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The Great Escape

The final journey ... Iraqi Jews on their flight out of the country. Their destination: Israel. Photos: Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem

 Twenty boys and girls, aged fifteen to nineteen, divided into five groups. The Underground Movement called them "packages". I was in Package Five with another two girls and a boy of my age. We were picked up from our homes in Baghdad just after twilight. The black car headed for the Baghdad central railway station. Shortly after boarding, the whistle blew and the train chugged towards Basra in the south of Iraq. Crowds of people on the platform waved the passengers off. No one waved us off.

In a few minutes, we managed to get inside the train to the luggage compartment in the rear to avoid the vigilant eyes of the police inspectors and the inspection of the conductors.

The sun began to sink beyond the mountains, beyond the sandy hills and wilderness landscape. From time to time, a village of huts or Bedouin tents made a fleeting appearance. Baghdad receded further and further from us. The train wheels rumbled cantankerously.

Destination: Basra – the major city-port of Iraq, a southern metropolis with a population of over a hundred thousand. Basra is situated on the western bank of Shatt al-Arab, the location where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers unite, some hundred and twenty kilometers from the Persian Gulf and four hundred and thirty kilometers from Baghdad.

Basra played a vital role in outfitting the USSR and the Middle East during World War ll. It is even more ancient than Baghdad - it was established in 636 C.E. by Caliph Omar. During the reign of Haroun el-Rashid, it was already a bustling and famous port city. But we were not tourists in Basra, we were Jews fleeing for our lives, escaping via Persia to the Holy Land.

A cab waited for us at the station as we alighted the train. The driver seemed to be an Arab. He stopped by a nut vendor dressed in Arab garb, bought a small bag of sunflower seeds, exchanged a few words with him, and then drove us to a Jewish house which was to shelter us. The clandestine address was written on a piece of paper inserted inside the bag of seeds. Neither the driver nor the nut vendor were Arabs we learned later, but disguised members of the Underground Movement that organized Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,.

That was the beginning of a long stay in Basra, where we were transferred from one house to another during a long month. We were not allowed to leave the house that sheltered us, and we had no word from the other "packages" nor from the organizers of the "escape". Meanwhile we learnt that tension was mounting in Baghdad. Newspapers said that there were bomb attacks on synagogues, streets and a sidewalk café near Orphali street. We also read of the ever-present suffering of Jews arrested for supposed espionage and various Zionist activities. One thing was clear to us and to those who organized our escape - to be caught meant to be hanged!

The immigrants’ camp “Shaar Ha’aliyah” in Haifa

Four different houses in different locations hosted us in Basra. The families behaved and acted normally. They were paid well by the Underground Movement, and they knew well enough that they were in serious risk as collaborators of the clandestine Movement if uncovered by the inspectors of the authorities who kept vigilant watch over each and every Jewish house in Basra.

One evening, a patrol car pulled up and illuminated the entire area of the house, our hiding place. An officer got out. "I'll do the inspection!" he said to his companion, also an officer, apparently Moslem. From a hole in a window we could see that he was short and fat, the rotundity of his belly considerably increased by the shortness of his stature. His voice was loud and hoarse. . A knock on the door. When he walked in, it was like a goose. He waddled up to the head of the family. "Close the door behind me!" he said, leaving the other officer outside. He whispered a few words, then turned back to leave. The gestures he made indicated that he was on understanding terms with the family of the house.

Terror engulfed us, until the head of the family calmed us with his words: "He is an aide. He works for the Movement. You are leaving tonight. You must be prepared. God speed!" He murmured a few words in Hebrew that meant 'God be with you, my children'.

An hour later, another black car arrived; we got in. When the car headed out of the city and neared the banks of a river, I began to reflect on the country, my birthplace, that we were leaving behind. Like a motion picture reeling past me, I saw the memories of what had once been Babylonia, the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, a major part of the Fertile Crescent. These two rivers spilled out of the mountains of Armenia and Turkey, cut their way through Iraq, and wound perilously around until finally uniting near Basra, forming the river called Shatt al-Arab.

The car drove for an hour before approaching the banks of the river. We had been informed that a large boat, called "m-haila" (meaning slow boat) a remnant of the great Shomer culture which had flourished six thousand years before in the Delta region of the Shatt al-Arab, would be waiting for us. It was shaped like an elliptical barrel and sailed the placid waters of the Euphrates and Tigris and the Shatt-al-Arab at a snail's pace without oars. The boat, that was carrying a cargo of building materials, would take us across the river to the other bank, which was Iranian territory, where we would be received by collaborators of the clandestine Movement and Jews like ourselves.

The smell of water, the waters of Shatt al-Arab. The car stopped, several cars followed, and all twenty boys and girls, the group that formed the five "packages", met together again and we became one group to be smuggled out of Iraq. We splashed through the water until we reached a board which was the boat's gangplank. A very odd boat indeed – an Arab shipping vessel made of wood. It had no oars, but was seaworthy by virtue of its sails. One by one, in the dark of the moonless night, we treaded over the gangplank onto the deck, which was laden with a cargo of red slabs, construction materials and sacks of cement.

A Bedouin led us through a portal under the slabs. There, a two-by-four meter cubicle would be our hiding-place. In our tiny cubicle we were engulfed by darkness, and it was difficult to sit or even stand, let alone to breathe. During the very slow sailing I kept pressing my nose to the cracks in the wood to sniff the air, hoping that the boat was making some progress. It was impossible to tell or feel that it was moving. Every half hour the peephole suddenly flipped open and the Bedouin would announce that we were approaching another checkpoint where his "m-haila" would be inspected, and he needed some more dinars, or any cash, or whatever jewelery we had on us, watches or whatever, to bribe the inspectors in order to avoid thorough inspection or an investigation into the nature of the cargo.

Hours passed, and the big moment arrived. The Bedouin heaved away some rocks and we helped him shove the rest aside, thus exposing the cabin where we had been caged for almost sixty hours. We were on the Iranian border, breathing the fresh, cool night air, and a cleansing breeze daubed our faces.

Lights shimmered in the distance - the lights of the port of Basra. The Bedouin explained that that we had arrived at the Iranian bank of the river near Abadan, the petrol city. We were supposed to be meeting up with collaborators and organizers of tThe Movement that had made this "escape" from the scaffold possible.

Mission succeeded, but not fully accomplished until our feet would tread on the earth of the Holy Land.

("In the midst of life we are in death …" Book of Common Prayer.)

Out of danger, but still a long way to Eretz Yisrael, with all the confrontations, transit camps, regulations and procedures that we would have to suffer - it took another three months until our plane landed in Lydda airport.

Long and hard is the road to freedom! 



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Monday, 17 June 2024

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