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Newsday 4/18/03


This article is being reprinted from the Newsday Long Island - Nassau Edition


They Will Never Forget

Jews who fled Iraq found a home in NY

By Bart Jones

April 18, 2003

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The Iraqi government agents blindfolded Saeed Herdoon, shoved him and other Jews into a bus with the windows covered, and raced off to the "Palace of the End" - an infamous prison outside Baghdad where many inmates never came out alive.

For four months in 1969, Herdoon was confined to a 6-by 6-foot cell in which he and two cellmates had to lie on their sides to sleep. He lost 33 pounds, could not talk, saw bloodied torture victims on stretchers, and was allowed to shower just once - on the day he was released.

A year later, Herdoon, now 66, sneaked into the northern Kurdish territory and fled to Iran. Eventually, he made his way to Great Neck.
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He's still surprised he is alive. "We were lucky because we were expecting to be hanged or killed," said Herdoon, an office manager for an import/export fabric company in Manhattan. "No one left that place."

Repression was hardly unusual in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and other leaders. But the Jewish population was singled out for special punishment, including the hanging in 1969 of nine Iraqi Jews on trumped-up spying charges in Baghdad's "Liberation Square."

The persecution has taken its toll, and most Jews have fled Iraq. Their numbers have plummeted from a high of 130,000 in 1948 to as few as 37 today, all but one of them in Baghdad, said Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. In a country where dozens of synagogues flourished decades ago, today just one survives.

Many of Iraq's Jews have landed in New York City and on Long Island, which are home to probably the largest U.S. concentration of Iraqi Jews, Schiffman said. Community members say up to 6,000 live in the tristate area, with the main concentration on Long Island in Great Neck.

"These people were persecuted ... and expelled en masse from their country," Schiffman said. "They lost their property, their money, their fortunes, everything they owned. And some of them were killed."

To help cope with the dislocation, the exiles have founded temples in Great Neck and Jamaica Estates that they say are the only purely Iraqi synagogues in the United States. They've become unifying points for a community that is on the verge of extinction in Iraq after a 2,700-year history.

"Before we had this synagogue I felt lost," said Albert Nassim, 67, a real estate agency owner who is president of the Babylonian Jewish Center on Great Neck Road. But the temple "gave me a sense of pride and belonging."

The synagogue in Great Neck is in a former bank branch that community members bought in 1998. It has become a place where Iraqi Jews share stories of atrocities suffered in their homeland.

Ruth Shashou, 52, said that three decades later, she is still traumatized by the day Saddam Hussein's armed henchmen showed up at her family's home in Baghdad and told her father they needed to talk to him privately. He vanished into a prison for a year.

"We were crying hysterically when they took him," recalled Shashou, a real estate agent who was then 16.

When her father was released, he had to give up his job in the international electronics business because Jews were no longer permitted to work. Two years later, the agents returned and took him away to torture him by beating. Seven hours later, they dumped him back home, where he died within 30 minutes.

It was an increasingly common story in Iraq, where persecution of Jews intensified in the late 1930s as anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda spread in the country, Schiffman said.

After the state of Israel was created in 1948, Iraq temporarily let Jews leave, although they were stripped of their citizenship and property. Some 104,000 Jews were evacuated to Israel in 1949-51. Another 20,000 fled to neighboring Iran.

"It was very clear: This was your chance to get out or you're finished," Schiffman said.

The 6,000 or so who dared to stay met the next wave of repression in the late 1960s, including the Baghdad hangings.

Maurice Shohet, who helped found the synagogue in Jamaica Estates, said he was fired from his job as a transportation company clerk in the late 1960s and barred from attending college. In addition, Jews could not travel more than five miles outside Baghdad, own telephones or open bank accounts.

By 1970, Shohet escaped to Iran through the Kurdish territory, hiring smugglers who sneaked him and some relatives over mountains at night. Shohet, now 52 and a systems management analyst, moved to Israel and in 1981 came to the United States.

Today, he and others, while commiserating about their past suffering, also are celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Herdoon said he will never forget how Hussein and his cronies brutalized him. Prisoners were not given utensils, so guards poured hot porridge and broth into their hands. They were allowed to use the bathroom once a day, and walked atop bricks because the floors were full of human waste.

The toppling of Hussein has helped Herdoon close the worst chapter of his life. "He tortured 24 million Iraqis for 30 years," Herdoon said. "It's a nightmare that's gone forever."

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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