Fate of Rare Document Trove Remains Unclear as Iraq Regime Takes Charge

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published July 02, 2004, issue of July 02, 2004.
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With political authority in Iraq now formally turned over to a fledgling local government, the fate of a cache of rare and historic Jewish documents rescued by American soldiers from destruction in Baghdad remains up in the air.

“The final disposition is to be determined,” said Doris Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration in College Park, Md.

Hamburg reported last week on the status of the treasure trove of communal records and Jewish holy books at a panel at the 39th annual convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries held at the Marriott hotel in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Included in the collection are parts of a Bible printed in Venice in 1568, pieces of a damaged Torah scroll and rare books on rabbinic law. A 1,400-year-old Talmud, thought to be one of the oldest in the world and believed to have been part of the cache, is missing.

Hamburg told the Forward that the ultimate significance and value of the documents — rescued last year from the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters — can be determined only after a thorough analysis by scholars.

To perform this, the National Archives is looking to find between $1.5 million and $3 million in private donations, she said.

“There are still a lot of things we don’t know” about the documents, she said. The trove represents the legacy of Iraq’s storied Jewish community, which dates to 586 BCE.

The question of whether the trove will be declared Jewish patrimony or will be claimed by an independent Iraq has discouraged potential donors from coming forward, sources close to the project said.

“Until a decision is made on where it’s going to go, it’s unlikely American Jewish philanthropists are going to give money,” said one project source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pearl Berger, outgoing president of the Association of Jewish Librarians and dean of libraries at Yeshiva University, called for open access to the Iraqi Jewish collection and said that the damaged texts must be restored and preserved both physically and digitally.

“We trust that the unique and rare documents, especially records of the Jewish community, will be preserved and made available to the widest possible audience for consultation and research,” she said.

But for now, the texts are literally frozen in time.

The soaking-wet documents were brought to a laboratory in Fort Worth, Texas, and freeze-dried to prevent further deterioration, Hamburg explained.

Pending future funding, the thousands of rare, historic and modern documents eventually will be unfrozen in a procedure that will eliminate the damaging moisture.

The texts were found in early May 2003 by U.S. soldiers from the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, or MET Alpha, according to articles by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was embedded with the unit during the war as they were searching for weapons of mass destruction.

The unit was acting on a tip from the head of the Iraqi secret police’s Israel-Palestinian section, who told of an invaluable seventh-century Talmud hidden in the basement of the Mukhabarat headquarters in downtown Baghdad.

But when they got to the basement, the unit found thousands of documents lying beneath 3 feet of water, said Harold Rhode, a policy analyst with the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon.

Rhode, an Orthodox Jew who speaks Arabic and Hebrew, accompanied the soldiers to assess the value of the texts.

Rhode told the Forward that he found the oldest book identified so far — a 1568 edition of the third section of the Hebrew Bible known as “Writings” or “Ketuvim,” which includes Psalms, Proverbs and the Book of Job.

“I found that on the first day, among a lot of old, interesting stuff,” he said.

Also discovered was a model of the Knesset in Jerusalem, a wall map showing where 39 Iraqi scuds landed in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War (a sign placed nearby asked in Arabic, “Who is going to send off the 40th?”) and a Soviet photograph of Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona, according to the Times.

With the help of former Pentagon protege Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, Rhode arranged for the dirty water to be pumped out so that the records could be salvaged.

The waterlogged texts were taken to a courtyard to begin the drying process. American conservation experts told Rhode the documents needed to be frozen to stop mold, so with the approval of the Iraqi Cultural Ministry they were put in 27 aluminum trunks and stored in a freezer truck until shipped to Texas to be freeze-dried. They are now at a National Archives laboratory.

It appears many of the holy books were confiscated from Iraqi synagogues. Other sacred texts found include a copy of the Book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972, an undated Scroll of Esther, and a Passover Haggada published in Baghdad and edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad.

Perhaps more important, Hamburg said, are the communal records, which can shed light on the rich history of Iraqi Jewry. These include marriage records, financial records, school records and lists of Iraqi Jewish men from the 1920s through 1953.

An estimated 130,000 Jews lived in Iraq before 1948, but many Jews fled Iraq during World War II after riots under a pro-Nazi government. Thousands more escaped in the 1960s after the execution of Jews as spies for Israel and the United States.

There are virtually no Jews left in Iraq today. Most have resettled in Israel, with some in the United States, London and Turkey.

Some basement items may someday find their way to the black market, since it appears they were looted when the army unit left for a day. These include some secret operational files and mock-ups of Israeli government buildings.

Rhode said the issue of ownership of the frozen texts would likely be settled months from now, after Iraq holds general elections.

“Wherever it goes, it is the historical legacy of 3,000 years of Iraqi Jewish community, the overwhelming majority of whose heirs are in Israel,” he recently told Moment magazine.

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