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.

Footnote: Free census access … for awhile! is making all of its US census documents accessible for free for a limited time.

No end date was announced, and the Interactive Census Collection is available to all after a simple registration.

According to, this collection provides a unique ability to connect people related to ancestors found on the historical documents. By clicking the “I’m Related” button for a name on the document will identify you as a descendant and also list others that have done the same.

Click here to get started, and you too may find a record bearing an ancestor’s name and your own personal connection to the past.

Interactive tools on Footnote allow viewers to enhance documents and add photos, stories, comments and other records.

Each contribution from a Footnote member means that people can find each other and connect to exchange information about their mutual ancestors.

Footnote CEO Russell Wilding says, “TV programs including ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on NBC and ‘Faces of America’ on PBS will surely increase the interest in family history in the United States.”

He believes that the interactive census collection is a great way to get started for newcomers to family history research.

If you haven’t checked out recently, there are now 63 million historical records, including military documents, historical newspapers, city directories and naturalization records.

Check out the census collection for free now – you just might find some interesting connections!

Military Jews: 39th Royal Fusileers

My grandfather, Sidney (born Szja) Fink (left) lied about his age and joined the 39th Royal Fusileers, which fought with the British against the Turks in Palestine in 1918.

Steve Lasky of the online Museum of Family History has a link to a great 1919 article from the New York Daily Tribune about the experiences of Reuben Bushmitz, who perhaps knew my grandfather as they served in the same battalion.

Grampa’s experiences are displayed at Bet Hagdudim in Avichail, near Netanya, Israel, where there is a museum dedicated to these young men. Some of them did not return to the US after their service, settled in Avichail, and created the museum.

This story about Bushmitz answered many questions I had about Grampa’s experiences.

One story Grampa told was that during one battle, a voice called out from across the trenches – from the Turkish side – asking “Szja, is that you? This is your cousin David.” I never understood how that was possible. Two Jews from Suchostaw in Galizia (Austro-Hungary at the time), each fighting on opposite sides?

Bushmitz’s story explained about Jews impressed by the Turks to fight in their army. So Grampa’s cousin, who had obviously arrived much earlier in Palestine, was in the Turkish army and fighting the Brits.

Here’s just a bit of the long story:

From the East Side to Jerusalem and Return: Wearers of the “Mogen David” Enlisted in a British Contingent to Fight the Turks

Reuben Bushmitz, of Flat No. 9, 135 Eldridge Street, late private of the 39th Battalion, Royal Fusileers, is going back to cutting knee pants next week. He expects to be a bit rusty at it, because he has been crusading in the Holy Land and against the Turk for considerably more than a year.

Part of the crusading, the last part, wasn’t so interesting, he said. It consisted merely of feeding and exercising a compound full of formerly Terrible Turks who had run themselves ragged for several months up to October, 1918.

More than three hundred crusaders like ex-Private Bushmitz have come back from Turk-taming in the last ten days and will resume knee plants cutting, or delicatessen store keeping, or shipping clerking, just where they left off when some voice which had been silent a couple of thousand years or more called to them to come and free the Holy Land.

The voice was penetrating. It was heard even above the sweatiest of sweatshop machines, and above the assorted whimperings of a dozen children of the noisiest family which ever crowded into three rooms. Young men whose shoulders were on a lateral line with the backs of their heads and whose only exercise had been some footwork on a pants sewing machine, got up, straightened their spines in a tentative style and went out to fight.

The British Canadian Recruiting Mission, then situated at 220 West Forty-second Street, became the objective for these young men who wanted to win back from the infidel the land sacred to Abraham and Isaac and David. …

Do read the entire story.

Thank you, Steve, for this story which explains so much.

Home Again: A faked photo, an orphanage, Part 3

Errol Morris’ investigation of a photograph found on a dead soldier at Gettysburg in 1863 continues in the third installment here. In addition to the text, it is richly illustrated with photographs and documents.

There is something magical and sad about chronicling the history of a man who went more than halfway around the world on a whaling ship and then died (presumably alone) in a small town, a couple of hundred miles from his home.

Morris writes about a fascination with last words. In this story, it is all about last images – as Amos Humiston held the photo of his children. Morris asks:

By looking at the faces of the Humiston children, we can see what Humiston was seeing as he died. Or perhaps they can provide a glimpse of what was in his mind. Does linking his experiences with ours allow us to better know him or only to imagine ourselves as him?

As most genealogists and family historians know – and Morris reminds us – most historical mysteries stay in that state. What is fascinating is that although author Mark Dunkelman could learn so much about this one soldier and his family, there are so many about whom nothing is known.

Dunkelman writes about two cases of soldiers found on the same battlefield and how they were identified.

A Pennsylvanian was identified by a silver medal found clutched in his hand. Another soldier was found missing his hat, shoes, and socks, but inside one of his pockets the burial squad found a gold locket with a photograph of his wife or sweetheart, along with her name and address.

Others were identified by a letter, photo, diary, or other personal item. But it appears no other case resulted in such a major story.

Even before the days of PhotoShop, photos were altered. Through family members, Dunkelman found photos of Humiston before the war; one with a beard, one without, which Bourns had obtained from the widow. Dunkelman says Bourns wanted to issue a photo of him as a soldier, so he had a photo retouched, adding a beard and uniform. The possible reasons are revealed.

The carte-de-viste was sold and funds went to the Orphan’s Homestead as explained on the back of the photo. Bourns wanted to raise money for an orphanage for the children of deceased soldiers. The article goes on to provide information on the Homestead Association, incorporated in 1866, three following Humiston’s death. Bourns was the general secretary, while Humiston’s widow Philinda was a housekeeper and the three children lived at the Homestead.

Philinda eventually married an older man in 1869, and sent for the children. Here, according to the author, the story takes a sinister turn. Stay tuned for Part 4.

Read the complete article at the link above and view the photographs and documents.

Washington DC: Arlington National Cemetery

Marlene Bishow of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington (JGSGW) has provided information on new records added to the group’s website for the “Ken Poch Index of Jews Buried in Arlington National Cemetery” (ANC).

This project is important enough that I have also posted this announcement (and ANC photographs) to the International Jewish Graveyard Rabbit

Bishow is the group’s immediate past president, current ANC project manager, and will co-chair the 31st IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Washington, DC.

Self-proclaimed historian of Jews buried in ANC, Kenneth Poch began the project more than 10 years before his 2003 death. His family donated 12 boxes of his work to the JGSGW.

Based on that research, webmaster Ernie Fine developed the website with a Steve Morse-model search engine. Currently, there are more than 2,600 entries; an additional 600 will go online in January 2009. More than 2,000 grave marker photos (taken by Poch) have been scanned by volunteers and will be added with links to view them online, and new photos will also be added.

Genealogical data is being added to the database using Poch’s data and that of the group’s volunteers. Visitors to the website are encouraged to submit names and additional information about Jews buried in ANC. For the present, the search is limited to the names of the interred.

For more information, click here. To submit information, follow contact page directions.