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.

New York: Defining Sephardic identity, Jan. 14

A kick-off event exploring identity in New York’s Sephardic communities will take place at the Next Generation Culture Café of the American Sephardi Foundation (ASF) in January.

“Defining Sephardic: A Roundtable Discussion on Sephardic Identity” begins at 6.30pm, Thursday, January 14.

Moderated by filmmaker and Be-chol Lashon’s New York director Lacey Schwartz, the participants will be:

Zena Babayov: New York University master’s (communications) student and active member of the Bukharan community in Forest Hills, Queens.

Mijal Bitton: Yeshiva University/Stern College junior from Argentina and an active member of the Sephardic Community of Great Neck, Long Island.

Sion Setton: Manhattan’s Safra Synagogue director of youth programming, with Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptian heritage.

Matieu Furster: Software engineer with both Moroccan Sephardi and Russian Ashkenazi heritage.

Admission is free. Light refreshments served. Email reservations or call 212-294-8301 x8356.

This is the first event of a year-long program funded by the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation. ASF also received assistance from the Consulate General of Spain in New York.

For more information, click on the ASF site and see future events.

Israel: ‘Preserving memory’ seminar, Dec. 1

Registration is now open for the Fifth National Seminar, this year under the joint auspices of the Israel Genealogical Society (IGS) and the Jewish Family Research Association (JFRA). The theme is “Preserving Memory: Family and Community.”

The full-day event, from 8.30am registration to the 6pm conclusion, takes place Tuesday, December 1, at Bet Hatefutsoth, on the Tel Aviv University campus.

Readers who have not been to the museum recently will appreciate the beautiful renovation and new wing, permitting all lectures to be on the main level, along with an Aroma Coffee Bar branch (with wi-fi).

Searching for family roots and origins often leads to the discovery of ancestry in an historical perspective, thus revealing multilevel and layered cultural traditions of the community.

This year’s event will focus on methods of preserving the memory of vanished communities in Poland, Galicia, Bukovina, Iraq, Yemen, the FSU, and other locations, even as the cultural and spiritual values of these communities remain alive.

Included topics:

– Writing and publishing Yizkor and Memorial Books.
– Preservation and restoration of historic cemeteries.
– Virtual digital reconstruction of town and communities.
– Preservation of customs, artifacts, crafts and cuisine.
– DNA and genetic research (Kohanim, Leviim, rabbinical lines)

Two simultaneous tracks (English and Hebrew) will follow the (1) opening comments and awards, (2) an introduction to the museum’s databases by database department director Haim Ghiuzeli, and (3) Dr. Lea Haber Gedalia’s presentation, “Reconstruction of Collective Memory: To tell about our Czernowitz (Bukowina).

The English track features:

Prof. Daniel Wagner – Genealogical Database Merging: A tool for the reconstitution of vanished Jewish communities.

Dr. Ida Selvan-Schwarcz – Yizker Bikher (Yizkor Books) as preservers of family and community history.

Dr. Isaac Solomon – The Bene Israel Community of India.

Rose Feldman – Building a virtual site for a place that no longer exists.

Tova Waks – The Rejowiec Congregation in Israel: Memory of the home town.

Dr. Racheli Kriesberg – Genealogical mapping of the Wiesenthal family: Skala (Galicia, 19th century. (Kriesberg is the granddaughter of the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

The Hebrew track features:

Dr. Victor Hayoun – The genealogical reconstruction of the Nabeul, Tunisia Jewish community.

Orly Shtettiner – Siedlce (Poland) – An extinct community becomes a target for yearning.

Hanna Kochavi – The silver spoon: Commemorating family through objects.

Rachel Silko – The story of the Sasson families in Iraq and Israel.

Dr. Ruth Marcus – Once upon a time, there was a shtetl called Lunna.

Sara Weiss-Slep – Duesetos (Dosiat, Lithuania) Jewish community will be forever remembered.

Also simultaneous with the English and Hebrew tracks will be workshops, not yet publicly detailed, although Tracing the Tribe knows that Daniel Horowitz (of will be participating.

The seminar ends with a joint Hebrew presentation by Avraham Sfadia,”From Aram Tsoba to Diaspora: Assimilation of Tradition, Identity and Heritage,” and seminar concluding remarks.

Click here for the speakers’ bios and abstracts. The Hebrew track bios and abstracts are not available in English, but readers may use Google Translate for a reasonable, if rough, translation into English or other languages.

The English registration form is here. Until November 15, registration is NIS 60 for members of IGS and JFRA, NIS 100 for others. Prices go up November 16 to NIS 80 and NIS 120.

Tracing the Tribe encourages readers in Israel, or those who plan to be visiting at that time, to register for the seminar. Seating capacity is limited for some events, so quick registration is suggested.

New York: ‘Bagdad to Bombay,’ April 29

Author Pearl Sofaer (“Baghdad to Bombay: In the Kitchens of My Cousins”) will share the stories and recipes of her family, at 6.30pm, Wednesday, April 29, at the Center for Jewish History (CJH).

A colorful culinary journey – a testimony to keeping a culture alive!

Pearl Sofaer – author, painter, sculptor, singer – was born and grew up in Bombay. Her large family originated in Baghdad and Kirkuk, Iraq, before migrating to Burma and India during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the partition of India in 1947, most of her family moved to the four corners of the globe.

Their rich and diverse cultural heritage is reflected in their kitchens, which they generously opened to their cousin, who has woven the threads of a diverse family into a rich tapestry of cuisine.

For early arrivals to the event, there is a 5.45pm tour of the new exhibit of Yeshiva University Museum – “From Malabar and Beyond: The Jews of India” – a glimpse into the rich culture of Indian Jews through photographs and artifacts of ritual and daily life.

The event is free for American Sephardi Federation members; others, $5.

Founded in 1973, the American Sephardi Federation with Sephardic House promotes and preserves the spiritual, historical, cultural and social traditions of all Sephardic communities to assure their place as an integral part of Jewish heritage with its Sephardic Library & Archives, an exhibition gallery, educational and cultural public programs, The Sephardi Report, the International Sephardic Film Festival, and a scholarship fund for Sephardic scholars.

The CJH is at 15 W. 16th Street, New York City.

India: The Koder family of Cochin

Kochi (formerly Cochin) in southern India’s Kerala region has a surprise for tourists, according to this story. Grand mansions built during the colonial period – when Portuguese and Dutch traders ruled Fort Cochin – are being converted ito tourist homes.

The Iraqi Jewish Koder family built Koder House in 1905 [Note: the date is different in some sources], although the family came to India in the early 1800s, during a wave of Baghdadi immigration. Today it is owned by Vicky Raj, who wants locals and the tourists to know about the house’s heritage.

The three-story heritage boutique hotel is opposite the beach at Fort Kochi. Until recently, it belonged to the Koders, the most illustrious Cochin Jewish family. Their home had hosted presidents, prime ministers, viceroys, ambassadors and prominent dignitaries, and their Friday night “open house” dinners were legend.

It was built by merchant Samuel Koder, who constructed it across three floors – one for each of his sons. However, business took the sons far away, until only Satu Koder and his wife Gladys remained. Their daughter Queenie still lives in Jews Street and sold the house to the present owners. Her husband, Sammy Hallegua, is the warden of the Jewish Synagogue, as was her father (for 40 years).

According to the story, the Portuguese design home is believed to have been structured and gabled in Europe, then shipped to Cochin. Its windows are said to be made of Belgian-imported glass.

The Koders emigrated to Cochin from Iraq a few centuries ago. Samuel Koder ran the Cochin Electric Company which was eventually sold to the government.
Also, the Koders had a huge chain of department stores across Kerala, which too, were sold. The stores stocked everything from molasses to pins and flourished. The Koders could be relied on to stock luxury goods such as alcoholic beverages from the UK, fine clothes, and chandeliers from Europe. The owners, of course were like mini royalty.

As Samuel Koder was the honorary consul to the Netherlands, the Dutch ambassadors visited the house often. He also began the Freemasons’ organization in Cochin.
In its heyday under the Koders, the house was known for its famous Friday Open houses. This was a big event on the Cochin social calendar. Though informal, anticipation of the event would build up in mid-week itself. It became a focal point of the Raj literati, glitterati and any one who wished to meet the Koders or know about Indian Jewish lifestyle. Visitors could be as many as 45, or just a handful – among them ambassadors, celebrities or heads of state! Conversation and food was the order of the day.

The New York Times travel section carried a story on Kerala and mentioned Koder House here.

In fact, most of Fort Cochin’s new hotels have stories. The all-suite Koder House on the waterfront, is the former residence of one of the city’s most prominent Jewish families. …

To explore the other historic district, Mattancheri, take a 10-minute autorickshaw to Jew Town. At the synagogue, built in 1568, leave your shoes at the door, not for religious reasons, but to protect the 200-year-old, handpainted Chinese floor tiles. The youngest of the 13-member congregation, a 34-year-old woman, took the 2-rupee admission and answered questions (“No, we don’t have a rabbi”).

Read the complete stories at the links above.