Sunday, August 18, 2013

The man who escaped the Baghdad gallows

 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 Jewish bride.

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.

Read article in full

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

shame on the Iraqis!.My ancestors also lived in Basra but they left before things got too bad for the Jews.
what can I say? humans are terrible. And then, why call them humans?