If the captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein goes on trial, further details of the torture and brutalisation carried out by his regime will undoubtedly be exposed. Meanwhile the US National Archives is carrying out a restoration project of manuscripts and documents relating to the Iraqi Jewish community which could shed light on its savage repression under Saddam.
In May 2003, military personnel looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and following a lead for a missing valuable Jewish Talmud, searched the headquarters of the Mukhabahrat, the Iraqi secret police, in Baghdad. Instead of bombs, they found a collection of Judaica, including rare 16th-century books printed in Venice. The cache was pulled from the water-filled basement of the Iraqi secret police building and transferred to Washington, DC where it is now being conserved by specialists at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Exactly why the cache, which includes books, administrative documents relating to the Iraqi Jewish community and parchment scrolls, was located at secret police headquarters remains a mystery although it may include both property confiscated from Iraq’s once thriving Jewish community and information required by the Iraqi government from it. Following increasing violence towards Iraqi Jews from the 1930s, including Jewish registration laws passed in the 1960s, street hangings in 1969, and property confiscation, the Jewish population of Iraq has nearly disappeared. Today, there are only believed to be around 25 Jews left in Iraq.
The water damage to the cache occurred when the Mukhabahrat basement was flooded after pipes were broken in the fighting of April 2003.
In the weeks after the discovery in May, personnel from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) retrieved printed and manuscript materials in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and English from the water, under working conditions made precarious by the presence of an unexploded bomb outside the building. Following removal, the objects were packed into sacks, partially dried, placed in metal trunks and frozen.
In August, a preservation assessment report, completed by NARA conservators in Iraq at the request of the CPA, recommended that the materials be “dried as soon as possible” for stabilisation and to minimise further mould from water and hot weather. Due to the lack of available conservation facilities in Iraq, the report recommended sending the objects to the US for “expeditious” preservation. It would be necessary to ensure protection and final disposition of the items “pending election of a sovereign Iraqi government,” the report said.
The CPA, as custodian, agreed to the shipment for preservation and exhibition. The transfer to the US in August took place by courier- accompanied US military transport so that the items would remain frozen en route.
NARA recommended that after mould remediation, the items be evaluated, conserved, and housed for long-term storage. The collection was found in a “greatly deteriorated state” including staining, bleeding inks and distortion, making a detailed inventory in Iraq impossible, the August report said. The preliminary assessment was based on items visible at the top of each frozen trunk. Preservation decisions at that point were “complicated by the lack of concrete information about the provenance of the material and the specific items,” the report said.
The collection includes Hebrew-language materials such as the “Ketubin” volume of the monumental Third Rabbinic Bible, published in Venice by Giovanni di Gara in 1568; and what appears to be Abraham Brudo’s “Birkat Avraham,” published in Venice in 1696. Hebrew prayer books, Bibles, commentaries and books published in Baghdad, Warsaw, Livorno and Venice in the late 19th to early 20th century are also part of the cache. Arabic materials include hand-written and printed items relating to the Iraqi Jewish community, including a 1966 request for names for a board of directors of the Jewish community and 1930s documents.
The objects entered the United States protected by a grant of US judicial immunity, under a 1965 federal programme which shields loans of cultural objects to US non-profit institutions from court action, if the objects are approved before import by the State Department. The programme is commonly used to safeguard loans from foreign museums (see p.3). In seeking State Department immunity, NARA said it was possible that the Iraqi materials could be subjected to US judicial action, “by persons asserting ownership [of the items], or by persons seeking satisfaction of outstanding claims or judgments against the Iraqi government.” NARA said it hoped, however, to complete the preservation project without prejudicing “the determination of the rightful owners of the property.” Its plan was “to exhibit the [materials] at a NARA facility, on a temporary basis, at a time and in a manner as NARA deems feasible and appropriate,” NARA said.
The preservation assessment report was prepared by two NARA conservators, Doris A. Hamburg, Director of Preservation Programs, and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Chief of NARA’s Document Conservation Laboratory.
In a statement determining that the Jewish artefacts were of “cultural significance”, a prerequisite for federal immunity, the State Department said that the objects were to be imported for “temporary” exhibition and related restoration, and that their “temporary” exhibition by NARA was in the national interest. The CPA remains custodian of the collection.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Saddam’s secret hoard of Jewish manuscripts'