In 2003, a U.S. task force formally assigned to look for weapons of mass destruction entered Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in Baghdad. They had been told that something very interesting lay in its flooded basement.
Dr. Harold Rhode, a Pentagon adviser on Islamic Affairs, had received a tip from a former member of Hussein’s secret police, who was head of its “Jewish unit.” Inside the basement, Rhode and the U.S. unit found tens of thousands of Jewish documents, books and objects floating or submerged in the water.
The finding — now called the Iraqi Jewish Archive — represents nearly 500 of the 2,500-year history of Jews in Iraq. It contains Torah scrolls, student records, letters and legal proclamations, calendars and photos. There’s a Hebrew Bible printed in Renaissance-era Venice in 1568; a purple-velvet and floral patterned tik (a holder for a Torah scroll) and a Babylonian Talmud printed in Austria in the 18th century, exploring the laws of Yom Kippur.
These items and more from the archive are on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, located in two former synagogues on South Beach. The exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” tells the story not just of Jews in Iraq but also the remarkable recovery and preservation process by the U.S. National Archives and other government agencies.
There are also, however, two underlying questions that have yet to be answered: why were they confiscated by the secret police in the first place, and who ultimately owns this archive?
(Published in The Miami Herald on February 11, 2016)