Memories jogged to archive Jewish exodus from Arab lands

One of the earliest memories of Ellis Douek, who was born in Cairo in 1934, is the early morning mist over the Nile.

Eileen Khalastchy, who was born in 1929, recalls sleeping beneath the stars with her family in summer on the roof of their house in Baghdad.

They are some of the first interviewees of a new project to record some of the stories of a modern exile – the hundreds of thousands of Jews who emigrated from Arab lands in the second half of the 20th century.

Sephardi Voices UK, which was launched at Jewish Book Week in London this week, is part of an international initiative to compile an audio-visual archive of their experiences.

I slept on the roof in the summer in Baghdad

The history of their exodus is not widely known, said projects director Bea Lewkowitz. "As one interviewee said, 'We have not told our stories.'"

More than 800,000 Jews are thought to have left or been forced from their homes in the Middle East in the wake of the birth of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism. There are thought to be only 30,000 or so remaining, mostly in Iran.

"There were 150,000 Jews in Iraq in 1948, a community that goes back to Jeremiah," said international projects director Henry Green, professor of religious studies at Miami University. "Today there are seven."

Over the next three years, the team hopes to do 5,000 interviews worldwide recording how people lived in the country of their birth, why they left and where they resettled.

As well as providing a record for their families, he said: "If we pay homage to our history and our ancestors, then it behoves us to do what Steven Spielberg did for the survivors of the Holocaust and to record the testimonies of the Sephardi, Mizrachi and Iranian Jews."

It was also a story, he said, which "the world needs to know. It is a human rights story. We talk about the Palestinians but we don't acknowledge our brethren who similarly were displaced. Jews in the Islamic world lost their homes and their communal properties and have no voice for reclamation."

A pilot CD, showing extracts of the first seven London interviews including those with Mrs Khalastchy and Mr Douek, has been made with the support of the Iraqi-born philanthropist Naim Dangoor and the Sephardi
Centre.

Dr Lewkowitz hopes to film 50 interviews during the course of this year.

Lyn Julius, of the Sephardic cultural organisation Harif, said the project was "very significant. It is an attempt to create an archive before it is too late."

    Last updated: 2:20pm, March 3 2011