In the first piece to appear in the mainstream Canadian National Post, the Canadian foreign minister makes an unprecedented public call for the Iraqi archive to be restored to its rightful Jewish owners - outside Iraq. Dr Caroline Bassoon - Zaltzman, who will be visiting the archive exhibit in Washington DC - tells reporter Joe O'Connor that she wants her report card back. It was found among the 2,700 documents stolen from the Jewish community. (With thanks: Tony, Mira and others)
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, added his voice to his American counterparts in an email to the National Post Friday. “It is unfortunate that Iraq is simply not prepared to openly chronicle this tragic history as a monument for the people of Iraq, towards a meaningful reconciliation, or towards the historical preservation of archives and other items that document the ancient heritage of Iraqi Jewry,” the minister wrote.
“There also ought to be justice for those who were forced to leave with nothing and have an opportunity to reclaim not only their irreplaceable personal property, but crucial pieces of a past that is so vulnerable to being forever lost.
“For the last Jews in Baghdad and their descendants in Canada and beyond, Iraqi Judaica is ultimately their history to preserve and cherish.”
Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman is sitting at the kitchen table of her spacious Thornhill home. She is petite, with coppery blond hair, tanned arms and a hard to identify accent. She pours me a cup of green tea, adding a generous dollop of sugar. English is her first language, though she does summation in her head in Arabic. She confesses that she doesn’t know what, exactly, she is: Iraqi? Canadian? An Arab-Jew?
Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, 6, with brother Felix, age 5 in their backyard. (Courtesy)
“I have very few good memories of Iraq,” she says. “I never ate in a restaurant, went to a movie theatre or slept over at a friend’s. I went to my Jewish school and came straight home.
“All our neighbours in Baghdad were Muslim and Christian. But I don’t ever remember talking to them. By the time I was old enough to be aware we were already so isolated, as Jews. I was a little girl and I was always afraid. My parents, on the other hand, have some very fond memories of Iraq. My father was an accountant and worked for a Christian family until it became too dangerous for them to employ him.
“So as a kid I remember my Dad always being home and I remember I’d come home from school not knowing if he would be there.”
Two of her uncles were tortured by the Ba’athist regime, which first seized power in a 1963 coup. Iraqi Jews were cast as Israeli spies. There were show trials. Public hangings.
Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman’s parents are still alive and live nearby. Her father tells the story of his daughter as a toddler. Regime thugs barged through their front door and began searching the house for weapons. Little Caroline spoke to the men in English, a language she used at home since the family was always preparing to leave — always had a bag packed and a dream of starting over someplace else.
Hearing a little girl speak English was enough to get her father arrested. The Bassoon family walked out of their house, with its beautiful garden, in an old Jewish corner of Baghdad, at 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, 1971. They were packed as though they were going on vacation and left practically everything — photos, heirlooms and report cards — behind. A childhood friend of David’s, a Muslim, secreted money to the family. Bribes were paid to Kurdish smugglers. Three days later they were in a hotel in Tehran. Two weeks after that they were in Israel. They moved to Montreal in 1976.
Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman is heading to Washington with her husband next week to visit the archive.
“I don’t even know if I’ll be able to see my report card,” she says. “But I am going to try and get it back. I am going to see what I can do.”
And then she laughs, because it all happened so long ago, and because so much about her life since — Canada, the two kids, the loving husband, the great career — has been rich and rewarding and safe. She is not a scared little girl anymore. The bad memories are faded, like an old photograph or an old report card, finally come to light.
“Thank God I did so well in school,” Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman says, grinning. “I always told my husband I did well and he always joked about how he wasn’t so sure, because he didn’t have any proof.
“Now I have proof.”
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