Remembering the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad in 1941

The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, meets Hitler in Berlin during WWII

The Shoah, or the Holocaust, was such a huge crime with such incomprehensible numbers of victims, that it is impossible to ignore or forget. Indeed it has become almost fashionable for it to be commemorated all over the world, not only by Jewish communities but by non-Jewish groups and even foreign governments. But another violent pogrom with hundreds of Jewish casualties has been almost forgotten by all except those whose families and friends were affected, besides the scholars who specialise in the history of the Jews of the Middle East.

This pogrom, known as the Farhud, was not separate from the Holocaust happening in Europe, but rather was intimately connected with it. The Nazi ideology informed and infused the Muslim antisemitism endemic in the region at the time, Muslim and Nazi leaders met together, and the two ideologies fed off each other, leading to an almost inevitable massacre.

It is therefore gratifying to note that finally – after a delay of “only” 64 years – 1st June has been declared “International Farhud Day“:

The Farhud pogrom broke out in Iraq over Shavuot 1941 and claimed more lives than Kristallnacht (between 170 and 600). It was the result of pro-Nazi propaganda and incitement, yet is barely known. The Jews of Iraq, one of the oldest diasporas in the world, realised they had no future, and ten years later, departed en masse to Israel. Professor Shmuel Moreh, emeritus professor at the Hebrew University, recalls his schoolboy memories of a traumatic event:

“As a child who lived in the modern Jewish quarter of al-Battawiyyin inhabited by upper middle class in Baghdad, I was a pupil of the Al-Sa’doon Exemplary School. It was established in 1937 as a Government mixed school founded for children of the Iraqi Royal family, high-ranking civil and army officers, judges and secretaries. It mirrored the attitude of the government towards the Jewish citizens of Iraq. I was one of three Jewish pupils who studied there among majority of Muslims. We suffered daily harassments, insults and mockery.

“A few days after the defeat of the Iraqi army in its war against the British army at  its bases in Habbaniya and Sin al-Dhubban, Jews were attacked in the streets; their houses were marked as Jewish by anti-Jewish organizations, and I was able to narrowly escape being lynched by my Muslim and Christians colleagues at my school.

“On 31 May, 1941 after the defeat of the Iraqi Army against the British in Iraq, Radio Baghdad announced that the next day, the Regent and the members of the Iraqi government would return to Baghdad and urged the people to receive him with joy. We were very happy and optimistic that the nightmare of the pro-Nazi government had collapsed, and felt safe to go out of doors.

” June 1, 1941 was the first day of Shavu’ot. My father went out to  the Meir Twaiq Synagogue near our home for the festival prayer. The minute he put his foot out of our door, Abu ‘Alwan, the milkman who lived with his wives and cows opposite our house in the date palm orchard known as Bustan Mamoo, called my father in a warning voice: “Ibrahim, Abu Jack, return home quickly and close your door, nobody should go out today. You don’t know what is happening in Baghdad?” He whispered to my father some words.

“My father’s face became very serious and worried. He closed the door quickly and ordered his six children with a severe voice to help him fortify the door with heavy furniture. He asked my elder brother to bring the revolver from its secret pit under the tiles of the bathroom, to load it and bring it to him.

“He ordered the rest of his younger children to collect bricks, iron bars and objects and to take them to the roof, to defend ourselves in case we were attacked. We were all tense and frightened at the news that some Jews were massacred in the Old Quarter of Baghdad.

“In the evening we noticed heavy smoke and heard shots coming from that direction. At about eight o’clock a shot rang out near by from the direction of our uncle’s house, followed by terrifying cries for help. We were able to recognize the voice of our uncle, a former Police Officer and Commander of a police station in Baghdad, Haim ‘Aynachi, and his daughters.

“We were terrified. We children couldn’t stop our teeth from chattering, my mother and my two sisters were ordered to read a chapter of the Psalms asking God to save my uncle’s family of four daughters and one son. Soon more fires and heavy smoke were seen; the firing of heavy machine guns and bullets was followed by the terrifying cries of desperate voices. Calls for help and mercy were heard from the faraway Jewish houses of the Old City. We were unable to sleep all night.

“Later on, frightening scenes and desperate screams were seen and heard once more. The turmoil of fast-driving lorries and cars, the firing of machine guns and screams were heard once more.  At the end of the second day of the massacres we were able to hear the news bulletin on the Radio of Baghdad announcing safe conduct. A Muslim cleric called to save the life of the Jews since they were Dhimmis, protected by the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad; order was maintained and people could go out for shopping and return to their business.

“Two days later, an endless stream of wounded and humiliated, hungry, and penniless Jews came knocking on the doors of the lucky Jewish neighborhoods which the rioters and murderers did not dare to attack. The told us with streaming tears in their eyes, about their horror and suffering, telling us terrible stories of rape, murder of men who dared to defend their wives and daughters’ honor, their Muslim neighbors who defended or betrayed them, the merciless soldiers and policemen who kidnapped, raped and killed even small children. Our parents tried to prevent us from hearing about these vicious atrocities.

“All the Jewish neighborhoods were kind enough to help with money, clothes, shoes, bedsheets, pillow, kitchen utensils for cooking. The poor victims would murmur angrily: “The damned rascals robbed us of everything. They even took with them brooms and old shoes”. One of our relatives told us how her 12-year-old son was shot by a policeman when trying to escape to the next roof.

“From the report of the Investigating Committee set up by the Iraqi government, we learned that the massacre known as the Farhud started when the Regent, his entourage and the former Prime Minister of Iraq returned and the British Army desisted from entering Baghdad to maintain order.

“During these two days 179 Jews were killed and thousands were wounded. We felt humiliated and betrayed. When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, we were afraid that another Farhud would start. Most of us felt that the Iraqi government and the people did not consider us their citizens. A Jewish state had been established and a wave of persecution started. We felt that Iraq was not safe any more and in fact we have had to replace the Palestinian refugees who escaped the territory of the new Jewish State. When we had the choice to leave to Israel during 1950-1951, we left en masse to Israel on eagles’ wings.”

A similar story of horrific childhood memories of the Farhud is related by Lyn Julius, a historian of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees: The Demons of the Farhud Pogrom are with us still:

Salim Fattal was just eleven when the two-day Baghdad pogrom known as the Farhud erupted on Shavuot (Pentecost) 74 years ago, yet its memory is engraved deep in his soul. Despite the passage of time, the shrieks and wails of the pogrom’s 179 Jewish victims still echo in his ears.

Family of Iraqi chief rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor in Baghdad, 1910. Credit: http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk

On 1 June, the first day of Shavuot in 1941, Fattal, his widowed mother and four siblings witnessed unimaginable terror, as he describes in his vivid memoir In the Alleys of Baghdad:

Helpless Jews had been cornered in their homes and fallen easy prey to robbers, murderers and rapists, who abused their victims to their heart’s content, with no let or hindrance. They slit throats, slashed off limbs, smashed skulls. They made no distinction between women, children and old people. In that gory scene, blind hatred of Jews and the joy of murder for its own sake reinforced each other.

Salim’s uncle Meir was pulled off a bus by a raging mob baying for Jewish blood, and never seen again.

The Farhud (meaning “violent dispossession”) marked an irrevocable break between Jews and Arabs in Iraq and paved the way for the dissolution of the 2,600-year-old Jewish community barely 10 years later. Loyal and productive citizens comprising a fifth of Baghdad, the Jews had not known anything like the Farhud in living memory. Before the victims’ blood was dry, army and police warned the Jews not to testify against the murderers and looters. Even the official report on the massacre was not published until 1958.

Despite their deep roots, the Jews understood that they would never, along with other minorities, be an integral part of an independent Iraq. Fear of a second Farhud was a major reason why 90 per cent of Iraq’s Jewish community fled to Israel after 1948.

Lyn Julius makes some very important historic points about the history of the Jews in the Middle East and the shameful amnesia – even in Israel – about their history and their dispossession:

Despite their deep roots, the Jews understood that they would never, along with other minorities, be an integral part of an independent Iraq. Fear of a second Farhud was a major reason why 90 per cent of Iraq’s Jewish community fled to Israel after 1948.

But the Farhud was not just another anti-Jewish pogrom.The Nazi supporters who planned it had a more sinister objective: the round-up, deportation and extermination in desert camps of the Baghdadi Jews.

The inspiration behind the short-lived pro-Nazi government led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani in May 1941, and the Farhud itself, came not from Baghdad, but Jerusalem. The Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, sought refuge in Iraq in 1939 with 400 Palestinian émigrés. Together, they whipped up local anti-Jewish feeling. An illiterate populace imbibed bigotry through Nazi radio propaganda. Days before the Farhud broke out, the proto-Nazi youth movement, the Futuwwa, went around daubing Jewish homes with a red palm print. Yunis al-Sabawi, who, together with the Mufti and Rashid Ali, spent the rest of the war in Berlin broadcasting propaganda, instructed the Jews to stay in their homes so that they could more easily be rounded up.

The Farhud and the coup which preceded it, a failed attempt to spark a pro-Nazi insurgency, cemented a wartime Arab-Nazi alliance designed to rid Palestine, and the world, of the Jews. The Mufti had secret plans to build crematoria near Nablus.

The Mufti reviews SS troops during WWII

The Mufti’s postwar legacy endured. Six months after the end of WWll, and before Israel was established, vicious riots broke out in Egypt and Libya – the latter, incited by anti-Jewish hatred, claimed more than 130 lives. Barely three years after the full horror of the Holocaust had come to light, Arab League member states embarked on a programme of ethnic cleansing Hitler would have been proud of. The uprooting of the 140,000 Jews of Iraq followed a Nazi pattern of victimisation – dismantlement, dispossession and expulsion. Nuremberg-style laws criminalised Zionism, freezing Jewish bank accounts, instituting quotas and restrictions on jobs and movement. Every Arab state adopted all, or some, of these anti-Jewish measures. The result was the exodus of nearly a million Jews from the Arab world.

Lyn Julius clearly demonstrates how history has been turned on its head, as the Jewish refugees are ignored while “Palestinian” refugees are lionised and even canonised:

While the world has devoted all its attention to the Palestinian “Nakba,” until recently, Israel has said and done little to publicise the monumental injustice done to the 870,000 Jews driven from Arab countries.

More Jews died than on Kristallnacht, yet the Farhud has not become part of Holocaust memory. Indeed, the Washington Holocaust Museum had to be vigorously lobbied to include the Farhud as a Holocaust event.

Since that fateful event, so effectively has history been distorted that even Jews believe that Arabs had no part to play in Nazism. A body of opinion mainly on the Left has turned the facts on their head and is convinced that the Palestinians paid the price of the Holocaust, and that Israelis are the new Nazis.

An excellent timeline of the events leading up to the Farhud and a chilling description of the atrocities committed by the local Arabs against their Jewish neighbours, all while the British military (as usual) looked on and only worried about their oil supply, is provided by Edwin Black, a leading scholar of the Farhud, in his article “When Baghdad burned“:

Soon after Hitler took power in 1933, Germany’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, German Arab specialist Fritz Grobba, acquired the Christian Iraqi newspaper, Al-Alem Al Arabi, converting it into a Nazi organ that published an Arabic translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in installments. Then, Radio Berlin began beaming Arabic programs across the Middle East. The Nazi ideology of Jewish conspiracy and international manipulation was widely adopted in Iraqi society, especially within the framework of the Palestine problem that dominated Iraqi politics.

As Arab Nationalism and Hitlerism fused, numerous Nazi-style youth clubs began springing up in Iraq. One pivotal group known as Futuwwa was nothing less than a clone of the Hitler Youth. In 1938, Futuwwa members were required to attend a candlelight Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. When the delegation came back from Germany, a common chant in Arabic was, “Long live Hitler, the killer of insects and Jews.”

By the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and a coterie of transnational Palestinian agitators, had thoroughly permeated Baghdad’s ruling circles. For example, Taha al-Hashimi, Iraqi Chief of Staff, doubled as the head of the Committee for the Defense of Palestine.

To lure more Arabs to the Nazi cause, Grobba employed such tactics as dispensing lots of cash among politicians and deploying seductive German women among ranking members of the army. German radio broadcasting in Baghdad regularly reported fallacious reports about non-existent Jewish outrages in Palestine. Grobba, in conjunction with the Mufti, cultivated many Iraqis to act as surrogate Nazis.

By April 1, 1941, with WWII in full swing, a group of pro-Nazi Iraqi military men known as the Golden Square staged a coup, ousting the British-dominated government. Quickly, the Golden Square welded Iraqi actions to Berlin’s iron will. Why did they become partners? The Golden Square wanted Germany to destroy the British and Jewish presence in their country. The Third Reich craved what was beneath the ground — oil. Without that oil, still controlled by a British oil company, Germany could not invade Russia.

Edwin Black too describes horrendous scenes of torture, mutiliation and blood-thirsty murder of hundreds of Jewish Baghdadis. He then continues:

Finally, the Mayor telephoned the Regent, momentarily the supreme authority in the country, and beseeched him to issue orders to loyal troops. That he did. As the order circulated, loyal units began opening fire on the rioters, especially when they turned to Muslim neighborhoods to continue their pillage. Once the shooting began, rioters fled.

Days later, when the Regent eventually restored order, the British entered the city limits. The oil was secure. The Jews of Baghdad were not.

In truth, no one will ever know many were murdered or maimed during those two dark days. Official statistics, based on intimidated and reluctant witnesses, listed about 110 Jews dead. Hundreds were listed as injured. But Jewish leaders said the real numbers were far greater. One Iraq historian suggested as many as 600 were murdered during the overnight rampage. The Jewish Burial Society was afraid to bury the bodies. The corpses were ignominiously collected and entombed in a large, long, rounded mass grave that resembled a massive loaf of bread.

Farhud — in Arabic, the word means violent dispossession. It was a word the Jews of wartime Europe never knew. Holocaust — it was a word the Jews of wartime Iraq never knew. But soon they would all know their meaning regardless of the language they spoke. After the events of June 1–2, 1941, both words came together.

We Jews are one nation united by a religion, a history, a culture, and – despite our dispersal throughout the world for 2,000 years – we have one homeland.  We must never forget what happened to all of our communities and must be forever vigilant in guarding Israel, our beloved country.

Never forget!

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10 Responses to Remembering the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad in 1941

  1. Barney says:

    Thank you for this informative post. I have to say that I was entirely ignorant of this appalling episode of anti-Semitism.

    • anneinpt says:

      I was only vaguely aware of it myself, and it’s only been in recent years that I have become more educated about it, thanks in large part to scholars like Lyn Julius and Edwin Black.

  2. ShimonZ says:

    Very good of you to publicize the treatment that the Jews received in Iraq, though this particular incident was not isolated.

    • anneinpt says:

      Indeed you are right. Sadly I am not well enough educated in the history of the Jews of the Middle East, and although I know of their glorious history I don’t know enough about the hard times.

      I feel it is very important to highlight the pogroms and anti-Semitism that occurred across the Arab world because the anti-Israel activists try to portray the Arabs as always being hospitable to the Jews and claiming victimhood for the Palestinians alone while denying that the Jews were mistreated.

    • anneinpt says:

      I just came upon this article about the 1945 pogrom against the Jews of Libya, of which I was unaware. I’m sure there are many more such stories. They need to get the same coverage as the reports of the pogroms in Europe.

  3. Reality says:

    I’m so grateful that you posted this.I have never heard about this.It’s about time it was commemorated. It should also be “discussed”and commemorated in the various UN Human rights committees.These poor families should demand recompensation.Turn the tables on the “poor Palestinians”.

    • anneinpt says:

      Yes, agreed completely. But despite today being International Farhud Day I didn’t see any coverage in the UK media. I haven’t looked at the US press yet. Somehow I doubt it’s going to make the news, (maybe down the bottom of the inside pages) let alone the headlines at all.

      And yes, the families absolutely should be compensated by the Arab world.

  4. Pete says:

    Thank you Anne.
    Very deeply emotional … an absolute condemnation of the behavior of other citizens who slaughtered their own Jewish neighbors. It seems incomprehensible that anyone can behave in this way. And yet THEY DID. And sadly, it will happen again … possibly against Jews, and probably against other human beings.

    I think it is tremendously important for you to recount these stories.
    Otherwise these memories are lost … when they should NEVER be forgotten.

    And really – is there ANY OTHER people over time who have suffered as MUCH persecution as the Jews? I honestly cannot think of anyone else.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      Thank you for your comment and your support Pete. Indeed, that is why I try and record such stories – in order that we do not forget, and in order to bring these stories to public attention. Jewish suffering is downplayed all the time, especially Jewish suffering at the hands of the Arabs. Somehow the Arabs have hijacked victimhood for themselves alone, as if it is a zero-sum game. As if to say, if the Jews are victims then they can’t be, and they cannot accept that. It’s stupid and juvenile and the world lets them get away with it.

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