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 Palestine.
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.
At the 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.
The carnage of those 48 hours would be forever seared upon the collective Iraqi Jewish consciousness as “the Farhud,” best translated as “violent dispossession.”
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.
For 2,600 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.
Seizing on 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.
The 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 notice.”
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 officer.
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 Iraq.”
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 unescorted.
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, were spies.
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 vengeance.
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.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.