Iraqi Jew Remembers Escaping Baghdad 70 Years Ago

A young man in uniform is standing with his arm raised in a mock salute, staring.

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The boy’s expression is partially eclipsed when sunlight hits only one side of his face, but he appears to be looking at the photographer. The black and white image is grainy and the buildings in the background are nondescript.

Taken in 1947, this photograph shows a young man named Farouk Sayig, later known as Baruch Meiri, standing near his family’s home in Baghdad.

It’s a striking image from a bygone era, a glimpse into some of the last years of a once-prosperous Jewish community that had resided in Iraq for more than 2,500 years.

Born in 1940 in Baghdad, Baruch Meiri was the eighth of nine children.

Like tens of thousands of other Jews living there, Meiri and his family fled Iraq as part of a mass exodus that saw some 130,000 Jews flown to Israel via Iran and Cyprus from 1950 to 1952, in the Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

An Iraqi law ordered that they had to renounce their citizenship and never return.

“I was 10 years old,” Meiri told The Media Line. “We took a taxi to the airport and I remember there was a very long line at the entrance. We had hardly anything on us, neither money nor gold, because we had nothing.

“We flew one of the first flights from Baghdad to Cyprus,” he continued. “But the plane had a mechanical problem and we stayed in Cyprus for two more days before arriving in Israel.”

Operation Ezra and Nehemiah came after years of violence and persecution. Nazi propaganda during World War II and rising Iraqi nationalism fueled anti-Semitic sentiment in the country during the 1940s, and hatred reached a fever pitch shortly after Meiri’s birth during the Farhud, a violent event that took place on the June 1 and 2, 1941.

IRAQI IMMIGRANTS arrive at Lod airport, 1951. (credit: NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION / GPO)

The Farhud was a Nazi-inspired pogrom that erupted in Baghdad during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Hundreds of Jews were killed or raped and 1,000 were injured, although exact casualty figures remain unclear.

“During the pogroms, my parents fled to the house of the neighbors, who were community leaders,” Meiri said, remembering the event and her Muslim neighbors. “My mother managed to save our family.”

Growing up, Meiri’s family was very poor. To earn some extra money, young Farouk bought some cucumbers at the local market and started selling them to other schoolchildren at a profit. In this way, he was able to buy sweets and cakes for himself.

“I learned to be self-sufficient,” Meiri said. “Don’t let the world tell you that you can’t do something; just do it.

“This is how I acted when we also emigrated to Israel and we were in a transit camp, a place that later became Or Yehuda,” a city in central Israel, he added.

Newly arrived immigrants to Israel received new names when they were sent to live in a transit camp. Farouk Sayig became Baruch Meiri.

Life in the transit camps

Due to the large influx of Jewish immigrants entering the nascent State of Israel, which had been established only a few years earlier in 1948, conditions in the transit camps were very bad. The camps, called ma’abarot, were intended to be temporary shelters for lack of better housing options.

They were marred by poor sanitation, overcrowding, and limited supplies of water and electricity.

Most of the immigrants within the Meiri camp were Iraqis. However, newly arrived Turkish and Libyan Jewish families also lived in the Or Yehuda camps. In the winter of 1951, Israel suffered the harshest winter in a century, making life in the Ma’abarot particularly unbearable.

“The store, which was our home, went to the Ayalon River and we were left with nothing,” he said. “Big trucks came and took all the children from the camp to Givat Brenner, a kibbutz. Every winter for three months, they would send us away from our parents to this kibbutz. “

    BARUCH MEIRI and some of his brothers in Baghdad.  (credit: courtesy) BARUCH MEIRI and some of his brothers in Baghdad. (credit: courtesy)

The Meiri family was upgraded to more permanent accommodation a few years later, and Baruch’s father, who had been a jeweler in Iraq, was sent to work as a farmer, an area in which he had no experience.

For his part, at the age of 16, Baruch Meiri got his first serious job as a newspaper delivery man for Maariv, one of the largest dailies. Later he would rise through the ranks of the newspaper and become the manager of its Jerusalem branch.

Meiri also won several awards for journalists throughout her career and wrote several acclaimed books in Hebrew, including an autobiographical work describing life in the Ma’abarot.

“My dream was to become a journalist,” Meiri said. “Iraqi Jews understood that the only way to succeed in Israel was through hard work and study. There are no short cuts. They understood that Israel, at that time, was a poor country that had just been founded.

“If you see an obstacle, don’t stand next to it and cry … Instead, think about how to overcome it,” he said.

Meiri, now 80, has four daughters and 13 grandchildren and has shown no signs of slowing down. Over the past decade, he became an Israeli swimming champion for his age category. In fact, he has already won 40 medals.

Celebrating the end of exile

The Iraqi Jewish community is one of the oldest and most significant Jewish diasporas.

After Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, only 10,000 Jews remained in Iraq, and most of them left after Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979.

Today, only three Jews still live in Iraq, according to Orly Baher Levy, chief curator of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Or Yehuda.

In the early 20th century, the Jewish community in Iraq was living relatively well, with many Jews occupying important positions in Iraqi society and in the corridors of power. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Jews living there began to suffer more severe persecution.

    MEIRI SHOWS her swimming medals.  (credit: FACEBOOK) MEIRI SHOWS her swimming medals. (credit: FACEBOOK)

“Until then they had been an integral part of Iraqi society; they were Jews, but above all they were Iraqis, “Baher Levy explained to The Media Line. And then little by little, they started to feel like strangers. The local population suddenly saw them as Jews [and not Iraqis]and he was jealous of them. “

The Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center first opened its doors to the public in 1988. It is the largest museum of its kind dedicated to documenting, preserving and researching the cultural heritage of Babylonian Jews.

In addition to exhibitions and lectures, the museum houses a large collection of Iraqi Jewish artifacts, including Judaica, manuscripts, books, and photographs.

On Tuesday, the museum will hold an event to mark the 70th anniversary of the Jewish exodus from Iraq to Israel through Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Leading Iraqi-Israeli speakers and artists will participate in the celebrations, including Baruch Meiri. The festivities will also include music, art and traditional Jewish Babylonian food.

98-year-old Mordechai Ben Porat, one of the original organizers of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, and who also spearheaded the founding of the heritage center, is scheduled to attend the museum’s celebrations.

One of the goals is to keep Iraqi Jewish history and traditions alive for the next generation.

“With that aliyah we can say that the Babylonian exile is over,” Lily Shor, director of external relations and events at the Babylon Museum of Jewish Heritage, told The Media Line.

“All the Jews from all over the world were once in the tribe of Judah, and they were taken to Babylon” after the destruction of the First Temple, Shor said. “During the immigration wave of the 1950s, some 110,000 Jews arrived in Israel and only 9,000 remained in Iraq. This means that the exile effectively ended. “

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