|Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from “Banking on Baghdad,” a new book by Edwin Black about the history of Iraq.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 (JTA) — At about 3 p.m., June 1, 1941, everything changed for Iraq’s Jews.
No American Holocaust museum pays homage to their tragedy. Holocaust
studies have virtually overlooked the incident and its profound
consequences. But the Jews of Baghdad found themselves caught between
Hitler’s master plan to dominate Europe and the Arab-Jewish conflict in
At stake was the oil Hitler needed to succeed.
As the world finds Iraq once again at the center of competing
international interests, a look back at this bloody chapter in Iraqi
history illuminates how this region’s inherent geography and geology
have given rise to a crossroads for conflict, conquest and commerce
that has endured through the years.
That day in 1941, on the
Jewish festival of Shavuot, the sight of Jews returning from the
Baghdad airport to greet the returning Regent Abdul al-Ilah, ruler of
Iraq, was all the excuse an Iraqi mob needed to unleash its vengeance.
The attack began at 3 p.m., as the Jewish delegation crossed Baghdad’s
Al Khurr Bridge. Violence quickly spread to the Al Rusafa and Abu
Sifyan districts. The frenzied mob murdered Jews openly on the streets.
Women were raped and infants were killed as their horrified families
looked on. Torture and mutilation followed.
Jewish shops were
looted and torched. A synagogue was invaded, burned, and its Torahs
destroyed in classic Nazi fashion. The shooting, burning and mayhem
continued throughout the evening. Jews were dragged from their
automobiles. Homes were invaded, looted and burned. On June 2, the fury
continued with policemen and slum dwellers joining in.
Muallem-Cohen house, young Nezima was terrified. Her father had just
returned from the synagogue, relating terrible stories about daughters
being raped and homes burned, when suddenly shouting, armed men crashed
through his own front gates. Quick, Mr. Muallem-Cohen rushed his family
to the stairs to escape to the roof. Up they scampered, first young
Nezima, then her mother, and then her father. A shot — Mr.
Muallem-Cohen was dead.
Mrs. Muallem-Cohen looked back in
horror. Just then a policeman appeared. “They killed my husband,” she
shrieked. “How do you want to die?” the policeman snapped back, and
then cracked her skull with his gun.
Finally, in the
afternoon, British forces punched into the city. They opened fire on
the rampagers. A 5 p.m. curfew was broadcast. Scores of violators were
shot on sight. The disturbances were finally quelled.
carnage of those 48 hours would be forever seared upon the collective
Iraqi Jewish consciousness as “the Farhud,” best translated as “violent
It was the beginning of the end. From that
moment, Iraq’s approximately 125,000 Jews would be systematically
targeted for violence, persecution, commercial boycott, confiscation
and eventually, in 1951, near complete expulsion.
years, the Jews of Iraq had dwelled successfully in the land of
Babylon, achieving as much acceptance and financial success as any
non-Muslim group could in an Islamic society that despised infidels.
In 1941, Iraqi Jews were well entrenched at all levels of farming, banking, commerce and the government bureaucracy.
What happened in 1941 and why?
After the Allies defeated the Turks in the First World War, the British
in 1920 engineered a League of Nations mandate over Turkish Iraq to
obtain its fabulous but still undeveloped oil. Faisal, who fought
alongside Lawrence of Arabia, was rewarded with the monarchy, and
designated “King of Iraq.”
In 1941, the succeeding heir was
Faisal’s 4-year-old grandson. So London installed as Iraq’s governing
regent Abdul al-Ilah, another Hashemite prince from Saudi Arabia.
This appointment stirred deep resentment among Iraq’s Muslim masses
that viewed the British “infidels” as occupiers, and those who
cooperated with them as lackeys. As resentment turned to armed
resistance and terror, militants targeted the British, as well as
anyone deemed collaborators — including many Jews who held the top
posts in all strata of commerce and civil service.
the growing discontent, the pro-Nazi cleric Haj Muhammed Amin
al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, the leader of the Arabs of Palestine,
continuously railed against the Jews, accusing them of being part of a
Zionist plot to dominate the Middle East.
The mufti — who was
being sought by the British in Palestine on charges of terrorism — had
slipped into Iraq on Oct. 13, 1939, six weeks after the outbreak of
World War II.
In Iraq, the mufti set up a new and powerful
base. He conspired with a group of pro-Nazi Iraqi officers, known as
the “Golden Square,” to overthrow the regent.
The mufti also
entered into a secret pact with Germany, offering Iraq’s precious oil
in exchange for the destruction of the Jews of Palestine and the
Reich’s support of Arab national aspirations across the Middle East.
Hitler himself was anxious to thwart Britain’s domination of the
oil-rich Middle East and secure the oil needed to fuel his planned
invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. So he went along with the
idea, even though the Nazis reviled “the Arab race.”
On April 1,
1941, the Golden Square staged a coup, forcing the regent to flee Iraq.
British warplanes stationed in Iraq responded with a series of
persistent bombardments against Golden Square forces.
German high command reacted as well, dispatching 16 Heinkels and 10
Messerschmitt heavy fighters to aid in an all-out attack on British
forces at the giant British air base at Habbaniya, located midway
between Fallujah and Ramadi. Meanwhile, two dozen German mechanics and
airmen filtered into the country, along with Reich secret agents known
to Arab elements.
Luftwaffe planes began running strafing and
bombing missions against Habbaniya, as well as British commando
formations crossing the desert to aid the besieged camp. The British
airbase at Habbaniya, at the time, was only defended by students and
instructors. Undaunted, the Brits climbed into their rickety trainers
and took to the skies, heroically flying day and night against the
Germans and the small Reich-supported Iraqi air force. Most enemy craft
were destroyed on the ground, sometimes a dozen at a time.
Churchill had already sent a foreboding cable to President Franklin
Roosevelt, stating that if the Mideast fell to the Germans, victory
against the Nazis would be a “hard, long and bleak proposition.” All
understood that if Germany secured Iraq’s oil, the Reich would proceed
all the way to the East.
By May 15, 1941, urgent messages burned
the telegraph wires as British commanders in the area informed London
that land operations to destroy the oil infrastructure were now out of
the question. One typical note declared: “In view changed situation
Iraq, consider it will be impossible to destroy Kirkuk wells at short
Besieged and out of options, the British called in the
Irgun, an extremist Jewish defense organization in Palestine. Irgun
commander David Raziel, at that moment, was in a British prison in
Palestine. Raziel was approached by British intelligence and asked if
he would undertake a dangerous mission to destroy the oil refineries in
Iraq, thereby denying fuel to the Germans.
The answer was yes, on one condition: Raziel wanted to kidnap the mufti of Jerusalem and bring him back.
The next morning, May 17, 1941, Raziel and three comrades, along with a
British officer, quietly climbed into an RAF plane parked at Tel Nof
airbase, and flew to Habbaniya. While in flight, however, London
decided that the destruction of Iraq’s refineries should be delayed to
the last minute. Rebuilding the pipelines would take years and place an
enormous strain on British fuel needs for the rest of the war.
Raziel was given new orders: Undertake an intelligence mission
preparatory to a British sweep into Fallujah as part of the final drive
to retake Baghdad from the Golden Square.
On May 17, Raziel and
his three comrades, along with a British officer, set out by car from
the Habbaniya base toward Fallujah. At the first river, they found a
boat, only big enough for two. Raziel ordered his comrades to proceed,
while he went back to the car with his fellow Irgunist and the British
Just then, from nowhere, a plane — no one knows if it
was British or German — dived from on high, dropping a bomb. The car
was destroyed and Raziel with it.
On May 25, Hitler issued Order
30, redoubling support for Iraq. “The Arabian Freedom Movement in the
Middle East,” he wrote, “is our natural ally against England. In this
connection special importance is attached to the liberation of Iraq…I
have therefore decided to move forward in the Middle East by support of
The Admiralty in London now gave the final order to destroy the refineries and pumping stations in Iraq at will.
“If Germans occupy Iraq and Syria,” the message read, “they cannot
profit by the oil resources there for at least some time.” But
suddenly, the forces at Habbaniya were gaining the upper hand.
Persistent bombing, Arabs abandoning their positions and equipment en
masse to disappear into the populace, plus the sheer exhaustion of Arab
supplies delivered victory to British forces.
On May 30, the
British-organized Arab Legion, led by legendary Major John Glubb of
Britain, pushed past fatigued ground resistance and a steady barrage of
German air attacks. Major Glubb reached Baghdad at about 4 a.m. By now,
the Golden Square, and their Reich cohorts, had fled to Iran.
The mayor of Baghdad was the only one left to sign the cease-fire document.
On May 31, Regent al-Ilah was preparing to fly into Baghdad to reclaim
his leadership. To avoid the appearance of a London-sponsored
countercoup, British troops were instructed by their commanders to
remain on the outskirts of Baghdad, allowing the regent to enter
But for days before, the mufti had been
broadcasting by radio, inciting the people of Iraq against the Jews,
accusing them of having intercepted telephone and telegraph
transmissions and passing the information to the British Embassy — thus
causing the defeat of the Golden Square. All Jews, the mufti declared,
For a few hours on June 1, a power vacuum existed
in Baghdad. The Golden Square had fled. The regent was en route. The
British were at the city’s edge. For just a few hours, Baghdad was
unsupervised. But a few hours was all it took for angry masses to
suddenly erupt in a maniacal pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.
At 3 p.m. the sight of Jews returning from the Baghdad airport to greet
the regent was all the excuse an Iraqi mob needed to unleash its
The Farhud and its consequences are absent from the
Holocaust museums and study courses. But it will live forever in the
hearts of generations descended from the Farhud’s victims and the more
than 100,000 Iraqi Jews who 10 years later, after a campaign of
systematic persecution, were expelled to Israel.
(Edwin Black is The New York Times bestselling and award-winning author
of “IBM and the Holocaust.” This article is adapted from his
just-released book, “Banking on Baghdad” (Wiley), which chronicles
7,000 years of Iraqi history.)