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Interview'We knew that if Hitler won, there would be more to come'

85-year-old Israeli testifies to Nazi-inspired pogrom that massacred Iraqi Jewry

Iraqi-born Daniel Sasson recounts firsthand how in the early 1940s, Hitler-emulating dictator Rashid Ali al-Gaylani sent Jews to ghettos and firing squads in the Middle East

Clockwise from top left: A man outside the mass grave of Jews killed in the Farhud (public domain); center: an undated recent photo of Daniel and Shulamit Sasson; the Diwaniya ghetto, Sasson's grandfather's house (both photos courtesy); Iraqi Jews arriving at Lod Airport in Israel, May 1, 1951 (GPO / BRAUNER TEDDY); a monument in Ramat Gan to Jews slain in the Farhud and in violence in the 1960s (CC-BY-2.5/ Dr. Avishai Teicher)
Clockwise from top left: A man outside the mass grave of Jews killed in the Farhud (public domain); center: an undated recent photo of Daniel and Shulamit Sasson; the Diwaniya ghetto, Sasson's grandfather's house (both photos courtesy); Iraqi Jews arriving at Lod Airport in Israel, May 1, 1951 (GPO / BRAUNER TEDDY); a monument in Ramat Gan to Jews slain in the Farhud and in violence in the 1960s (CC-BY-2.5/ Dr. Avishai Teicher)

Holocaust narratives of European Jewry are well-documented, but far less is published about how Germany’s influence decimated Jewish communities in the Middle East during and after World War II.

Born Riad Izzat Al-Sassoon Mualem in Diwaniya, Iraq, Daniel Sasson says, “there is a need for this story to be known, with an emphasis on the connection between Nazi ghettos in Europe and the ghetto in Iraq.” The 85-year-old Sasson spoke to The Times of Israel from his home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan with the desire to shine light on the fading history of what he and countless other Iraqi Jews endured.

Sasson also recently documented his experiences in a book titled “The Untold Story: The First and Last Ghetto in Iraq,” available in Hebrew. In it, he describes his childhood in Iraq and how an alliance between Hitler and Iraqi prime minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani temporarily shifted the balance of power in the country.

Due to this alliance, Iraq subjected its roughly 150,000 Jews to German-imported anti-Semitism. The Jews were forced to live in a ghetto and eventually massacred in a Nazi-inspired pogrom called the Farhud.

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.

‘An untold story’

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.

Daniel Sasson’s grandfather’s house at Diwaniya, which was turned into a ghetto for one month in 1941. (Courtesy)

No sooner had the family returned to Diwaniya than they were greeted by a group of armed policemen. Fear gripped Sasson when the police recognized his father, who was a man of status. They stopped the family, grabbed them from the car, and “tossed them like sacks of flour” into the mansion owned by Sasson’s grandfather.

Behavior of this kind towards a reputable man was highly unusual, says Sasson. There was police surveillance around the entire property, and eventually it became clear that it would serve as a prison for the town’s Jewish population.

Inside the Diwaniya ghetto

Sasson explains that creating a larger ghetto in the town would have inconvenienced the Muslim population living there, and so the al-Gaylani government instead placed all of the Jews under one roof and kept them under house arrest.

“Inside the ghetto there were difficulties. There was hunger. The police were armed with spears when we arrived, and it was very hard, this month,” he says.

The people lived off of a few olives one day, stale bread another day, slowly starving to death. Women were given space in the back rooms and the men were confined to the front. Communication between the two groups was restricted. All of the men were put to forced labor from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., watering trees along the river.

Daniel Sasson as a young man. (Courtesy)

A childhood friend of Sasson’s, Khaled Musa, was Jewish but bore an Arabic name. Musa was spared from the ghetto along with his mother when a Muslim family took the two of them in.

“The river separated us, Khaled Musa’s family and ours. Opposite the balcony area from our home we could see their house. It was a matter of only 200 meters [656 feet], just the river between us and their house. Arab-Muslim neighbors hid Khaled Musa and his mother for one month, but his dad and uncles were thrown in the ghetto,” says Sasson. “And no one knew how long the ghetto was going to last.”

Sasson’s grandfather, who had often acted as a judge and arbitrator between tribes in Diwaniya, discovered from the police that pro-Nazi prime minister al-Gaylani intended to create additional ghettos between Baghdad and Basra in the south. According to the police, this would be the first of many ghettos to come, an extension of Hitler’s aspirations for Jews outside of Europe.

The ghetto was divided into three sections. In the first and largest area were the men; in the middle area were women and children; and the final section served as a base of operations for the police stationed there.

An army tank sat in the corner of the courtyard, conducting 24-hour surveillance. The police also stationed a patrol between the men’s and women’s camps, prohibiting any contact between the two groups. But Sasson, being a young child, was able to move between them with relative ease.

Daniel and Shulamit Sasson in an undated recent photo. (Courtesy)

One day, Sasson saw a woman crying and asked how he could help. She wanted to send a message to her husband on the other side of the house, so Sasson offered to go as a messenger. Just as he was about to cross over to the men’s side, he was stopped by the police chief.

“This is my house,” Sasson remembers saying. “You can’t tell me what to do. My mother is here and my father is there, and I want to be able to see them both.”

And so the chief let him through.

Sasson also recalls intense hunger, especially at night. The police didn’t allow the Jews into the kitchen to cook the sacks of potatoes lying in the corner, he says, so he ate them raw. Other children didn’t even fare that well, he says, and he often heard them crying out in hunger overnight.

Being a mischievous child, Sasson says he would climb the walls to reach the rooftop terrace. He would see rooms full of children crying from hunger, unable to sleep. He went up to the roof most days and watched the men work, carrying pails of water to and from the nearby river. With each passing day, the people became weaker and sicker. The nights were all the same, with the continuous wailing of children echoing throughout the mansion.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

The Jews’ release came suddenly and without warning. Sasson remembers being asleep one night and dreaming that Hitler had caught hold of him and was dragging him away. He woke up in a cold sweat and climbed up onto the roof to calm himself.

Looking out over the river, Sasson saw the fishermen drifting by in their boats, but something felt different. Looking around the compound, he realized that the round-the-clock security patrols were gone. He went downstairs to notify the men, and passing the place where the police would usually sit, he saw that they were gone, too.

A mass grave of Farhud victims (Wikipedia)

The Jews would later learn that British troops had overrun the country and al-Gaylani had been deposed. At mid-morning on May 31, 1941, the entire group sang the Shema prayer in unison and walked out together, each to their own home. As the people exited, Sasson saw their faces — they looked worn, the men’s beards had grown, and their clothing didn’t fit the same.

That same day, Sasson’s family decided to travel to their uncle’s house in the city of Shaamiya, 35 kilometers (22 miles) away. The following day, June 1, 1941, was the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Sasson sat by the window to observe his new surroundings. Suddenly an ear-splitting shot rang out and Sasson’s uncle, who had been standing just feet from the window, crumpled to the ground, dead.

Over 200 Jews were slaughtered in Iraq that day, with thousands more injured and raped. Their businesses were demolished, their property plundered, shops set on fire and ransacked.

The attacking mob used whatever weapons they could get their hands on, also running people over with vehicles. Some Jews were sheltered by their Muslim neighbors, who put themselves at great risk.

The event is considered a turning point for Jewish life in Iraq. The Farhud is one of the most traumatic events in the collective memory of Iraqi Jewry. Similar to the Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany and Austria in November of 1938, the Jews were hunted by attackers motivated by pro-Nazi ideology. The first incident of its kind to normalize Jewish persecution in Iraq, the Farhud was a turning point in the country’s Jewish history and a wakeup call for many who realized there was no future for them there.

After Sasson’s uncle was killed in Shaamiya, the family packed their bags and returned to Baghdad, where they lived for the next six years. His father set up a brick-making factory that employed several hundred people. Then, in 1951, Sasson and his brother left for Israel.

Blossoming Zionism

After the Farhud, underground Zionist groups began to spring up, and every city had its own chapter. Sasson’s oldest brother taught Hebrew and helped many people emigrate to what was then Mandatory Palestine.

The development was far from surprising, but also represented something of a departure from what had until then been the norm. While he and his family always had a strong Jewish identity, Sasson says, they also had a deep connection with Iraq, their birthplace.

“We had connections with wealthy people in the city,” he says. “We grew up and went to school there… and the State of Israel did not exist yet. It wasn’t until the 1948 war [for Israeli independence], and the anti-Semitic pogroms and tension in Iraq in response to the establishment of Israel, that we felt like Iraq was no longer our country. There was an Israeli state, and our future was there.”

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There were shlichim — emissaries from Israel — in every city in Iraq to help facilitate immigration, and Sasson says that making the move was a foregone conclusion. “We just didn’t know exactly when we’d go,” he says.

“Naturally,” Sasson tells The Times of Israel, “I miss the house and neighborhood where I grew up. People miss the place they were born and want to go back to see it. I had [Arab] friends there from school who didn’t have issues with Jews. We had Arab neighbors in our hometown as well, who helped us, and I would have liked to see them again. There were periods of tension between Jews and Iraqi Arabs, but most of the Iraqi Arab population were good and we did not have problems with one another.”

After moving to Israel at the age of 15, Sasson served in the Israel Defense Forces and then went on to become an engineer. Today, he’s 85 years old and still lives in Israel with his family.

Sasson has appeared in several Hebrew-language interviews conducted by the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. His Hebrew-language memoir is also available from the center, which is located in Or Yehuda.

Sasson says he decided to publish his experiences because most people are not aware there was a ghetto in Iraq.

A plane filled with Iraqi Jews photographed on arrival at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv, in early 1951 (Teddy Brauner, GPO)

“While we were in the ghetto, we knew that it was Nazi-inspired and that if allowed to continue, ghettos would become slaughterhouses to expel Jews living in the Middle East; that the Iraqi ghetto was inspired by the European ghettos and there were only more to come,” he says. “If Hitler had won the war, we would have gone to the ghettos in droves.”

Sasson says most of the children who had been interned in the Iraqi ghetto were no longer alive today, and that it was imperative for him to let the world know about this piece of history that affected him so deeply while he still had the chance.

“When we were young, we were new immigrants. We were busy with work and trying to build our lives in a new country. If I wrote the book in the 1950s, who would have read it?” says Sasson. “Jews from Iraq were making money, finding work, and trying to create a new life. When I was young, I was also pursuing my studies and establishing a career. Trying to survive.”

“The story is being told 70 years too late,” he says. “But even now, it’s just the right time.”

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