The US archivist who saved the history of Iraq's Jews

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

image captionThe soldiers who found the documents laid them out in the sun to dry, but they soon began to rot in the Baghdad heat

A flood in a basement underneath the ruins of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service nearly destroyed centuries of history of Iraq's vanished Jewish community. Here is the story of the American archivist who led the effort to rescue the books and papers, enabling their display this week at the National Archives in the US capital.

Three months after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Doris Hamburg received a phone call from Baghdad.

US soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction in the ruins of Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency in Baghdad had discovered a large cache of papers and books in a flooded basement. They didn't know what to do with them and needed expert advice.

As the person in charge of preserving historic documents at the US National Archives in Washington, Hamburg was used to urgent requests for help - particularly during disasters when valuable artefacts and documents were at risk.

But this was unusual. The tens of thousands of water-logged pages in the basement had nothing to do with US history. They were a record of Iraq's vanished Jewish community, including religious texts and public records - some of the last tangible evidence of a 2,500-year-old culture that no longer exists in Iraq.

image captionArriving soon after the US invasion, Doris Hamburg drew on her experience at the National Archives in Washington to help rescue the Jewish documents

Rescued from the basement, the papers were laid out to dry in the sun and then placed in metal trunks. But in Baghdad's heat and humidity they soon began to rot.

With no time to waste, Hamburg flew to Iraq on a military plane. She arrived in June, when the official fighting had ended but the country remained unstable. Within a few months, it would descend into sectarian bloodshed.

"When we first looked at the trunks full of these books and documents, we saw that everything was distorted," she recalls.

"It was very mouldy, the smell was overwhelming and they were in poor condition. But we did have hope because we could see there was a way to preserve and conserve them and that they could be made available over time."

image captionJakob Yusef and Khalda Salih were some of the last Jews left in Iraq when the US invaded in 2003

Amid the confusion and chaos of the early months of Iraq's occupation, Hamburg set up a makeshift office and laboratory in a freezer truck. The documents were frozen to stop further deterioration, and she was able to examine them more closely.

What she discovered was a time capsule of Jewish life in Iraq from the 16th Century to the 1970s - prayer books, philosophical texts, rabbinic commentaries, Israeli children's books, Torah scrolls, and tens of thousands of pages of records from Jewish community councils, synagogues and hospitals.

Some of the books were printed in Baghdad, others were imported from Jewish centres across the Middle East and Europe.

"Even today it gives me goose bumps," says Hamburg.

"These documents provided a connection to a community that was once a key part of life in Iraq. Today there are practically no Jews in Iraq."

Now, the documents are being shown to the public for the first time in an exhibition at the US National Archives, Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.

Most of the material can also be seen online at the Iraqi Jewish Archive, as the archive is now called. In 2014, when the conservation work is completed, the original documents will return to Iraq.

For many centuries Jews had been an integral part of a multi-cultural society in the region. They were part of the middle class, running businesses, teaching in schools, participating in the arts and active in government.

image captionA Passover Haggadah book from 1902 was among the huge haul of documents

But during World War II Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda spread through Iraq.

In 1941 an anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad culminated in the death of 180 Jews. Hundreds more were injured, and Jewish homes and businesses were looted and destroyed.

By the time Saddam Hussein's Baath party came to power in the 1960s, most Iraqi Jews had fled - to Israel and beyond.

"The Jews who left Iraq were able to take very little, so this is of great meaning to them," says Hamburg. "The documents are a connection to a community with a heritage that continues all over the world. They're a piece of that legacy."

Some of the papers, such as school reports and exam cards, are touchingly mundane. Hamburg says she doesn't know what Saddam's regime hoped to learn by confiscating them, but for historians they paint a picture of everyday life for Jews in Iraq.

As the 2003 conflict escalated and with no conservation facilities available, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage agreed to allow the archive to leave the country.

The frozen documents were flown to Fort Worth, Texas, where they were vacuum freeze-dried, a process that froze the water into ice and evaporated it, preventing further damage.

They were then moved to the National Archives conservation centre at College Park, Maryland. For the next ten years, archivists worked to free pages that were stuck together, clean up the water damage and digitise the entire collection.

"This archive highlights the work of the new Iraq," says Iraqi Ambassador to the US Lukman Faily. "It is a message to the world that the new Iraq is recognising the history of different cultures to further better understanding. This project articulates part of that history.

"These artefacts were found in the basement of the intelligence agency - the police state of Saddam Hussein. We are no longer a police state. Our constitution stipulates that citizens of Iraq have all the rights, regardless of their ethnicity or religion."

He says the archive will also give historians a different perspective on the standard narrative that Jews were always oppressed in Iraq.

"That was not the case," he said. "The documents clearly show that they were an integral part of the community."