Archives readies a schoolgirl’s records and a trove of Jewish treasures for return to Iraq

The girl’s name was Farah. She had thick, dark hair. And in the school snapshot found in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s ­secret-police headquarters, she is smiling and wearing a pretty dress.

She was probably about 13 when the picture was taken in the 1950s. She was a student at the Jewish intermediate school in Baghdad, where she scored a 94 in English and an 88 in history.

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In another time, her life might have passed unnoticed outside of her family and friends.

But her school records, and those of other Iraqi Jews, as well as a trove of water-logged treasures from Baghdad’s Jewish past, are being conserved at the National Archives for their return to Iraq next year.

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna.

There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

And there are binders filled with school records like Farah’s from the 1920s through 1975.

The Archives plans to open a major exhibit of some of the items Oct. 11.

Farah Gourgy Shina, the eldest of seven children, was a superb scholar, a valedictorian and a role model who helped raise her siblings, said her brother, Sammy G. Shina, in an emotional interview last week.

He said he did not know that her records had turned up in the salvaged trove, and the Archives said it knew nothing about her aside from her faded school papers.

Shina said everyone called his sister Gladys — short for gladness, the English translation of her Arabic name. After a life of example and accomplishment, she died of cancer in England in 1968 at age 29.

She left behind a husband and two small children and is buried in Oxford, England.

“I don’t want to make it look like a tragic life,” Shina said in a telephone interview, crying as he remembered her, “because I think she had aspirations of greatness.”

Farah’s records were among the approximately 2,700 books and “tens of thousands” of sodden documents retrieved from the ruined Baghdad basement, said Doris A. Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the Archives.

The trove, named the Iraqi Jewish Archive, was found by U.S. troops on May 6, 2003, in the bombed-out headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Hussein’s secret police — who had, among other things, busily gathered intelligence on Iraqi Jews.

Most Jews had fled Iraq years before in the face of the violence and intimidation of the mid- to late 1900s, leaving behind the last traces of their rich 2,500-year history there, Archives officials said.

With the consent of Iraqi authorities, the material was brought to the National Archives for conservation later in 2003, Hamburg said.

But the project stagnated, according to a State Department official, as Iraq descended into insurgency and sectarian bloodshed, and it was not clear who in the Iraqi government would be the contact for the project.

“They wanted it back,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely about the negotiations. “But we wanted guarantees that it was going to be taken care of.”

With some stability returning to Iraq as the insurgency waned, about $3 million in economic support funding to Iraq was redirected in 2011 to renew work on the project, the official said.

He said the items will be returned to the Iraqi antiquities ministry, though it is not clear where they will reside.

This fall, two Iraqi experts are slated to come to the Archives to study the material and the conservation procedures so they can care for the trove when it goes back to Iraq.

For now, the work is proceeding rapidly at the Archives branch in College Park. A team of experts in lab coats is working with high- and low-tech equipment to clean, digitize and package the artifacts.

Technicians working under ventilation hoods are vacuuming mold off the pages of prayer books and trying to repair insect-eaten leaves of antique texts.

Some old books have been washed or rebound.

The work is about 60 percent complete. An online display will be launched in conjunction with the exhibit, titled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.”

Archives officials are excited about the possibility of connecting some of the thousands of school records, which will be posted online, with former students whose early lives they describe.

“The records contain many personal stories, and the opportunity for making many connections,” Hamburg said in an e-mail.

Jewish flight from Iraq

Before the mid-20th century, Baghdad had been a center of Jewish life, culture and scholarship for more than two millennia.

In the early 1900s, Jews still made up about a quarter of Baghdad’s population of 200,000, the Archives said.

But in the early 1940s, there was a pro-Nazi regime in Iraq, and after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, tensions and violence flared again. Riots, pogroms and arrests occurred, and a mass emigration of Iraqi Jews followed.

Further persecution, arrests and executions followed the Arab-­Israeli Six-Day War in 1967, prompting further Jewish flight.

“These people had to basically leave everything there,” Hamburg said. “They had been there for centuries. So it was very difficult.”

The Jewish community organizations they had founded, and their books and documents, became the focus of the secret police.

Among the institutions targeted were Baghdad’s Frank Iny and Shamash Jewish schools. Hundreds of their records, with student snapshots, were found in the flooded police basement.

Among those was Farah’s — complete with her photograph, grades, a faded doctor’s note and intake forms, the Archives said.

Farah held a special place in her family and in the schools she attended, said Shina, 68, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“She was like a valedictorian in the class,” he said. “You looked up to her because she was considered very smart.”

She spoke French, English, Arabic and a little Hebrew, he said.

In the family, “she was like a surrogate mother,” he said. “Being the older sister in a large family, she played that role very nicely.”

Farah left Iraq for an arranged marriage in 1962 to an Iraqi professor at Oxford University, Shina said. She was 23.

Her brother spent the summer with her in Britain in 1963. “The transformation that happened, how she adjusted from an Eastern culture to a Western culture, was amazing,” he said.

“It’s not a sad story, really, because her legacy lives on,” Shina said.

Discovery, preservation

The Jewish cache was originally found by a group of U.S. troops from a “mobile exploitation team” assigned to search for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Most of the items dated from the late 1800s and from the early to mid-1900s. Most of the books are written in Hebrew; many documents are in Arabic.

After the befouled water was removed from the Baghdad basement, Hamburg said, the items were placed outside to dry.

They were then stored in 27 metal trunks for safekeeping. But “between the heat and humidity, everything became quite moldy,” Hamburg said.

The trunks were turned over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which asked the National Archives for help.

The Archives urged that the materials be frozen; they were placed in the freezer truck of a local businessman.

In June 2003, Hamburg and her colleague Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, director of conservation for the Archives, flew to Baghdad to assess the situation.

Hamburg said an arrangement was made with Iraqi representatives to bring the items to the United States for preservation and exhibition, after which they would be returned to Iraq.

The materials were flown to a site in Texas, where they were vacuum-freeze-dried. In fall 2003, they were brought to the Archives.

Every scrap of paper was kept. A database was created. And all the items were carefully wrapped.

When the State Department came up with $3 million in 2011, the next phase of the project got underway.

That included hiring more staff, buying equipment, stabilizing and digitizing, and packing the material.

The staff workers also began creating a Web site on which the digitized images could be posted and preparing the exhibit.

The material is scheduled to go back to Iraq by June.

Asked whether there was any concern about that, Hamburg said, “The agreement was that it will go back.”

A family’s escape

Maurice Shohet, 63, of Northwest Washington, was also a student at Baghdad’s Jewish schools, and he served as a consultant on the Archives project.

His name appears on at least one salvaged Shamash school roster for 1966 and 1967.

He and 12 members of his family escaped from Iraq in 1970, amid the increasing repression of Jews.

Shohet said in an interview last week that his family’s roots went back at least 250 years in Iraq. “The community is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world,” he said.

Before their escape, Jews were not permitted to leave Baghdad. Shohet’s father lost his textile-
importing permit and was forced to carry a yellow identity card proving that the family had been long-term residents of Iraq.

Jews — including Shohet — were watched by Iraqi intelligence. They were not accepted to university. And some of Shohet’s friends were arrested and executed.

As a result, he said, he and his two brothers began to pressure their parents to leave. It was clear that there was no future in Iraq. “We had nothing,” he said. His parents, who were in their late 50s, were hesitant.

But about 4 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1970, he and a dozen family members squeezed into a large rented car and headed north for the Iranian border.

They left almost everything behind in their rented home, he said, but there were no regrets.

They crossed into Iran after a harrowing journey on foot, terrified by guard dogs and searchlights.

Shohet made his way to the United States in 1981.

Shohet, now employed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he went back to Baghdad in 2004 on an exploratory business trip.

While he was there, he went to see his old house — 34 years after he had left it.

“I didn’t even try to think who was living there,” Shohet said. He was asked by those accompanying him whether he wanted to stop in: “I said, ‘No, no. Who am I to come to show off? I just wanted to [see] how it looks from the outside.’­ ”

How did it look?

“The same,” he said.

 
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