SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Joseph Samuels, born Yosef Sasson in Baghdad, was 18 when he fled Iraq for the new state of Israel.
It was 1949, and life was becoming increasingly difficult for Jews in Iraq, as it was throughout the Arab world. The Sasson family’s good relations with their Muslim neighbors changed with Israel’s creation in 1948, and Yosef’s parents urged him to leave, promising they would follow when they could.
Unable to secure an exit visa, Yosef escaped Iraq with his younger brother in tow, taking the train to Basra, then cramming into a smuggler’s boat with 16 other young Jews, rowing to Iran and finally making his way to Tehran. There he joined a massive airlift to Israel, landing in time for Purim that year.
“That Passover was the first time I celebrated as a free man,” says Samuels, who served in the Israeli navy and now lives near Los Angeles.
Like many Holocaust survivors, Samuels only shared bits and pieces of his story with his children.
“I didn’t want to seem like a victim, so I didn’t tell them,” he explains.
Unlike Holocaust survivors, however, his story — as well as those of more than 800,000 other Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East — is not widely known. These Jews, part of large, ancient communities in nine Arab countries, were victimized and persecuted, stripped of their rights and property, and in some cases forcibly expelled from the lands of their birth from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Finding refuge mainly in Israel, France and North America, they became the forgotten refugees of the Middle East conflict.
Jimena, a San Francisco-based organization for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, is trying to change that.
As part of an international consortium led by Hebrew University and the University of Miami that is collecting and documenting testimony from these Mizrahim, or Jews from Arabic-speaking countries, Jimena has launched a visual history project to interview those now living on the West Coast.
Jimena’s East Coast partner, the American Sephardi Federation in New York, began its interviews of New York-area Sephardim in September, while partners in several other countries are working to collect oral testimonies in their regions. Each project is responsible for its own funding.
The goal, organizers say, is to do for Jewish refugees from Arab lands what Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute has done for Holocaust survivors: preserve their stories and dignify their heritage.
“Their stories have not been documented,” says Sarah Levin, Jimena’s program director. “We want to collect as many stories as we can. These people are getting older, and soon it will be too late.”
On Oct. 18, a dozen Jews born in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and other lands of the Maghreb gathered at the Jewish federation offices in San Francisco to learn how they could become a part of the project.
Filmmaker Avi Goldwasser, director of “The Forgotten Refugees,” says that when he grew up in Israel, he learned nothing about this history. In the United States, where the Jewish community is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, it is even lesser known.
“We want to get people like yourselves to share your personal stories,” he told the group. “We have to get the word out that Palestinians were not the only people displaced by the conflict.”
It’s not about denying Palestinian suffering, Goldwasser said, but about presenting all sides of the history as a precursor to real peace and reconciliation.
Rachel Wahba of San Raphael, Calif., nods her head. The child of an Iraqi mother and Egyptian father, Wahba was born in 1946 in India, where her mother’s family had fled after Iraq’s June 1941 pogroms.
“My mother heard the screams for 48 hours until the British finally put a stop to it,” she recalls.
Expelled from India, as they had no papers, the family ended up in Japan as stateless refugees. They finally reached California in 1968 and rebuilt their lives.
Wahba used to lecture about her family’s history, but she tired of the hostility and ignorance she encountered.
“I’d tell my story, and people would say, ‘so, your grandmother spoke Yiddish.’ As if they hadn’t heard me," she said. "I said no, we spoke Judeo-Arabic. The non-Jews would listen more openly than the Jews — they just couldn’t get it.”
Wahba and Samuels are two of the first interviews Jimena is taping. A third is Egypt native Soliman Elgazzar, 61, who left his homeland in 1970 after three years of imprisonment.
When the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967, he told his interviewer, military-age Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. He was interned with 350 other Egyptian Jews in a camp outside Cairo.
“We lived 70 to a room, sleeping on the floor like sardines, overlapping each other,” he related. “The scariest part was not knowing when we’d be released. They gave us the impression they’d never let us go until Egypt won the war.”
As part of the international initiative, Hebrew University in Jerusalem is setting up an archive of the recorded testimonies, including nearly 700 made by the Jewish Agency for Israel in the late 1940s and early ‘50s on reel-to-reel tapes.
Jimena is not sure whether its interviews will join that archive or be used another way. But time is of the essence, as this population ages. And, slowly, Jews from Arab lands who never spoke of their past are beginning to open up.
“These people only wanted to look forward, not back,” Levin says, adding that Jimena is sponsoring Mizrahi Month in March to encourage greater focus on Sephardic history and culture. “Maybe that’s why there have not been efforts to document their stories.
"But there’s pain that has never been addressed. We hope this will be cathartic for some of them.”