“In July, I met Edwin Shuker at a workshop at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute to confront the destruction of Iraq’s antiquities. Edwin was one of the last Jews to leave Iraq. Despite over 50 years in exile, Iraq remains vividly preserved within his memory.
That is why physical shrines and monuments are important, he said. It is about being able to show his son, who grew up in London, who he is and where he comes from. It is the shrines that provide a connection with the past, that tangibly demonstrate to his son where and how his ancestors once lived, that serve to transmit memories from one generation to another. They bear testimony to the past, proof of the existence of his community — and, by extension, himself.
Iraq’s Jewish heritage is extraordinary. Babylon was the center of Jewish learning, where the Talmud was written. The Baghdad census of 1917 reveals that 40% of the city’s population was Jewish. Following independence, Iraq’s first minister of finance was a Jew, and members of parliament were Jews. Records testify to the contribution of Jews to the cultural life of the capital. The farhud, Edwin said, was a tragic and terrible pogrom, with 180 Jews murdered, but should be seen within the context of centuries of peaceful coexistence.
Last Sunday, a couple of weeks after I first met Edwin, I received an email from him. He referred me to a passage in my book about my time in Iraq. In it, I describe how I was sitting one afternoon with my then-boss, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq General Ray Odierno, and President Masoud Barzani at his home in the mountains of Kurdistan. The conversation drifted to Iraq’s Jews. Barzani told us the story of a meeting he had held a few years ago with a visiting Western politician who had brought along his senior adviser. The adviser had turned to Barzani and said to him: “You may not remember me, but we’ve met before. I was the boy who you helped to escape from Iraq.” Barzani described how everyone had broken down in tears as the adviser recounted his tale.
“I remember that scene so well,” Edwin wrote me. “I am that boy!””