In 2003, when Coalition forces seized Baghdad, a group of American soldiers stumbled upon treasures from the Jewish community of Iraq. While the team had been sent to search for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence building, what they found were nearly 3,000 books and documents that had originally come from synagogues and Jewish organizations. The items were submerged under four feet of water, and the reason they were there in the first place remains a mystery.
The items were sent to Washington for conservation and digitization through the National Archives, which put together “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” an exhibit currently on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Doris Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the National Archives, recalled learning about the discovery in a New York Times article. In an email to The Jewish Week, she wrote, “I was amazed and really hoping they could be preserved. … The interest to exhibit them came later.”
Fast-forward a decade.
The pieces on display reveal a once-entrenched community and its collapse; they include one of 48 Torah scroll fragments that was found, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, and a Passover Haggadah from 1902. Personal correspondence and records provide a more human perspective. Documentary photographs of the preservation efforts depict the drama of the find and the recovery. Wall texts provide information about this historic center of Jewish life.
The exhibit is one to see for two reasons. First, it highlights a lesser-known part of the Coalition forces’ mission during the Iraq War. Second, it highlights an important and established Jewish community that our often Ashkenazi- and Europe-centric curricula may overlook.
David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, said, “The museum is dedicated to teaching about Jewish heritage and history. The artifacts in this exhibition tell two stories: First, they shed light on the history and heritage of a once-large and vitally important Jewish community, and second, their presence in the exhibition is testimony to the sad fate of that community. Both of these stories need to be told.”
The question of whether or not America should or will return these items to Iraq now that they have been conserved is up for debate.
In the same vein, an exhibit at the Center for Jewish History, “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” documents 3,000 years of Jewish history in Iran. It runs through April 27.
“Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” runs through May 18 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place. Mjhnyc.org.