Iraq: Jewish archive’s return sought

Iraq wants its Jewish archive returned. What should be done? And who owns the materials?

Washington Post story, by Glenn Kessler, quotes well-known Jewish genealogist and former Defense Department official Harold Rhode was in Baghdad when the archive was found in a basement “floating in three feet of sewage water” in the Mukhabarat, the secret police headquarters, as a result of bombed pipes.

“They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years,” said Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. “It is time for our property to be repatriated.”


A high-level Iraqi delegation, led by Deputy Culture Minister Taher al-Humoud, met Thursday with senior State Department officials to press for the return of the artifacts.


But others, including many involved in saving the materials, say that they belong to the Jews who fled, or their descendants — many of whom live in Israel.

The Jewish archive contained Torah scrolls, Haggadas, marriage records, university applications, financial documents – the records of a community taken by the secret police from Jewish homes as the community fled the country under pressure and persecution. Many went to Israel or the US, while thousands also went to Teheran, until Iran’s revolution again forced them to move.

What should be done with these materials?

The soaked documents, some 3,500 tagged items, were taken out of the country with a vague promise of return after restoration. Today, they are stabilized (although with mold) in a Maryland office building, and the Iraqi government wants them back.

“I don’t see any reason for it to go back to Iraq, because if it is the patrimony of the Jewish community of Iraq, then wherever they are it’s theirs,” Harold Rhode, a former Defense Department official, told the Jerusalem Post last month. “When they left, they would have taken it with them had they been able to take it with them. You don’t abandon Torahs.”

The State Department doesn’t dispute Iraq’s claim. NARA takes no position on who owns them, but says the items need much more preservation work, and spent less than $1 million on stabilizing the materials.

The agency’s staff members recently completed an item-by-item assessment and are in the final stages of estimating the cost of a full preservation, including digitizing images of the pages. An NARA estimate in 2003 pegged the cost at $1.5 million to $3 million.

Sumaidaie said he thinks the items are stable enough so that no “further damage or decay can take place” and that Iraq can handle additional restoration.

Rhode, in Iraq at the time, received help from Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who provided equipment. At first, the material was placed to dry in the sun, but when Rhode learned that freezing kills mold, they were placed in a refrigerator truck. When Natan Sharansky and Vice President Cheney got involved, things moved quickly.

Eventually, and with the approval of the remnants of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the materials were taken to Texas, freeze-dried and transferred to Maryland for preservation and restoration. According to the State Department, when the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, it gave the Ministry of Culture the right to demand the documents’ return.

A former senior Pentagon official, during George W. Bush’s term, Dov. S. Zakheim is opposed to returning the items.

Sumaidaie said Iraq would consider individual claims for the documents but that giving them to descendants is “not for us a matter for dispute or discussion.” He also said that the documents would be made available in Iraq to researchers.

If NARA completes preservation and digitization of the items, that means copies of these precious records would be available to Iraqi Jews and their descendants outside of Iraq.

What do you think?
— Return them now although restoration is incomplete?
— Complete the restoration, digitize, keep copies and return them?
— Not return the materials?
— Make sure Jewish Iraqis and their descendants receive their records?

Read the complete story at the link above.

Spain: A visit to Girona

A visit to Girona detailed in the Washington Post brought back wonderful memories of several visits.

Although a general travel article, there are a few paragraphs focused on the Call, the Jewish quarter, the scene of murder, mayhem and forced conversions in 1391, and whose residents were finally expelled in 1492.

The story, and the accompanying photo gallery, are well worth a look.

It covers the important things and the wonderful things.

The story reminds visitors about the Jewish quarter’s medieval cobblestoned steep stone steps and walkways which are difficult to maneuver if a visitor has any mobility issues. Wear good supportive sneakers or mountain-climbing sandals in appropriate weather; and do remember that stone is slippery in wet weather.

If you arrive by train – a short ride from Barcelona – take a cab up the steep hill, although some travel advisors say it is a quick walk. Don’t believe it. On our first trip there, we were advised that one could walk it. Tracing the Tribe took one look at the terrain and grabbed the first cab we saw. It was an excellent decision.

Once you’re on top, navigation isn’t too difficult, although there are so many lovely alleys, back streets and more – sometimes with a glimpse of private gardens – that only foot power can reach, and it would be a shame to miss them. The Nachmanides Center/Jewish Museum also offers various walking tours and occasionally these include private houses and gardens. I just learned that there’s now a two-hour Segway tour – what a great idea!

Every May, Girona celebrates Temps de Flors. This year, it’s May 8-16. Private homes and gardens are open to visitors. It’s the perfect time to visit Girona.

The Post story covers the central plaza, the cathedral and its old city plaza, great restaurants, wonderful views, the sense of history in every corner of the old city, tradition oozing from each stone.

It is easy to imagine what the Call might have looked like 500 years ago. It is also easy to understand how its Jewish residents felt during certain Catholic holidays when they were forced to remain barricaded inside their homes for fear of the mobs, during the tragic events of 1391 which decimated most Jewish communities across Spain, and in the period leading up to the their ultimate expulsion in 1492 and their hurried departure.

The Girona Archives are particularly rich in Jewish content, and several books providing collections of documents have been published. The museum bookstore should have copies – that’s where I purchased mine.

The restoration of the Call began in the 1980s, when the mayor (also a historian) rediscovered the ancient Jewish quarter, began the reconstruction of medieval buildings and made other changes.

Although no organized Jewish community exists today, there are some families who live there today and get together for holidays. Tracing the Tribe visited the Girona families several years ago and learned that they represent diverse origins and professions. Most are connected in some way to Atid, Barcelona’s Progressive congregation.

The stones of silence remain to be discovered by today’s visitors.

If you go, don’t forget to visit the Jewish museum, bookstore and other locations. Click here for more information on events in the Call, which even has a Facebook page.

While the Nachmanides Institute has an excellent library covering diverse subjects, genealogy – unfortunately – is not high on their priority list. When I was visiting the library several years ago, I met a family from New York searching their roots and although nothing much was in the library (except an outdated list of gen contacts), I was able to assist them with resources.

Today, searching online the Institute’s library catalogue for “genealogy,” only three results are found: A 1999 Avotaynu, the 1977 edition of Dan Rottenberg’s “Finding Our Fathers,” and the 2002 first edition of Jeff Malka’s “Sephardic Genealogy.”

See a future Tracing the Tribe post with some specific Sephardic genealogy sources, some are little-known outside of Spain.

California: Yosemite’s Jewish past

As regular readers will remember, Tracing the Tribe recently visited the town of Bendigo – north of Melbourne, Australia. It was the center of that area’s Gold Rush, and many Jews arrived there to join in.

In the US, the mid-1800s Gold Rush was centered in the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Country. This was also a magnet for Jews, whether as prospectors or as providers of goods and services for the miners.

Image above left is Yosemite Park.

The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles has an interesting article on Yosemite’s Jewish past and present by Elyse Glickman.

Yosemite even has a Jewish park ranger, Scott Gediman of North Hollywood, although the nearest synagogues are more than an hour away in Stockton and Fresno. He says he’s always wanted to be a park ranger, that isn’t that difficult to be Jewish there for a young Jewish family.

Back in 1978, the Jewish Sentinel published a historic account written by Norton B. Stern, summarizing Jewish life in the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa County, the epicenters of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s.

Although their numbers were small, Jewish immigrants (mostly from Central Europe, though a few came from France and Bavaria) built their fortunes through dry goods and clothing businesses that in turn provided much-needed supplies, services and necessities for miners and others settling into the West. Many of the Jewish residents were also simultaneously active in politics and civil posts in townships dotting the area — including Bear Valley, Coulterville, Hornitos, Agua Fria and Mariposa.

The short but fact-filled 30-year-old article was sourced in the archives of the Mariposa Museum and History Center, a spot small on space but rich in substance. The prolific collection of Gold Rush-era artifacts is organized thematically and exhaustively catalogued in a way that brings textbook American history into three dimensions.

According to Gediman:

Read the complete story at the link above.

“Today, there is a fairly big Jewish population in Stockton and Modesto, and during the late 1800s, Jewish families served as early concessionaires to miners before settling in those places,” Gediman said. “Before the federal government came to California, Jewish pioneers ran some of the stores, hotels, photography businesses, souvenir stores and things like that. Though many of these businesses are long gone, they made their mark on history.”

New York: Non-Jewish research in Jewish resources, May 13

Looking for new research resources? “Non-Jewish Research in Jewish Resources” is set for Thursday, May 13 at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s new location.

David M. Kleiman, president of Heritage Muse, is the speaker. The program starts at 5.30pm at 36 West 44th Street, 7th floor, in New York City.

Explore resources from around the world for Eastern and Western European research, often available for free.

Discover the research aids, books, and online content most often associated with the world of Jewish genealogy. These tools can open extensive research avenues for families of all faiths. Find surprising connections and general research sources in 17th-century colonial, and revolutionary American material, through to late 20th century immigration and burial data.

Publisher, researcher, folklorist and popular educator, Kleiman has been involved in family history works for more than 35 years. As president of Heritage Muse, Inc. and co-founder/chair of the NY Computers and Genealogy Special Interest Group. he is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and the Genealogical Speakers Guild, and serves on the Executive Council of the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York.

In 2009, he took on the duties of curator for the new Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue (Newport, Rhode Island), overseeing an extensive exhibit on the synagogue’s history, Colonial Newport, and the founding of America’s First Constitutional Amendment on Freedom of Religion. His company built the web site for both the Visitors Center and the sponsoring George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.

Heritage Muse is a New York City digital publishing and research firm offering historical, genealogical, and design services to individuals, foundations, museums and corporations.

Fee: NYG&B members, $25; others, $40.

Visit the NYG&B website for more information and registration.