Dr. Rhode during the rescue work
Dr. Rhode during the rescue workBabylonian Jewry Heritage Center

A special lecture will be held at the Babylon Jewish Heritage Center this week that will reveal an archive of Iraqi Jews that was found by US Army soldiers in the basements of Saddam Hussein's intelligence building. The one who will tell about the findings is the one who was among the archivists, Dr. Harold Rhode, a consultant to the US Department of Defense who was sent together with the US task force to the basements that were hit by an American bomb.

In an interview with Israel National News, Dr. Rhode talks about the rescue operation and the findings that were discovered and recovered by him: "I worked at the Pentagon for 28 years, and for about 11-12 years, I worked on the Iraqi issue," he says. Due to the professional context, Dr. Rhode came to Baghdad with the American forces, and due to his long-standing friendship with the head of the Iraqi opposition, who also entered Baghdad with the American forces, he learned about the Jewish archive that was waiting in the depths of the Iraqi intelligence building.

Dr. Rhode says that with the entry of the American forces into Baghdad, Iraqi citizens who were connected to Saddam's control apparatus arrived and asked to confess their sins and their connections with the government as part of the attempt to get a kind of immunity from punishment that might be inflicted on them by the Americans and their allies. Among these people was the man who was responsible for the Jewish wing of Iraqi intelligence, and he also "came to pour out his soul", as Dr. Rhode puts it.

When the information reached the head of the Iraqi opposition, he hurried to contact Rhode, who immediately arrived at the intelligence building that was bombed by the Americans with a half-ton missile that reached the basement floor where the Jewish archive was located. The missile penetrated the building but miraculously did not explode, though it did destroy the plumbing system, which began to flood the basement floor.

"I worked for 6.5 weeks to get out the certificates, the holy books, and one Torah scroll. The water reached up to my waist in the basement. It was very difficult to get in there. At first, the Americans were not interested in it. I have been friends with the Iraqi opposition for years, and they brought a truck with a pump that took the water out in two days, since then, water had to be taken out all the time, which continued to drip through the pipes that exploded."

"Two days later, when the water reached our ankles, we started looking. We found books and certificates from the community, everything was flooded with water and, therefore, also very heavy. The head of the opposition brought many workers with his own money, and together we started to take out the books and certificates. There was no time to think and leaf through them. We put it in a dry area. There was some kind of miracle. The surface where we placed the diplomas and books to dry at a temperature of about fifty degrees was surrounded by beehives. I am very allergic to bees, and despite six days of work, I was not stung at all," says Rhode.

Rhode is indeed a historian, but he does not understand the field of restoration of old documents, and for this, he was helped by an Israeli friend who knew the head of the restoration department at the National Library. "They said to put everything in a cold place. I said we don't have electricity here. They told me to do what I could. We dried it a little and then put it in aluminum crates that the head of the Iraqi opposition found and bought. We dried as much as possible, but we couldn't dry everything. Drying parchment and leather becomes hard, and you can't roll the Torah scroll. I had to put the Torah scroll on the ground to dry it, but you don't put a Torah scroll on the floor, and rabbis from the country advised me on what is allowed and what is forbidden. They said that this is similar to saving a life and that I should not worry about it ".

Dr. Rhode says that the earliest item found in the archive was from around 1540, and it is a book printed in a Venice printing house. Most of the documents, certificates, and books were from the 19th and 20th centuries. Dr. Rhode tells how they got to that building by recounting a meeting he had about five months after the event. An Iraqi woman approached him and reminded him of a previous meeting between them at a conference in Zurich that they attended in their youth. The woman said that in 1984 she was present at the last synagogue that continued to function in the suburbs of Baghdad after the Jews left the country, when two trucks stopped nearby and soldiers got out of them and took all the certificates and holy books that were there. Since the Jews who left the country were allowed to take only one suitcase, they reluctantly left behind many documents, certificates, and books looted by Saddam Hussein's men.

And why did the Iraqi tyrant need the documents of the Jewish community and its libraries? "The powerful leaders in the Middle East want to show who is the sovereign against the weak, and when he takes the archive, it tells the Jews that he is the boss. This happens a lot in the Middle East," says Dr. Rhode.

The many items collected from those days of rescue work in the basement of the bombed building were transferred to the Restoration Department of the US National Archives, where they were dried and moved on to the Jewish Archives System of the US Federal Government near Washington. The relevant parties photographed the pages of the books and documents in very high quality and uploaded the information to the Internet. Today, the people of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center study the photographs and extract information and innovations from them on an almost daily basis.

About 2700 items were transported to Washington this way. 27 were presented at the exhibition. Dr. Rhode says: "In the 1930s, the Iraqi government refused to allow Jews to study in schools, and a rich Jew opened a school for Jews, and there they began to study. Among the items that were extracted are also photos from the school and certificates from the school. A friend who was in Iraq until the age of 16 and his family fled to the Kurdish region and, from there, left the Iraqi region without bringing any documents with them so that they would not know that they were fleeing. He also studied at the same school that was founded by a rich man. Today he lives in Israel and London. He came to the exhibition in Washington and saw the only certificate chosen to be displayed there. He recognized his photo and ID and cried like a little child, 'This is my life, this is me.'"

Dr. Rhode is convinced that the continued research of the findings from the extracted archive will yield many more such exciting events, in addition to discoveries about the property that Jews left behind when they left Iraq in the last century.

The CEO of the Babylon Jewish Heritage Center, Aliza Dayan Hamma, says ahead of Dr. Rhode's lecture: "We are very happy to host Dr. Rhode, and of course, we thank him on behalf of the entire community for his work to preserve the tremendous Torah work of Iraqi Jews. There are no words or estimates for the great importance of the materials. From that archive that went online, we were able to reprint lost books of Rabbi Yosef Chaim, as well as obtain important data for our research institute."