tells her heart-rending story in her submission to the Winnipeg Museum of Human Rights.

Jews in Iraq date back more than 2500 years ago, when Nebuchadnezzar ( King of Babylon) destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and brought all the Jewish doctors, poets, scientists, architects and writers from Jerusalem to Babylon.

They eventually helped build Babylon, situated in the south of today's Iraq, and wrote the Talmud (the book of Jewish law) there. In fact, the Jews were in Iraq well before Christianity or Islam were even born. For 25 centuries Jews lived in peace with the inhabitants; and contributed to the economy and social and cultural scene. In the late 1930s the Mufti of Jerusalem, a staunch sympathiser of Hitler, came to Iraq and started to incite the Iraqi population against the Jews. In 1941, well before the creation of the State of Israel, there was a period of forty-eight hours of anarchy in Iraq. Mobs influenced by the teachings of the Mufti and the Nazis attacked Jews in the streets, attacked Jewish homes, vandalising, raping, kidnapping, pillaging and killing the inhabitants.

This episode was called the Farhood. More than two hundred Jews were killed; many hundreds were seriously injured, to say nothing of the colossal emotional trauma inflicted on their psyche.

In 1948 when the state of Israel was created, and after Iraq’s sore defeat on the front against Israel, Iraq needed a scapegoat: they tried and hanged the innocent Shafiq Ades as an Israel spy - which he was not.

I will now tell you my own story. My father was the son of a well-to-do, self- made merchant and property owner in Iraq. In the early 1920s when England decided to appoint a King in Iraq, they chose my grandfather’s house for him. My grandfather duly moved out and rented his house for a nominal sum to the King until a suitable palace was built for him to move into.

My father and his seven siblings inherited a lot of property from their father, but none was able to enjoy their father’s wealth or to sell the land they inherited because their property was frozen. My Dad’s brothers and sisters left at different times, in the Thirties, Forties and Sixties. They did not go to Israel, yet not one of them was able to sell their properties, because as Jews, they were 'denationalised' the minute they left Iraq - no matter when they left or where they went. My mother’s father was also a well-to-do property owner. When my Mom’s brother’s and sisters left in the Fifties they were also denationalised and lost all their rights to any inheritance.

Up till 1950 there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq. After the Farhood the persecution of the Jews by their fellow citizens and the government got worse, and after the hanging of Shafik Ades, nearly 140,000 Jews asked for permits to obtain a passport to leave Iraq. To their surprise, a new law was passed after they all applied for a passport to leave the country: this new law would only give them a one-way permit to leave Iraq with a laisser passer - ie to leave to NEVER return. They also immediately denationalised all who applied to leave Iraq; their properties were immediately frozen, so was their own money in the bank. This law was passed while they were still in Iraq waiting for their turn to leave. It took some of them up to one year to finally get their turn to take that long-awaited flight to Israel, with no money left to survive on while they were waiting. This inhuman law denied them access to their own money in the bank. They also could not sell their own homes due to this law. The government of Iraq duly confiscated all their properties upon their departure.

My father and mother, however, did not leave Iraq. My sisters left in the late Fifties and in 1961, and I being the youngest, stayed with my parents. I have to stress the fact here that we Jews, who chose to stay in Iraq despite all the persecutions, had nothing to do with Israel. We were too scared to mention the word Israel between ourselves, let alone aloud. We did not even know what Israel looked like or what Israelis were like. We did not dare draw the Star of David or so much as identify with it! The regime in Iraq underwent many revolutions and many coups d’├ętats, the last being in 1962 when the Ba'ath party arrived. Six years later Saddam Hussain took power.

The Ba'ath party soon restricted travel for the Jews all over again. Now, not only the Jews outside Iraq but the ones still living in Iraq as Iraqi nationals were no longer allowed to sell their own property. Then, when the Six Day War broke out and Israel won, as a retaliation against Israel, Iraq tightened the screws on the 3,000 innocent Jews still living there. They cut off all our telephones immediately after the war, they did not admit Jews to universities, they revoked all commercial licences, they kicked out all Jews from employment and instructed all businesses to fire their Jewish employees. There was NO unemployment insurance in Iraq, so they had no money left to live on. With all Jewish assets frozen, Jews were only allowed to withdraw 300 dinars a month from their own bank accounts for expenses! To top it all, the authorities started to go to Jewish homes at random, in the middle of the night, search the house inside out, arrest the father, son, sometimes the daughter - and accuse them of spying for Israel.

It got to a stage where anytime a car passed by at night I would wake up, kneel and PRAY for the car not to stop at our house and wreak havoc in our lives. My mother and I bought sleeping pills to commit suicide if ever they came to arrest us.

Imagine a mother buying sleeping pills for her daughter to commit suicide - considered a fate better than being arrested by these people! If anyone disliked a Jew in his neighbourhood, all he had to do was denounce him or her to the authorities; this was a good enough reason to arrest that Jew, sometimes hang him publicly before the joyous Iraqi crowds!

In 1968, the random arrests intensified, men were now tortured and forced to say they were spies. They were tortured by being tied to the ceiling fans, putting the fans at full speed…some had their finger or toenails pulled out, their teeth extracted, some had their genitals electrocuted, many died from the torture alone.

In Basra, south of Baghdad, they came to arrest a young Jewish man. His mother told them that her son was studying in England. When David, his younger brother who was sixteen years old, came peering out to see who was at the door, the authorities, upon noticing him, told her "Oh,you have another son, we will take him then!” When she pleaded for him they promised her that they were only taking him for questioning and that they would return him two hours later. The next time she saw her son was two months later, hanging in a square in Baghdad.….

Many of the people arrested gave in as a result of torture or the rape of their wives, daughters or sisters in front of them. They falsely admitted to spying even though they were innocent, to spare their beloved, or themselves, further torture. Many refused categorically to give in. Unfortunately, they all had the same fate at the end! All these arrests and tortures culminated in a mock 'Mickey Mouse' trial in December 1968 and January 1969. The defendants were not allowed to have their own lawyer: the State appointed a lawyer for them who further incriminated them as spies for Israel. The verdict was to hang, and this verdict was carried out immediately.

We woke up the morning of January 27th 1969 and, to our horror, we found out that fourteen innocent men were hanged, nine of them Jewish! At least three of these victims were less than eighteen years of age. The Iraqi courts jacked up their ages to make it legal to hang them. It was 1969: some of these young men were accused of blowing up a bridge in 1962. This bridge was still standing in 1969 and was not even blown up, and those sixteen and seventeen-year-olds were only nine and ten years old in 1962. Those courts did not even bother to cover their tracks.

Yet the Iraqi people, so hungry for blood, decided to believe those blatant lies! The country went into a frenzy of jubilation. Thousands of Iraqis were dancing and chanting in the streets around the dead bodies, women were breast-feeding their babies & picnicking in front of the dangling corpses of those poor innocent victims. The radio was blaring that the country was now rid of their spies and encouraged the public to continue denouncing the fifth column!

We were still attending University then, and were in the midst of mid term exams, so we had to go in that day. I was thinking,” surely we are amongst the educated….surely they can tell that the stories the court was spinning just do not tally! To our surprise, when we arrived to the University we were greeted with banners applauding what the government had done and demanding more such acts! They were looking at us laughing!

We were horrified, yet too terrified to show our grief. If we did it would only mean (in the mob’s minds) that we sympathised with the so called “spies” and therefore must definitely be one of them ourselves! When Israel protested that none of these people were its spies and there was a world outcry ensuing from these fake accusations, the Iraqi government defiantly answered that it had enough Jews and enough trees to hang all of us. You can just imagine the heightened atmosphere of terror that dominated our daily existence after that horrid day.

Saddam Husain was acquiring more power and to get rid of his enemies, it was always more plausible to hang a few Jews as scapegoats along with his own enemies so the public would believe that these were real evildoers!

A small window of opportunity for the Jews to escape presented itself when Iraq and Kurdistan had a semi-truce for a few months.

The Iraqi government decided to lend a blind eye and let the Jews leave illegally. Apart from the fact that they were paid for each one who left, they could now seize all their assets and possessions with impunity.

As I could see no future for myself in Baghdad, I decided to take a chance and escape through Kurdistan. I knew that I was endangering my parents’ lives - who were staying behind - but we operated out of desperation! I managed to escape successfully, whereas some of my friends and family were arrested for trying to escape.

I ended up coming to Canada, this wonderful country that opened its doors to many of us.We finally tasted freedom. Canada and the United States were, and are, a Utopia where all human rights are respected and people are honoured for who they are.

None of the Iraqi Jews who came to either Canada or the United States or to England, for that matter, asked for or received refugee status or privilege. We all came as immigrants and threw ourselves into starting our new lives, working hard, paying taxes and enjoying, as well as serving, these glorious countries.

I became a flight attendant with Air Canada, while my parents were still in Iraq. I could fly anywhere in the world, but I could not go back to Iraq to see my parents because I was denationalised upon my departure. So for twenty years, I could not go back to see my parents nor could they come out to see us because they were not given passports, or permits, to leave Iraq. For twenty years, we could not speak to our parents because their telephones were cut off since the Six Day War in 1967. The letters to and from my parents were censured and took three weeks to reach Baghdad. It took another three weeks to receive an answer from them.

I never knew if they were still alive from the time they wrote the letter to the time I would receive it. The persecution persisted even though many Jews like me had escaped, and there were less than a thousand Jews left by 1974. Now Saddam was at the helm and still they arrested Jewish people; in one case, they just mass-executed the whole Kashkoush family - mother, father, three sons. One daughter was out of the house: when she arrived home, she saw her entire family decimated. She survived, but can never be normal again.

For 20 years I had this constant ache to see my parents. It was like a scar in the heart that would never heal. It was also a constant worry about their welfare and wellbeing. Finally a miracle: after the Iran-Iraq war the authorities granted passports even to the Jews. My parents who resisted escaping in order to remain Iraqi nationals and in the futile hope of salvaging some of their properties, decided to apply for a passport and come out to see us. The first time I heard them on the 'phone I could not recognise my own father and mother’s voices! However it was a real miracle: We were finally happily reunited with our father and mother, who waited 20 years in vain, to sell some of their properties.

My Dad was eighty years old. He finally left all he owned in Iraq and came with NOTHING! They came penniless, but Canada offered them a home after all those wasted years, when my parents missed all those special occasions such as their daughters' weddings, the births of their four grandchildren, their Bar- and Bat Mitzvahs. My parents finally got to meet their grandchildren for the first time. It is a happy ending in many ways, because most of us survived those harrowing times, but it does not mean that we did not suffer emotionally and financially, and still struggle to make a living, while we have all these properties in Iraq that we cannot access!

In closing, we pray that God bless Canada and the United States of America, these wonderful countries where we are able to live free and normal lives, countries that we help to build and, hopefully, will continue to repay.

Chantal's mother

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