Saving History

Saving History

How one Chevy Chase woman helped to preserve the legacy of a lost community of Iraqi Jews

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In May 2003, Doris Hamburg received a sudden and surprising email. It came from Baghdad, from a woman working for the American forces ruling Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein. Troops had discovered a large trove of Jewish books and documents in the basement of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.

There had been flooding, they were wet,” Hamburg recalls. “She was inquiring, What’s the best thing to do, to take care of them and preserve them? I told her freezing is a good thing to do, it stops the clock, damage is halted.”

The next day the woman called Hamburg and asked: Can you come to Baghdad?

As the director of preservation programs for the National Archives, Hamburg lives quietly in Chevy Chase with her husband, Jerry Garfinkel, and teenage daughter, Johanna; and she works, just as quietly, in College Park. A week later she and a colleague were on a plane to Iraq.

“This is a special project, definitely a special project,” laughs Hamburg, as we talk in her sunny corner office overlooking a wooded glade. “Going to a war zone—I had not done that before.”

In another sense however, Hamburg had been preparing for this assignment since childhood. Now 63, she got her first glimpse of her future career when she was a Girl Scout, working at a historic house near her hometown of Irvington, N.Y.

“I enjoyed that a great deal,” she recalls, “particularly the part where, behind the scenes, you had a chance to be in the house as if the people were still living there. That image never left me.”

Hamburg was enthralled not just by the people who lived in the house but by the artifacts they left behind. “It was wonderful to look at things close up and get to really know them,” she says. “My mother was so astute. She wrote, probably when I was a few years old, Doris has to look at things with her hands.”

She still does. In graduate school at the University of Delaware she studied not just the words written on paper but the paper itself—how to repair and protect and preserve it. “I always loved paper, it’s an aesthetic issue but it’s also a technical issue,” she notes. “Deterioration is very much based on chemical change.”

By the time she got to Baghdad, the American authorities had packed the documents into 27 steel trunks and stored them in a freezer truck usually used for transporting food. Still, the “chemical change” was well advanced.

“Just climbing up this rickety little ladder and opening the door of the truck, the smell of mold just completely hit you,” she recalls.

After examining the documents, Hamburg and her team came to a conclusion. “Everything looked pretty bad, but we saw a way forward,” she says. “We saw that they could be stabilized and become usable again. They were not lost.”

The documents portrayed a community that had been lost—the Jews of Iraq. For 2,500 years, through the 1930s, Jewish people had played a major role in that nation’s commercial and intellectual life.

Then came the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism. In 1941, a pogrom killed 180 Jews in Baghdad. In 1948, violence spiked when Iraq joined other Arab nations in attacking the new state of Israel. In the early 1950s, almost all the remaining Jews fled the country, stripped of their citizenship and assets.

No one knows why Saddam Hussein gathered so many documents relating to this vanished tribe. They included some very precious items—a Hebrew bible from the 16th century, a Passover Haggadah from the early 20th century, hand-lettered and decorated by a young student. And some very mundane ones—elementary school readers, class records, even personal taxi receipts and gas bills.

Taken together, says Hamburg, “they give people a window into what life was like within that community.”

The documents were flown to Texas and subjected to a process called “vacuum freeze drying,” which essentially converts water into ice and then directly into vapor. Once dried out, they were shipped to College Park. There, the project languished for lack of funding.

Eventually the State Department chipped in $3 million, and today, more than 11 years after the documents were found floating in a Baghdad basement, the entire trove finally has been restored and recorded, photographed and digitized. Several dozen documents were displayed at the Archives earlier this year, and the large crowd of visitors included many Jews with Iraqi origins.

“One gentleman was looking at his records from when he was in school in Baghdad,” reports Meris Westberg, one of Hamburg’s assistants. “He was telling his kids about his grades and his test scores.”

The American government promised to return the documents to Iraq after they were restored, but there is strong opposition to that plan—from Jewish exiles, lawmakers and scholars.

Harold Rhode, a Middle East expert who was advising American forces in Baghdad when the documents were discovered, recently told CBS News: “This is not the heritage of Iraq. It is the heritage of Iraqi Jews. It is their personal property.”

Wherever the documents eventually wind up, they are available online to everyone—more than 200,000 pages worth.

Hamburg emphasizes that she approached the job as a professional, on assignment for the government. But she admits her own family history inevitably colors her emotions. Her grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. Her parents fled Nazi Germany. She knows what it means to feel disconnected and displaced.

“I can relate, definitely, from my family having had to leave their home under very difficult circumstances,” she says.

I can relate, as well. My ancestors fled other pogroms in other countries, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of my grandfather, Avram Rogowsky, arriving in America.

So I feel the power of Hamburg’s words when she says that the documents connect Iraq’s Jews to their own past. “They can find themselves there,” she says. “We saved a part of history.”

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and wrote a memoir about his family, My Fathers’ Houses (William Morrow, 2005). Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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