In truth, the Farhud was Iraq's Shoah


"Violent dispossession" - in an Arabic dialect, the word is "Farhud". For decades after it occurred, many thought the orgy of violence against Iraq's Jews - who had been living in the area for some 2,600 years - had come out of nowhere.

But in truth, the wild rape and killing spree of June 1–2, 1941, was not unexpected. For years, Jew-hate, anti-British rage and Nazi agitation seethed just below the surface, like a smoking volcano waiting to erupt.

Soon after Hitler took power in 1933, Germany's chargé d'affaires in Baghdad, Fritz Grobba, acquired the Christian Iraqi newspaper Al-Alem Al Arabi and converted it into a Nazi organ that published an Arabic translation of Mein Kampf in instalments. Then, Radio Berlin began beaming Arabic programmes across the Middle East.

The Nazi ideology of Jewish conspiracy was widely adopted in Iraqi society, especially within the framework of the Palestine problem that dominated Iraqi politics.

As Arab Nationalism and Hitlerism fused, numerous Nazi-style youth clubs began springing up in Iraq. One, known as Futuwwa, was nothing less than a clone of the Hitler Youth. In 1938, Futuwwa members were required to attend a candlelit Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. When the delegation came back from Germany, a common chant in Arabic was "Long live Hitler, the killer of insects and Jews".

By the outbreak of the Second World War, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and a coterie of transnational Palestinian agitators, had permeated Baghdad's ruling circles.

By April 1, 1941, with the war in full swing, a group of pro-Nazi Iraqi military men known as the Golden Square staged a coup, ousting the British-dominated government. Quickly, the Golden Square welded Iraqi actions to Berlin's iron will. Why did they become partners? The Golden Square wanted Germany to destroy the British and Jewish presence in their country. The Third Reich craved what was beneath the ground - oil. Without that oil, still controlled by a British oil company, Germany could not invade Russia.

An abortive effort to seize British oil and military facilities in Iraq continued throughout May 1941. But on May 28, 1941, a British military column, determined to protect the oil installations, pushed toward the outskirts of Baghdad to defeat the insurgency. Golden Square and Grobba fled. On May 31, at 4am, the acting mayor emerged with a white flag.

The next day, on June 1, with British authority nominally restored but still withdrawn beyond the outskirts of Baghdad, and the Golden Square coup plotters out of the country, the British puppet regent Prince Abd al-Ilah returned to Iraq. During the few hours before the regent's return, a power vacuum existed in the country. It resulted in the bloodbath of June 1–2.

A sweeping anti-Jewish action, planned for June 1 and organised before the pseudo-success of the British, had been designed to mimic Nazi mass-murder campaigns in Europe. Lists of Jews had already been compiled. Jewish homes had been marked in advance with a blood-red hamsa, or palm prints, to guide the killing. The text announcing the mass murder and expulsion was prepared for radio broadcast.

But Jewish leaders who learned of the impending disaster begged for mercy from the temporary municipal authorities, who successfully engineered the expulsion from Baghdad of the massacre planners. The radio broadcast on May 31 merely announced that the British-appointed prince would return from his refuge in Trans-Jordan.

Baghdad's Jews had every reason to celebrate. June 1 was Shavuot, and they thought stability had returned. They were so wrong.

At about 3pm that June 1, Prince Abd al-Ilah landed. He was crossing al-Khurr Bridge to the palace when a contingent of Baghdadi Jews went out to greet him. As the group came to the bridge, they encountered a contingent of dejected soldiers returning from their dismal surrender to British forces. The mere sight of these Jews, bedecked in festive garb, was enough to enrage them.

Suddenly, the Jews were attacked with knives and axes. Several were hacked to death right there on the bridge. The planned extermination, now foiled, broke down into a spontaneous, citywide slaughter.

Baghdad became a fast-moving hell. Frenzied mobs raced throughout the city and murdered Jews openly on the streets. Women were raped as their horrified families looked on. Infants were killed in front of their parents. Home and stores were emptied and then burned. Gunshots and screams electrified the city for hours upon hours. Beheadings, torsos sliced open, babies dismembered, torture and mutilations were widespread. Severed limbs were waved as hideous trophies.

Yet British troops remained minutes away, under orders not to move in lest it stir Arab sentiment against the oil infrastructure.

Fleeing Jews jumped from one roof to another. In some instances, parents and siblings threw children down from roofs to waiting blankets below. When there was no place beyond the roof, some Jews held off their attackers with boiling oil and stones.

Women were defiled everywhere. Arabs broke into the girl's school and the students were raped - endlessly. Six Jewish girls were carted away to a village 15 km north and located only later. One young girl was raped, and then her breasts slashed off.

Finally, the mayor telephoned the regent, momentarily the supreme authority in the country, and beseeched him to issue orders to loyal troops. That he did. Loyal units began opening fire on the rioters, especially when they turned to Muslim neighbourhoods to continue their pillage. Once the shooting began, rioters fled.

Days later, when the regent eventually restored order, the British entered the city limits. The oil was secure. The Jews of Baghdad were not.

Farhud means "violent dispossession". It was a word the Jews of wartime Europe never knew. Holocaust was a word the Jews of wartime Iraq never knew. But soon they would all know their meanings. After the events of June 1–2, 1941, both words came together.

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