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.

Maryland: Ashkenazi genetics, March 7

Gary Frohlich will present “Whatever you wanted to know about Ashkenazi Jewish diseases,” at the next meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington, on Sunday, March 7.

The program is at B’nai Israel Congregation, in Rockville, Maryland. It begins at 1pm with networking, registration and a business meeting. Frohlich’s talk begins at 2pm.

A certified genetics counselor, he is senior medical affairs liaison for Genzyme Therapeutics.

The goals are to discuss the “founder effect” among Ashkenazim and learn about 11 common genetic conditions. According to Frohlich:

“During the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jewish communities were driven from England, France and Germany and migrated to eastern Europe, settling primarily in modern-day Poland, Lithuania and Russia, Ashkenazi Jews tended to select marriage partners from within their own community, which played a role in limiting genetic diversity.”

Many European Jews did not have surnames until various countries required them, in some cases as late as the early 1800s.

Frohlich will provide up-to-date information on genetic conditions which occur more frequently in Jews of Ashkenazi descent. Each can be devastating to the individuals and their families.

The program will explore the diagnosis, management and treatment of these conditions with a focus on the most common, Gaucher disease. Approximately one in 850 people may have Gaucher, and the carrier rate is approximately 1 in 16. Gaucher disease is two and a half times more common than Tay-Sachs.

A genetics counselor for more than 35 years, Frohlich has advised more than 26,000 couples and authored scientific articles and pamphlets on Ashkenazi genetic conditions.

He holds a BA in Biology (New York University), and a MS in Human Genetics and Genetics Counseling (Rutgers University).

Those who plan to attend the program can submit their surname (original name in Europe or elsewhere) and Frohlich will check its connection to the Founders Effect. Only submit the surname, no personal information. He will use submitted names to illustrate his presentation. Send surnames prior to the meeting.

Fee: JGSGW members, free; others, $5.

For more details, including directions, click here.

Sources for additional genetic information:

Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium:
Gene Tests:
National Society of Genetic Counselors:
Gaucher Disease:

Maryland: Snowmageddon mapping madness, Feb. 17

Are you considering using a dog sled team or cross-country skis to get around these days in Maryland?

Perhaps the white stuff will melt enough for you to attend this mapping madness program with Ron Arons, at a meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington, on Wednesday, February 17.

The event begins at 8pm, in the Tikvat Israel Synagogue sanctuary, 2200 Baltimore Road, Rockville.

“How to find anyone, anywhere, anyhow by using the latest in online mappnig, tracking and detecting techniques,” is the title of Ron Aron’s program. Ron’s a New York native who lives in San Francisco.

The program includes the basics of Google and Microsoft’s net-based mapping sites –,, and more advanced functionality, as well as other useful tools as, Microsoft’s MapCruncher, IBM’s Many Eyes and more.

Things change so quickly in this field and Ron keeps up-to-date with all the new innovations.

He is the author of “Jews of Sing Sing” and his new book, “Wanted! US Criminal Records.” Since losing both his parents nearly two decades ago, he became interested in understanding his roots, and has traced his families to England, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. For more about Ron, see his website.

He’s a frequent speaker at many genealogy societies and conferences.

Fee: JGSGW members, free; others, $5.

For more details, click here.

Maryland: University to drop Yiddish

Yiddish is on the budget chopping block at the University of Maryland.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the language, Yiddish dates to the 11th century and those Jews who settled along the Rhine River. It is written with Hebrew characters, uses German grammar and structure and its vocabulary incorporates German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic.

While the 1,000-year-old language of Ashkenazi Jews has survived the likes of Hitler and Stalin, the switch to Hebrew in modern Israel and the assimilation of immigrants to America, there are few universities that offer it (Brandeis, Harvard, Columbia and a few others).

Not to get too far off track, but Tracing the Tribe believes it is even harder to find a Ladino course – anywhere – for today’s generation of Sephardic students. No matter the language – Yiddish or Ladino – it is a shame to lose any part of one’s heritage!

But in Maryland, funding is the problem.

I’m sad that our family lost both Yiddish and Russian in 1905, when my great-grandmother proclaimed to her children that they were now Americans and must speak English. While Yiddish remained the family’s “house” (and community) language and my grandmother and her siblings were fluent, my mother was fluent as a child but gradually – through disuse – lost her ability to speak it. She understood it, but answered questions in English. Our generation knows even less and is familiar only with a relatively small number of words that we use correctly.

I’ve had the opportunity to take an elementary Yiddish class and also a beginning Russian class, so perhaps I recognize more than most, but nothing near the level I’d like to have achieved.

Growing up in New York City, of course, many Yiddish words are part of New York-speak, and many immigrants of other ethnicities don’t know the origin of words they may use every day.

This Baltimore Sun story by Matthew Hay Brown covers the University of Maryland situation.

At the University of Maryland, which has stood alongside Harvard and Columbia as one of the nation’s few schools to consistently offer instruction in the Germanic tongue, the recent announcement that the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies would be dropping it in the fall shocked area enthusiasts.

“U- Maryland has had the biggest commitment to Yiddish as a language anywhere in a hundred-mile radius,” says Harvey Spiro, president of Yiddish of Greater Washington, which organized a letter-writing campaign. “We’re not a particularly political organization, but this kicked us in the gut.”

The center now has cobbled together the money to pay its longtime instructor through the next academic year. But after that, director Hayim Lapin says, it is unlikely to continue funding a full-time faculty member dedicated to the language.

Said Lapin, it isn’t about the language but about the budget crisis resulting in fewer visiting faculty, less Bible, less history and less or no Yiddish.

Born in postwar Germany where Yiddish was her first language, Professor Miriam Isaacs has taught elementary and intermediate Yiddish at Maryland for 15 years:

“We’re at a critical point in that the generation of Holocaust survivors, my parents, they’re not around anymore,” she says. “Or if they’re around, they can’t do a lot of translating. So if nobody learns it, you know, the Holocaust Museum archive is full of Yiddish materials. The University of Maryland has been acquiring Yiddish books galore. Who is going to read them? Who is going to be able to have access to them?”

And what about those Yiddishisms currently in use in English? Spiro says that because so many comedians used the words, people believe the language is funny or for dirty jokes, while he says, that isn’t his Yiddish:

“The Yiddish that I read and the Yiddish I speak is a language for everyday communication. I read novels in Yiddish. I read the Yiddish newspaper.”

Yiddish culture incorporated an active press, popular theater and literature – it wasn’t just the world of Borscht Belt comedians. World War II decimated Yiddish speakers. Prior to the Holocaust, there were some 11 million speakers. Half were killed, others lost in pogroms and immigration. Today fewer than 2 million live in mainly Orthodox communities in a few cities.

However, in some communities, it is considered a way for today’s generation to connect with their heritage. In Poland, the US and in Israel, there are language programs and summer institutes to help them learn.

Isaacs says that, at Maryland, mostly Jewish students register. These include students who have Yiddish-speaking relatives and want to see it remain alive. She says the intensive elementary fall course fills, but a much smaller number continue with the spring intermediate class.

The language has fallen victim to budget problems derived from lower returns on endowments. The center is trying to at least schedule the classes on a per-course basis for those interested. According to experts quoted in the story, Hebrew is required in a serious Jewish studies program, although Yiddish isn’t, but should be.

On the other hand, for Sephardim, it is even harder to find a Ladino course than for Ashkenazi to find Yiddish courses.

Read the complete story at the link above.

Washington DC: Brickwall Q&A, Jan. 10

Stuck at a brick wall in your quest? Each of us finds ourself in this situation at some time in our research.

For those in the Greater Washington DC area, the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington has scheduled a comprehensive “brick wall” question and answer session on Sunday, January 10, 2010.

The day starts with networking at 1pm, followed by a business meeting and the Q&A session at Congregation Beth El (Bethesda, Maryland).

The plan is to have several “area” desks available – each supported by an expert in a particular area of research – to answer your questions. The mavens (experts, Yiddish) will seek to cover as many areas of research as members want to ask about.

Email your questions in advance so experts will be ready to answer them at the session.

Fee: JGSGW members, free; others, $5. See the JGSGW site for more information and directions.