Montreal’s Iraqi-Jewish Community Pieces Together Fragments of its History

Lisette Shashoua looks at her elementary school diploma and family photos from when she lived in Iraq. Photo Leah Balass
Lisette Shashoua looks at her elementary school diploma and family photos from when she lived in Iraq. Photo Leah Balass

As she glides her fingers along the delicate corners that shape the elementary school diploma she received in Baghdad, Lisette Shashoua nods her head concernedly.

“We’re never going to go back there; it’s an era that’s finished. But this is all we have left,” she says.

She reaches for a photocopy of her schoolmate’s diploma and places it next to her own. They are nearly identical.

Both were handwritten, stamped by the Frank Iny School in Baghdad, date back to the 1960s and are irreplaceable symbols of Iraq’s once thriving Jewish community.

There is only one difference between the diplomas. Shashoua’s diploma belongs to her—she can hang it in her living room or keep it tucked away underneath her bed.

Her former schoolmate, Olivia Basrawi, on the other hand, does not own her original diploma. Like most Iraqi Jews, Basrawi was forced to leave all her personal belongings behind when she and her family fled the country to avoid persecution.

Shashoua also left everything behind when she escaped in 1970. But as her parents were among the two-dozen or so Jews who remained in Baghdad after much of their community fled, they managed to send her a few family photos and school diplomas over the years. Today, these items are all that Shashoua has left of her life in Baghdad—very little, but far more than most.

An active member of Montreal’s Iraqi-Jewish community, one of the largest in North America, Shashoua says fellow members of her community should have access to and ownership of their personal belongings just like she does.

Today, Shashoua is among the thousands of Iraqi Jews in Montreal, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Jews around the world, expressing opposition to the return of their community’s historical artifacts to Iraq.

The artifacts, some dating back 500 years, were rescued during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when a group of American soldiers stumbled upon tens of thousands of documents and objects belonging to Iraq’s Jewish community.

Although the country’s Jewish population was over 150,000 in 1947, there are fewer than five Jews remaining in all of Iraq today, according to the National Archives in Washington, which was involved in restoring, preserving and digitizing the artifacts over the last 10 years in a process that cost $3 million.

The rescued materials, which include children’s quizzes, personal photographs, rare religious commentaries and sacred Torah scrolls dating back to the 1700s, were looted from the community in the ’70s and ’80s and carted off to Saddam Hussein’s military intelligence headquarters, where they were later found floating in a flooded basement.

Twenty-four of the artifacts and some reproductions were showcased to the public for the first time at the National Archives last fall, providing a rare peek into the oldest Jewish community in the world, a community that was once an integral part of Iraqi society, from government to culture and commerce.

Running from Nov. 8 to Jan. 5, the exhibit, titled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” attracted over 16,000 visitors, a record number for a temporary exhibition. The exhibit re-opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on Feb. 4.

As the recovered documents are gradually being made available online, Iraqi Jews around the world have been discovering personal remnants of their lost history.

But their reaction is bittersweet—the archives are scheduled to be returned to Iraq in June, the result of an agreement between the U.S. State Department and the Iraqi government.

Shashoua reacts with passion after finding her schoolmate’s diploma on the digital database of the National Archives.

“I have my diploma, why shouldn’t she have hers? Why should the Iraqi government get this diploma back when it belongs to her?” Shashoua asks.

“Imagine you have a diploma from elementary school or secondary school and you leave Canada to live somewhere else and Canada says, ‘No, it’s ours.’ Imagine—can you?

“This is our heritage, our religion, it belongs to us,” she continued. “We were ostracized, people were hanged on the street, we were stripped of our dignity and we left these things behind because you just wanted to leave with your life intact.”

Irwin Cotler, the Liberal MP for the riding of Mount Royal and a former federal justice minister, says the agreement to return the archives to Iraq is based on a flawed premise.

“There is a fundamental legal principle which states that no one can profit from the commission of an illegal act,” Cotler said. “The Iraqi government should not be able to profit from looting these stolen assets—assets of the Iraqi Jews.”

Cotler says there is “no justification in law or in logic” to return the archives to Iraq.

“[Iraq] is a place that has no [Jewish community], no willingness to protect Jewish heritage, no capacity to provide access to Jewish scholars who are the descendants of those who once possessed [the archives],” he said.

“The archives represent the heritage and patrimony of the historic Jewish community that was displaced from Iraq and it is not something that belongs to the Iraqi government.”

The Iraqi government claims the archives demonstrate their country’s diversity and represent the contribution that Jews made to the development of the country.

Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, said at a press conference in Washington in early November that Iraq might be open to discussing a loan agreement with the United States, which would delay the return of the objects to Baghdad. Faily made it clear, however, that the artifacts ultimately belong in Iraq.

“The agreement is for these artifacts to go back home,” Faily said.

The Iraqi consulate in Montreal refused to comment on what their government plans to do with the archives once they are returned to Iraq, a major concern voiced by Iraqi Jews in Montreal and around the world.

Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq and a member of the Iraqi-Jewish community, has been involved in discussions with both the State Department and the Iraqi government to keep the archives in the United States.

“It is emotional when everything you left behind comes so close to you when it was once so far away,” Shohet said.

Shohet visited Baghdad for the first time in 2004 since he left the country 35 years ago. He is one of the few Iraqi-Jews that have returned to Baghdad after fleeing the country.

“Even if [the archives] will be saved and protected in the best place in the Iraqi National Library, the issue is that they don’t belong to Iraq in the first place, but to the Jewish community that these materials were confiscated from,” he said.

Shohet says that like Germany, which acknowledged that property stolen from Jews during the Nazi period must be returned to its heirs, “the same exact principle applies here: Property stolen from Iraqi Jews must be returned to Iraqi Jews.”

The Iraqi-Jewish Archives will be on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City until May 18.