On Friday, November 8, the National Archives unveiled a new exhibition, "Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage." The exhibit details the dramatic recovery of historic materials relating to the Jewish community in Iraq from a flooded basement in Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters, and the National Archives' ongoing work in support of U.S. Government efforts to preserve these materials.
Located in the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, "Discovery and Recovery" is free and open to the public and runs through January 5, 2014. In both English and Arabic, the 2,000 square foot exhibit features 24 recovered items and a "behind the scenes" video of the fascinating yet painstaking preservation process. This exhibit marks the first time these items have been on public display.
The collection includes more than 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English, dating from 1540 to the 1970s. A special website to makes these historic materials freely available to all online as they are digitized and catalogued. This work was made possible through the assistance of the Department of State, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Center for Jewish History.
On May 6, 2003, just days after the Coalition forces took over Baghdad, 16 American soldiers from Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, a group assigned to search for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, entered Saddam Hussein's flooded intelligence building. In the basement, under four feet of water, they found thousands of books and documents relating to the Jewish community of Iraq – materials that had come from synagogues and Jewish organizations in Baghdad.
The water-logged materials quickly became moldy in Baghdad's intense heat and humidity. Seeking guidance, the Coalition Provisional Authority placed an urgent call to the nation's foremost conservation experts at the National Archives. Just a week later, National Archives Director of Preservation Programs Doris Hamburg and Conservation Chief Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler arrived in Baghdad via military transport to assess the damage and make recommendations for preservation of the materials.
Given limited treatment options in Baghdad, and with the agreement of Iraqi representatives, the materials were shipped to the United States for preservation and exhibition. Since then, these materials have been vacuum freeze-dried, preserved and digitized under the direction of the National Archives. The Jews of Iraq have a rich past, extending back 2500 years to Babylonia. These materials provide a tangible link to this community that flourished there, but in the second half of the twentieth century they were dispersed throughout the world. Today, fewer than five Jews remain.
Display highlights include:
A Hebrew Bible with Commentaries from 1568 – one of the oldest books in the trove;
A Babylonian Talmud from 1793;
A Torah scroll fragment from Genesis - one of the 48 Torah scroll fragments found;
A Zohar from 1815 – a text for the mystical and spiritual Jewish movement known as "Kabbalah";
An official 1918 letter to the Chief Rabbi regarding the allotment of sheep for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year);
Materials from Jewish schools in Baghdad, including exam grades and a letter to the College Entrance Examination Board in Princeton regarding SAT scores;
A Haggadah (Passover script) from 1902, hand lettered and decorated by an Iraqi Jewish youth ; and
A lunar calendar in both Hebrew and Arabic from the Jewish year 5732 (1972-1973) - one of the last examples of Hebrew printed items produced in Baghdad.
"Discovery and Recovery" is divided into six sections:
Discovery: The dramatic story of how these materials were found, rescued and preserved is one worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. A short film captures these heroic efforts. The section includes actual metal foot lockers used to ship the documents to the United States.
Text and Heritage: This section explores Iraqi Jewish history and tradition through recovered texts, including a Torah scroll fragment, a Hebrew Bible with Commentaries from 1568, and a Babylonian Talmud from 1793.
Iraqi Jewish Life: Constancy and Change: Using recovered texts, this section explores the pattern of Jewish life in Iraq. Highlights include a Haggadah (Passover script), siddur (prayer book) and an illustrated lunar calendar in both Hebrew and Arabic (one of about 20 found, dating from 1959-1973).
Personal and Communal Life: Selected correspondence and publications illustrate the range and complexity of Iraqi Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries. Original documents and facsimiles in flipbooks range from school primers to international business correspondence from the Sassoon family.
After the Millennia: Iraqi Jewish life unraveled in the mid-20th century, with the rise of Nazism and proliferation of anti-Jewish propaganda. In June 1941, 180 Jews were killed and hundreds injured in an anti-Jewish attack in Baghdad. Persecution increased when Iraq entered the war against the new State of Israel in 1948. In 1950 and 1951, many Iraqi Jews were stripped of their citizenship and assets and the community fled the county en masse. This section includes the 1951 law freezing assets of Iraqi Jews.
Preserving the Past: It is not surprising that the Coalition Forces turned to National Archives conservators for help. Learn about transformation of these materials from moldy, water-logged masses to a carefully preserved, enduring historic legacy. View the National Archives' state-of-the-art treatment, preservation, and digitization of these materials.
The Fall issue of Prologue Magazine, the Archives' flagship publication, will feature two articles on "Discovery and Recovery.".
Thursday, November 21, at noon, William G. McGowan Theater
FILMS: Baghdad Twist and Baklava and the Meaning of Life
In celebration of this new exhibition, the National Archives presents two short films. Using archival images, home movies and family photographs from Iraq, Baghdad Twist (2007; 33 minutes) pulls back the curtain on Iraq's once thriving Jewish community. In Baklava and the Meaning of Life (1999; 23 minutes), Iraqi-born sculptor Helene Simon discusses her life and shows us how to make her famous Baklava.
Tuesday, December 3, at noon, William G. McGowan Theater
BOOK TALK: New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq
Although Iraqi Jews saw themselves as Iraqi patriots, their community—which had existed in Iraq for more than 2,500 years—was displaced following the establishment of the state of Israel. New Babylonians, by historian Orit Bashkin, chronicles the lives of these Jews, their urban Arab culture, and their hopes for a democratic nation-state. It studies their ideas about Judaism, Islam, secularism, modernity, and reform, focusing on Iraqi Jews who internalized narratives of Arab and Iraqi nationalisms and on those who turned to communism in the 1940s. A book signing will follow the program.
Thursday, December 5, at 7 p.m., William G. McGowan Theater
PANEL DISCUSSION: Discovery and Recovery: Eyewitness Accounts
Director of Preservation Programs Doris Hamburg and Conservation Chief Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler from the National Archives; Maurice Shohet, analyst at the Middle East Media Research Institute; and William D. Cavness, Jr., retired Foreign Service Officer, will chronicle the dramatic story behind the exhibit and discuss the historic significance of the items saved. Larry Abramson, National Security Correspondent for NPR, will moderate the discussion.
Guided tours for the public will be given on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at 11 a.m. while the exhibition is on view; reservations may be made through www.recreation.gov