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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

The Non-European Sephardic Holocaust Experience

A Lecture by Shelomo Alfassa

Keynote Speaker at the Yom HaShoá, Holocaust Day Memorial
For the Staten Island, N.Y. Jewish Community
Sunday, April 29, 2007

(Post-event newspaper article here)

As Jews, we are a people that are-and must always be-on watch for revisionists, both great and small, that seek to challenge world history. We must be overseers that will ensure that the true events our ancestors experienced (both good and bad), either in the last few decades, or in the last few millennium, remain as fact.

The topic I was asked to speak about tonight is one you may have never heard of. It is about a pogrom that took place during the era of the Holocaust, an event simply known by the Arabic word for "violent dispossession," -Farhud. The word Farhud, denotes the breakdown of law and order, where life and property are in peril.

But before we talk about what the Farhud was, I would like to tell you a bit about the Jewish community of Baghdad, of the period. Baghdad--we see it on the nightly news, a city of death and destruction, civil and tribal war that has no foreseeable end. But Baghdad wasn't always like this.

Baghdad has had a Jewish community for over 2,500 years, long before Islam was even invented. Modern Baghdad, during the post-Ottoman period possessed a strong Jewish community, vibrant is the word that is frequently attributed to it. The Jews of Baghdad were truly leaders in the commerce of the city as well as the country. The Jews owned and operated railroads, they operated the banks, trucking companies, electronics firms, hospitals, retail and wholesale establishments. When one thinks of Baghdad's Jewish community, they should think no less than how "Jewish" New York was during the same period.


While the entire Jewish world has heard of Kristallnacht, few have heard of the Farhud, where Arabs that were Nazi sympathizers in Baghdad, killed, maimed and committed numerous atrocities against the Jewish community on Sunday and Monday, June 1st and 2nd, 1941, during the holiday of Shavuot.

The story is told, clearly, in Edwin Black's book, Banking on Baghdad:

Some Jews had gone to the Baghdad airport to greet the Regent, Abdul al-Ilah, the British empowered ruler of Iraq. Their returning from the airport was all the excuse an Arab mob needed to unleash its vengeance. The attack began at 3 pm, as the Jewish delegation crossed a bridge back into Baghdad. The frenzied mob murdered Jews openly on the streets. Women were raped and infants were killed as their horrified families looked on. Torture and mutilation followed. Jewish shops were looted and torched. A synagogue was invaded, burned, and its Torahs destroyed in classic Nazi fashion.

As a result of the Farhud, about 180 Jews were killed and about 240 were wounded, 586 Jewish-owned businesses were looted and 99 Jewish homes were destroyed.

Some scholars, including Dr. Zvi Yehuda of Israel's Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, conclude that the Farhud was formally organized by Muslim national-religious groups, influenced by Nazi and Palestinian anti-Jewish activity. In addition, he indicates that it was also planned and directed in order to crush the large Jewish community in Baghdad, which constituted about two thirds of all the Jews of Iraq in that period. This one Holocaust era pogrom, marked the beginning of the end for Iraqi Jewry, who, following this event, were targeted for violence, persecution, boycotts, confiscations, and near complete expulsion, poverty and helplessness a decade later.


Now that I provided you an overview on the Farhud, I would like to touch on some additional thoughts-as I want people to see the big picture here. The following is directly related to the plight of Sephardic Jewry during the Holocaust, much of it was newly researched by Mr. Black.

The Anglo-Persian oil company was founded in 1909 following the discovery of a large oil field in Iran. You know this same company by its new name-British Petroleum. The British created the Arab nations for oil, and in doing so, promised the Arabs the holy city of Damascus, which they desired. Yet, on July 24, 1920, it was announced Arabs would not get Damascus-in response, some 8,000 Arabs, on camels, attempted to invade Damascus, only to be totally annihilated within eight hours by French machine guns. That same day, July 24, 1920, the secret San Remo Oil Agreement became public. This placed Palestine and Iraq under British mandate and the newly partitioned Syria and Lebanon under French mandate. That same day, July 24, 1920, the Zionist Conference concluded in London; during the conference the Zionists created Karen Hayesod to support the Jewish National Fund. The fund would legally purchase lands for kibbutzim and finance the formation of new Jewish villages in Palestine.

That same day, July 24, 1920, is when jihad against the West started-and as you know-it continues today. On that day, July 24, 1920, the Arabs felt they lost everything. The Jews had gained Palestine; the West had gained their oil; they had lost Syria. Three evils "the infidel European Allies, the infidel Zionists, and the black substance the West craved" became conflated in the Arab mind to create a great Satan-the intertwined Christian West and the Zionistic Jews.

Subsequently, in the years leading up to the Holocaust, the Grand Mufti, the Islamic leader of Jerusalem and the Arab world, worked hand in hand with Hitler to seek the Arab nationalism which the British didn't give them. At the time, the Germans needed oil for their invasion of Russia. And the mufti would agree to provide the Germans with Iraqi oil, in exchange for active Arab and Islamic participation in the murder of Jews in the Mideast and Eastern Europe.

Black stated, "Once war began, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company followed Nazi Germany across Europe." He continued: "The Iranians took advantage of the expansion of Germany to expand their distributing network in Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia."

There is an old slogan that says an army travels on its stomach, but in reality, an army travels on oil. The gasoline the Nazis used in their trucks to round up Jews, the oil in the trucks that evacuated Jews to the rail lines that stretched to death camps, and the fuel used to heat the cold winter offices of the Third Reich, was in part, directly made available to them because of a relationship that existed between the Germans and the Islamic Persian nation, today's world enemy, Iran.


Because history books are not as frequently updated as they should be, and because almost all books on the Holocaust focus almost exclusively on the European experience, I would like to tell you ten short but critical facts that you may not know took place during the era of the Holocaust. As I always say-and I hope you will say it too-we need to remember that the Holocaust was not solely a European event:

1. In 1937, Damascus was the center for anti-Jewish activities in the Arab world. That year, a Nazi delegation went to Syria where a friendship developed that would lead to intensified anti-Jewish sentiment, especially among both German and Arab youth. It was from Damascus that the Arab Defense Council wrote the Jewish Agency warning them: "Your attitude will lead you and Jews of the East to the worst of calamities that has been written in history up to present."

2. Hitler's Mein Kampf was translated into four different Arabic translations and circulated between 1933-1939 in Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo and Berlin.

3. The Mufti and Rashid Ali, the leader of Iraq, were known to give Arabic language broadcasts relayed from Berlin, these were to incite the Iraqi Arabs. The Mufti's radio broadcasts were some of the most violent pro-Axis broadcasts ever produced. He had at least six stations, Berlin, Zeissen, Bari, Rome, Tokyo and Athens. He used these radio broadcasts to tell Muslims across the world to commit acts of sabotage and kill the Jews.

4. Hitler had made it clear that the project of killing Jews was by no means confined to Europe. As he explained to the Grand Mufti, "his hopes of military victory in Africa and the Middle East would bring about the destruction of Jews in the Arab World." In November of 1941 Hitler informed the Mufti, while at Berlin, that he intended to kill every Jew living in the Arab world, including those in Palestine as well as "Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Arabian peninsula, Egypt, and French Northwest Africa."

5. On November 28, 1941, Hitler had a long conversation with the Mufti indicating the countries of Europe were being emptied of Jews, one by one; Hitler indicated that at the appropriate time, this would be extended to "non-European countries."

6. October 5, 1943, the Mufti arrived in Frankfort, Germany visiting the Research Institute on the Jewish Problem where he declared that Arabs and Germans were, "Partners and allies in the battle against world Jewry."

7. In 1943, the Mufti traveled to Bosnia, where he helped to raise a Bosnian Muslim Waffen-SS Hanjar, who slaughtered 90 percent of the Jews in Bosnia…Other Bosnian Muslim units raised by the Mufti were sent to Croatia and Hungary, where they participated in the killing of Jews.

8. In March 1944, from Berlin, the Mufti called for the Arabs to rise and fight. He said, "Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history and religion."

9. It was said the Mufti visited not only Auschwitz but also Maldanek. In both death camps, he paid close attention to the efficiency of the crematorium, spoke to the leading personnel and was generous in his praise for those who were reported as particularly conscientious in their work. He was on friendly terms with such notorious practitioners of the "final solution" as Rudolf Hess, the overlord of Auschwitz.

10. In 1945, liberated Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito sought to indict the Mufti as a war criminal for his activities in Bosnia, but with help from the Nazi SS, the Mufti had already escaped Germany. The SS gave him a plane and helped him fly to France three days before Hitler's suicide.

Oh-I have one more you might find interesting: Number 11., Amin Al-Huseini, the Grand Mufti--was the uncle of Yassar Arafat.


Many of you have heard of the "Sephardic experience" during the Holocaust. Yet, this topic usually only involves the Sephardim in Europe, and this is not a complete picture.

On the eve of World War II, the European Sephardic community was concentrated in the Balkan countries of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. Its leading centers were in Salonika, Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Sofia. Every one of these countries were home to Ladino speaking Sephardim. These were the later descendants of Jews that had fled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. They had settled in these countries, which then were part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Although Turkey was not harmed during WWII, many Turkish Jews thought they might be-and so they fled to France-only to be deported to crematoriums with the French Jews. The Ladino language, and the complete Hispano-Sephardic culture was wiped out after the Germans destroyed these communities, murdering over 140,000 souls. There was no recovery of these old communities, and the language has essentially become extinct.

What many of you have not heard, is that Hitler's dark hand reached across from Europe, stretched into North Africa, and, as you now know, reached as far as the Middle-East.

In North Africa, about 5,000 Jews were uprooted from their homes, thousands were drafted into forced labor internment camps. Some Jews were deported to Italy and died in extermination camps in Europe. The Jewish quarter of Benghazi, Libya was sacked and 2,000 Jews were deported.

Under Axis and Vichy rule in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, & Libya, Jews were denied rights granted to them during colonial rule, including citizenship. Economic restrictions were imposed and Jews were sent to forced labor camps where many perished. The Jewish prisoners were dispersed over 30 camps, which for all practical purposes were no different from concentration camps. During this period, the Great Synagogue in Tunis, was taken over by the Nazis and used as a horse stable, just like the main synagogue in Krakow.

The following is part of a letter sent in August of 1942, by Jewish prisoners trapped under Spanish and German troops in Morocco. This letter was sent to a Jewish agency in New York:

Gentlemen, please excuse our daring attitude in addressing this pathetical letter to you, in our distressful hour; but it is written in the Talmud, 'when trouble comes upon Israel like a rushing stream, look for someone to help you.' Gentlemen, we Hebrew refugees: composed of several nationalities: and a good many of us without nationality on account of anti-Semitism…have all lived in peace, and never been disturbed in Tangier before, some of us have settled down for the time being. Praying and patiently waiting, that this bitter world conflict should be over, and redemption, should once more come to mankind….We are all aware that the greatest catastrophe is [rapidly] approaching us here….Please Gentleman, hear for us our causes! We send this S.O.S. to you, for we feel you are our only consolation, in our present confused situation…

It's not known what happened to those prisoners. What is known, is that on November 4, 1942, a German truck convoy deported Jews from Morocco to the death camps of Europe. This happened again on March 23, 1943, June 23, 1943, October 7, 1943, and another convoy of Jewish souls departed Morocco on January 20, 1944.

By November 7, 1942, there were 5 different camps in Algeria, all together they held 4,470 persons, including 489 which were Jews. On November 13, 1942, a Jewish Agency report on the situation of Jews in North Africa indicated that the occupation by Spanish military forces at Tangiers led to the introduction of anti-Jewish laws being put into effect. This affected some 20,000 Jews. The condition of the Jews there is said to be, "poverty-stricken in the extreme." In February of 1943, an American reported that "concentration camps" existed in Morocco. The report indicated that the situation has "deteriorated seriously in the past two months."

Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum shows a total of 17 slave labor concentration camps in North Africa: 3 in Morocco, 3 in Algeria, 7 in Tunisia, and 4 in Libya. There, some of the prisoners were tortured and murdered. Other internees worked as slaves in the desert building the Trans-Sahara railway.


We Americans so enshrine the printed word, that anything said, is accepted as fact. Yet, while facts don't change, sometimes later research will reveal more knowledge on a particular topic that need be introduced, and will thus cause history books to be updated. This includes the topic of the Holocaust, and that it was not solely a European phenomena. As you can now see, Hitler had planned to kill all Jews-everywhere.

The teaching of the Holocaust is absolutely incomplete, if it is only taught as an event which affected European Jewry.

In closing, I leave a message to both the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. These are quotes by two great Jewish scholars, Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Serels, and Dr. Seth Ward.

  • To the Sephardim, I speak the words of R' Serels, "We as Sephardim, must realize that the Holocaust is part of our history. We cannot pretend that the Holocaust was a European problem experienced only by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe."
  • And to the Ashkenazim (especially the Askenazi Holocaust educators), I speak the words of Dr. Ward, "In the Balkans, in Salonica and Rhodes, and in former Habsburg lands, there were Sephardic victims whose story is no different from those of the other European victims. The North African story may be somewhat distinct, but those whose lives were destroyed in internment or work camps-and there were some too who were sent to the European crematoria-are no less victims."

Thank you,

NOTE: Please contact me if you want a citation for any facts.

'Reference Guide to the Nazis and Arabs During the Holocaust'
By Shelomo Alfassa


© Shelomo Alfassa