While Iraq’s royal family supported the British, who earlier had maintained a mandate in Iraq, the ardently nationalist al-Gaylani instead aligned himself with the Axis powers, seeking to minimize British influence in his country even as the United Kingdom levied harsh economic sanctions in retaliation.
The relationship between al-Gaylani and Hitler produced a ripple-effect of anti-Semitism which led to a 1941 pogrom called the Farhud, and the eventual exodus of the 2,500-year-old community — including Sasson’s own family, who fled to Israel.
His family was a prominent one, but far from sparing them the atrocities, this brought them all the closer when al-Gaylani gave orders for the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in Diwaniya, a small city 158 kilometers (98 miles) south of Baghdad. Sasson’s grandfather’s house was a prime choice for the location of the ghetto. A mansion some 750 meters (2,460 feet) wide, it was the largest private home in Diwaniya.
The mansion housed the city’s 600 Jews, plus another 70 who came from Baghdad and other cities, throughout the entire month of May in 1941. “I was five years old,” says Sasson, “but I remember everything like it was yesterday.”
In 1937 Sasson’s father built a house in Diwaniya. The new mayor, a known anti-Semite by the name of Khalil Azmi, declared its construction illegal under bogus pretenses and bulldozed it to the ground.
Not deterred, the family temporarily moved to Baghdad and Sasson’s father hired a top lawyer to sue the Diwaniya municipality. They won the case in 1941, and the government was forced to underwrite the home’s rebuilding. “After that event, we understood that there’s no future for us in Iraq,” says Sasson.