Joseph Samuels, born Yosef Sasson in Baghdad, was 18 years old 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. Yosef’s parents urged him to leave, promising they would follow.
He took a train to the coast with his younger brother, where they crammed into a smuggler’s boat with 16 other Jewish youths. They rowed secretly to Iran, where the Sasson boys were airlifted to Israel.
Like many Holocaust survivors, Samuels, who Anglicised his name when he moved to Los Angeles, only shared bits and pieces of his story with his children.
Unlike Holocaust survivors, however, his story, and that 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 victimised and persecuted, stripped of their rights and property, and in some cases forcibly expelled from the lands of their birth from the 1940s through to the 1970s. Finding refuge mainly in Israel, France and North America, they became the forgotten refugees of the Middle East conflict.
An international consortium of Mizrahi organisations in Britain, Israel and the United States is trying to change that.
Led by Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the University of Miami in Florida, a visual history project is under way to interview the aging survivors of this mass exodus and preserve their stories.
“We’re trying to do what [Steven] Spielberg did,” said Prof Henry Green of the University of Miami, referring to Mr Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute, which has more than 50,000 videotaped interviews with European Holocaust survivors.
Jimena, a San Francisco advocacy group for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, began interviewing subjects in the western United States in October. The American Sephardi Federation in New York launched East Coast interviews in September.
London’s effort should get under way in January, said Lyn Julius, an Iraqi Jew who co-founded Harif, a four-year-old organisation dedicated to preserving the heritage of Sephardic Jews in Great Britain.
She has gathered a nucleus of about 50 mainly Iraqi Jews willing to take part, and is reaching out to enclaves from Morocco, Tunisia, Aden, Egypt and Libya. There are only 10,000 to 20,000 Mizrahi Jews in Britain, she says, mostly in London and Manchester.
“We are just starting, and people who have valuable memories are well into their 80s already,” she noted.
On October 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 part of the project.
Egyptian-born Soliman Elgazzar, 61, was one of the first interviewed.
He spoke of the three years he spent in a concentration camp outside Cairo, where Jewish men of military age were interned after the Six-Day War.
“We lived 70 to a room, sleeping on the floor like sardines, overlapping each other,” he related. “They gave us the impression they’d never let us go.”
Each country’s project is independent, but organisers hope the material will be accessible to all through a shared public archive. The Hebrew University already has a large collection, including almost 700 audio interviews made by the Jewish Agency in the late 1940s and early ’50s on reel-to-reel tapes. The London Jewish Museum has also been approached as a possible archive site.
“These stories have not been documented,” says Sarah Levin, Jimena’s programme director. “These people are getting older, and soon it will be too late.”