Saeed Herdoon

Saeed Herdoon

“In writing my memoirs, I hope to both remind and inform people on the hardships endured by Jews throughout the Arab Middle East in the 20th Century. My story is not uncommon in the Iraqi Jewish community. Those Jews that remained in Baghdad after the mass exodus of 1950-51 were dehumanized, threatened, and abused both physically and emotionally during certain periods of the Iraq’s recent history. Through all this, we remained committed to our families, our heritage, and our community (locally and globally) and also to ensuring that future generations of Babylonian Jews would never experience the nightmare of racism and hatred.”

-Saeed Herdoon, New York 2001

Surviving Saddam


Passover, 1969; it was a usual day in the office, centrally located in the business district in Baghdad. I was working as an importer/exporter of fabrics as I do now with my brother-in-law and several other men. Suddenly, without warning, three of Saddam Hussein’s men (who would later become his personal republic guards in the Ba’ath party) entered the office, and shut the main doors. The elder of the three, apparently the leader, told the two younger men to collect the identification cards of everyone in the office. As he began the shuffle through the cards, he began to separate the cards into two groups. We all understood that he was apparently separating the Jews from the non-Jews. The two younger men redistributed the non-Jewish ID cards to their rightful owners and escorted them outside the office.

We were five men left in the office, all Jewish men. The leader of the three-armed men informed us that we would be taken in for questioning. In the meantime, the office was being searched for anything ‘incriminating’- files and even our typewriters were confiscated from us. The two partners of our office were separated from the rest of us and taken outside the building- we soon follow them while, at the same time, we were forced to carry all the confiscated items from the building ourselves. The three-armed men and us walked down the street where two cars were waiting. Three went in one car and two in the other. Immediately after we sat in the car, the officer told us, in a particularly polite manner, that our eyes were to be blindfolded. With an old, dirty piece of cloth, our eyes were covered- little did we know at that moment that they would remained covered for the next two weeks.

The driver sped up and as the car filled with dust, we understood that the car had driven off of the main roads. Meanwhile, our own cars remained in our office building parking lot and our families were left to wonder why none of us returned for dinner that night. After an hour or so, the cars stopped and we were forced outside. They took us into a building and guided us up the stairs. No one dared to speak, and we were not given any information about where we were, or how long we would remain in the guard’s custody. We entered a room which we could sense was filled with several other men in our position, and we were each seated on the floor. I felt the presence of men on either side of me, and then I heard a man cough. I realized that this man was the late Salah Haddad; I knew that he and his 18-year-old son had been taken ten days earlier. I whispered his name, but he did not respond. After two or three attempts to find out whether or not it was really him, he finally whispered back in an urgent manner, “Don’t talk!”

After a while, a man entered the room and informed us that we were not allowed to move around or talk until they (whoever ‘they’ were) had a chance to review our individual cases. After seven or eight hours of sitting still and awaiting more information some men, including myself, were moved into another room where we slept on the concrete floor- still blindfolded and still wearing my suit. During the night, we were given some bread and tea, and early in the morning, men were taken in groups of two to the bathroom (while still in blindfolds, and of course in the company of a guard).

I later came to understand that the reason we had to remain silent at all times and that we were only allowed to use the bathrooms early in the morning is that the building we were in was a working police station. Saddam’s ‘men’ had taken control of the second floor of the station house and, as such, they had to wait till the building was quite early in the morning to allow us to move around. All of us, fifteen men in total, remained in this routine of sleeping on the floors, not talking, and not seeing past the darkness of our blindfolds for the entirety of two weeks.

I can only imagine how painful this time was for my family- not only had I been taken, but also my sister’s husband and father to their three small children had disappeared with me without warning or word as to our well being. This one thought tore me apart inside and drove me to try and figure out some way to get a message out to my family that I was all right. My goal was accomplished through the aid of one of the night guards. I had established a bit of a relationship with one particular night guard- he was different that the rest of the guards; He turned a blind eye to us, the prisoners, when we whispered to one another and even allowed us to loosen the grip of the blindfolds and move around to stretch our legs when the other guards were not present. One night, I approached him and pleaded with him to allow me to use the bathroom. He did not want to take the chance of letting me go downstairs to the police bathroom, so he took me out onto the roof of the building. When I realized that we were alone on the roof, I took the opportunity to remind him of how awful this time must be for my family and how I would give anything to just let them know that I am alive and well. I appealed to him to relay a message to them- after a while (and a very big bribe; one that was the equivalent of three months of his salary) I gave him my parent’s address and the address of another close friend that was also detained with me. In order for my family to be able to trust this man, I gave him a personal item that was in my pocket- something that my family knew could only come from me. The guard promised us that he would travel to Baghdad during his weekend off, and sure enough, he returned with a note in my sister’s handwriting that read, “We are well and are working to help you.” My heart rejoiced at my first successful attempt to make a connection with my family.

Also during those first two weeks as a captive in the police station, we were each questioned individually. Investigations took place, one by one, during the post-midnight hours. On the night that I was called in, I was seated in front of an investigator and an armed guard stood close by at all times. The guard was told to remove my blindfold- it was the first time in over a week that my eyes saw some light- imagine, it had been seven or eight days and this was the first time that I could actually see something! After a moment of readjusting to the presence of a light bulb, the investigator began his monologue. He told me that if I tell him the truth, that is, the truth that he wanted to hear, nothing would happen to me and I would be free to go home immediately. He made it also very clear to me that I was not their target during this investigation- their target were the partners in the office, Joseph Jangana (my brother-in-law) and Joseph Zilkha. This was obviously their means of blackmailing me into spilling secrets about my fellow office workers. They were after information about our company’s connections abroad. If our company held any foreign accounts that the state was not aware of, they could convict us with betraying the Iraqi nation. He continually threatened me by alluding to the various torture devices that were laid out around the room, some even hung from the ceiling. There were iron chains and machines that were used to pull people’s limbs from their bodies. It was obvious that he was implying that these devices would be used if he did not get the information he desired. I responded, very simply, that I would give him the truth in its entirety without and unnecessary additions. I was given a pen and paper where he told me I could write my personal statement. So, I did. My statement became almost autobiographical- I gave him my date of birth, the names of schools I had attended, and the subjects I studied in school, what my job was, and even my yearly income. I wrote and wrote, and when I was done, I put the pen down and handed the investigator my statement. The boldness of my response surprised even me! I could not believe how strong I remained in the face of threatened torture. The investigator glanced at the paper, and seeing that he was probably not going to get anywhere with me that night, had the guard send me back to the room and replaced the blindfold on my head.


We spent two weeks blindfolded, under the constant threat of torture, and always uncertain about what the next day might bring. After the first two weeks, during which we were kept in a police station, we were moved to a different location. One morning, we were placed on a bus that had black curtains covering the windows, as to keep us from determining our location. The guards took us to a large building and lined us up outside in the yard. We were finally allowed to remove our blindfolds, and just as my eyes began to readjust to sunlight, I was forcefully taken into this large building and led to a dark six-foot by six-foot cell, where two other men had already resided for weeks. This would be my new home for the coming months.

During these difficult weeks, as I sat in the cramped and dark cell, I had plenty of time on my hands to wonder and worry. I knew that other men from the Jewish community had been taken before me. We all knew their names. Some were killed publicly by hanging and others simply disappeared. What would be my fate? I had witnessed public hangings in Baghdad’s main square, and occasionally, a picture of a Jewish man would be in the front page of the newspaper- with the government announcing that this ‘prisoner’ had escaped and anyone with word of his whereabouts should immediately inform the police. However, the Jewish community knew that ‘runaways’ were actually men that had been killed and their bodies carefully disposed of. Rumors had it that sulfuric acid was used to dissolve bodies quickly and leave no trace of any wrong doings.

On my first morning as a guest of Saddam, we were instructed of the rules of the prison. We were told that we would again be allowed to use the bathrooms once a day in the morning. To try to explain the stench that welcomed us in the bathroom is impossible. The toilets would not flush, so they remained overflowed with urine and feces for months. It got to a point that the guards actually had to add bricks to the floor around the toilet so we could stand on the bricks over the toilet when we used the bathroom.

Also, as had previously been the case, speaking was strictly forbidden. Those that broke the rules would suffer the harsh consequences. For example, a few days after I arrived I learned that Yitzhak Dallal, an acquaintance of mine, was in the cell next to mine. I would see him in the morning during our trips to the bathroom. Each day he would look at me, as if ready to say something, but he didn’t get a chance to speak. Everyday for three weeks it was the same, until finally, there was a moment in which he quickly managed to ask me a question. He asked me if I knew anything about the well being of his family, since he was taken in four months earlier, he agonized as to whether or not they were alive or dead. It took me two weeks to be able to answer him that they were all right and were working towards his release. (Months later, just days after my release, Yitzhak Dallal was hanged)

As I mentioned earlier, after the 1968 Ba’th Party coup, Iraq was quickly divided into two parts; those that supported the Ba’th and those that didn’t. Jews were placed in the latter category, but they were not the only ones. In the six-by-six cell, I was actually with two Arab men from Basra. One of the men claimed to have no clue as to why he was in prison, but he ended up becoming a good source of information for me about the prison. He told me that we were actually being held under the former palace of the ousted Iraqi royal family, which was converted into a military base. The cells were constructed under the royal amphitheater. This man not only gave me information, but he was a source of reassurance, since he had been held there for three months by the time I arrived. I returned the favor to him by buying him some cigarettes whenever they became available, because he had no money.

My other cellmate was a fourteen-year-old arab Shepard from the desert. He told me that he was taken as a prisoner because of fears that he had witnessed a guard disposing of a body. Many bodies were simply left in the desert to disintegrate, and some guards feared that this boy was too close as he tended his herd. A few weeks after I arrived, the boy was taken in for questioning and it was decided that he would be released, since he posed no real threat to the regime. Upon hearing of his release, the boy stood in the hallway of the cells and yelled out in a rejoicing voice, “God bless you all! I hope all of you will soon join me!” Since the rules were that no one was allowed to speak, the Shepard boy paid for this outburst with his life. On the day that he was scheduled to be released, the young man was put to death for yelling inside the prison.

Each man in the prison had his own tragic story. Along with the story of the Shepard, several other stories remain vivid in my memory all these years later. One of those stories is of a man that was prisoner close to my cell. He was a successful doctor that had recently built a house for his young wife and newborn infant. The house however, happened to be in an area where Saddam Hussein was planning on building his palace. Just as the doctor’s house was completed, he was approached by one of Saddam’s men and was asked to move, since the palace would be built to encompass the entire area. He said that he refused to sell his house and the man simply left him alone. Soon after that incident, guards entered his home after midnight and took the Doctor, his wife, and their baby and put them into a car. They were driven to a remote area, and, as the car sped up to high speeds, his wife and baby were thrown out of the window to their death. This educated, cultured man soon lost his mind and would sit in the corner of the cell, shaking back and forth while sitting in his own feces.

Another incident that I also vividly remember is of the right-hand man to the former minister of the economy in the previous regime. Anyone with ties to former government was also imprisoned after the 1968 coup. This right-hand man was like the minister’s shadow. He was his driver and performed several other tasks for the minister. He was so loyal to his boss, that no means of torture could get him to say anything negative about the former government official. He suffered for this silence. After being tortured for several days, he was chained to a wall directly across from my cell. Bound and naked, he was forced to drink gallons of water and his penis was tied with a string to prevent him from urinating. For thirty-six hours I sat in my cell and listened to his cries of agony and watched this man slowly become poisoned by his own urine. He finally died from this horrible form of torture, but one look at his body would reveal no external harm. It was a very clever means of killing for no one would be able to tell how he was killed simply by looking at him.

These individual stories can go on and on. But what stands out in my mind is the unpredictability of Saddam Hussein’s ‘torture parties.’ Up to three times a week, Saddam would hold these parties while drugged and drunk with other people in his regime. Prisoners would be randomly selected in the middle of the night and sent to a room where they would be tortured to the brink of death, while Saddam and his men watched. I remember men that were brought back, barely alive, bloodied, and unable to stand. One image that was engrained into my mind was a man that had been tortured and cut up so badly that he actually had large pieces of flesh dangling off of his legs. He had to use the metal of a can to cut it off.


My two cellmates (both Muslim Arabs from the south of Iraq) were crammed into a 6×6 foot cell where there were no lights, no windows, and of course, no mattresses of any kind. We, however, were considered lucky: some cells had slanted ceilings because the prison was built under the former amphitheater of the royal family, making living conditions even more unbearable. Due to the size of our new home, sleeping was quite a difficult task. In order for us all to fit on the floor, we had to lie on our sides, and remain still throughout the night.

Since during the daytime we were mainly just sitting in our cells in silence, I found it extremely difficult to fall asleep at night. The majority of the time, I would just lie awake with two thoughts running through my mind. First, I would constantly wonder about what the next day would bring? Would I be chosen to attend one of Saddam’s ‘torture parties’? Then, of course, I would wonder about what was happening with my family. Images of my family were constantly streaming through my head. I would see my parents in our home, wondering what became of their son and their daughter’s husband, day after day. At the time, my sister had 3 small children, the youngest was just 5 months old, and she was left alone for months without hardly any word about her husband or her brother. Also, because Jewish men in our small community were being detained, I worried that my younger brother would also be taken and my parents would be alone.

In the morning, the guards would unlock the cells, and by that time, we were in desperate need of using the bathrooms (since we were only allowed to use the toilets once a day). However, you never knew when your turn would come for a bathroom break. As a tease, the guards would walk around, and slowly take two prisoners at a time to the bathroom. And, I don’t have to remind you of the smell and the awful sight of over flowing toilets that greeted us once we got there. Honestly, the smell would sicken me and that sick feeling remained with me all day, every day. Then, we were sent back to the cells and awaited our first meal of the day. Breakfast (tea, porridge, and a piece of bread) was served out of buckets by the guards. Of course, there were no plates or cups available, so how did we drink the tea? Each prisoner had to find his own ways to enjoy breakfast. Some used broken bottles where the tea could be poured into, some would use pieces of cardboard where the porridge would be poured onto, but most just had to hold their hands out and wait for the hot porridge to be emptied out on their palms.

I, however, could not bring myself to do this. The manner in which the food was served (directly out of the filthy hands of the guards, who had no utensils) made me nauseous. My weight dropped dramatically during these months, in total, I dropped thirty pounds. What did I eat? The guards would send prisoners around to sell small packets of biscuits, small bottles of milk, and cigarettes for the prisoners. Thankfully, I had pocket money and could afford to eat what the guards were selling (not only did they torture us, but they profited from us as well!) This was my only meal for the entire day for months, some biscuits and milk. Lunch and dinner was served in the same, filthy manner. Guards used their bare hands to give the prisoners rice, and pour broth into their hands.

One of the guards noticed my lack of appetite and actually pitied me. One day, he came up to me while he was serving lunch and reached his entire arm into the soup bucket to fish out a piece of meat for me to eat. I thanked him for it, and after he walked away, I promptly turned around and handed it to my cellmate. I just could not force myself to eat it! Another time, the same guard took two small onions out of his pocket and tossed it to me when no one was looking. It was very brave of him to do this in such a tense atmosphere. I gladly ate one and sent the other to one of the men from my office through the help of a Jewish prisoner that the guards had chosen to sell the cigarettes.

Throughout the course of the day, we would sit silently in our cells and watch guards come in and take prisoners out of their cells. If the prisoner was simply wearing his undergarments, it meant one of two things. Either he was being taken for an investigation, or he was being taken for torture. In the event of the latter, the prisoner would usually be brought back on a stretcher, full of blood, and unable to stand. Other times, men would be asked to shave and dress. This meant that they were being taken to one of Saddam’s revolutionary courts. However, their fate was decided in advance.

One of those prisoners was a Syrian army officer that defected from his country and was spying on Syria for Iraq. I learned this from the whispering that we engaged in when guards turned away. After the officer defected, the Iraqi authorities indited him as a double agent and he was placed in the same prison as me. The Syrian prisoner had a very nice voice, so the guards would allow him to sit in his own corner on some days and sing aloud verses from the Koran for up to an hour. We all enjoyed listening to him sing; it took our minds off of our situations, but only for a short time. Months after my release, I read in the newspaper that the Syrian officer had been hanged by Saddam’s authorities.

One day, after more than two months in the cell, two officials from Saddam’s party came to the prison and walked from cell to cell taking down names and information from each prisoner. One man would ask the questions, while the other wrote down the information in his notepad. When they got to me, the officer asked me which school I had attended, and I said the Frank Einy School (a well known Jewish school in Baghdad). The officer turned and smiled at his partner and said, “ That school graduates all of the spies that spy against Iraq!” What did this mean for me? If a guard puts my name down and decides to write down the word ‘spy’ next to my name, then, when it would be my turn to appear before a judge, the judge would simply look down at his list and convict you as a spy. Even if a person protests this conviction, the judge would point to the paper and say, ‘But it says right here that you are a spy!’ (Some legal system Saddam created!)

All the men that were convicted spies were immediately hanged. However, by a twist of fate, I never had my day in court.


After long months of hunger, sleepless nights, and constant fear, we were surprised one Friday evening by a guard that entered the prison hallway and picked a man from the original group of fifteen men that were taken to prison during the same week that I was taken. The guard asked him to go up and down the hall, and pick out the other fourteen men that he remembers as being part of my group. He had us listed as ‘the merchant’ group, since most of the men were taken from their places of business. When the man chosen for this task arrived at my cell, he saw the fear in my eyes as he called on me. I was in a state of shock. As my heart pounded, I wondered if it was my turn to be investigated. The man, who was a friend of mine, saw my fear, but could not tell me what was going on. They took the fifteen of us over to an area outside of the prison and told us that we were being transferred to another area within the same prison. The guards made a list of our names, and then walked us 300 yards or so to a U shaped building where we were divided into the rooms.

There were nine rooms in total, all had high ceilings, electric lights, ceiling fans, and, for the first time, windows where we could see the gardens that belonged to the former royal family, full of solders and tanks. We were put into the rooms in groups of three to six, depending on the size of the room. We were all very comfortable in these spacious rooms, no longer cramped into dark cells. One surprise seemed to follow another as we were now allowed to speak freely with one another after months of silence and darkness (although I was quite suspicious of these surprises, I could not help but enjoy these small freedoms.) My brother in law, Joseph and another two men from my office were in my room. Of the other two men, one was a former governor of a province in Iraq.

The next morning, the guards served us a breakfast that even I could eat without being disgusted. We were told that there is a shower available for our use, and one by one, we were taken to shower (my first in months!) A day later, a guard informed us that we could, if we had the money to do so, order food, so we made lists of orders that included fresh fruits, vegetables, canned food, and even prepared food that the guards would bring us from local restaurants. We also asked them to bring us soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. Also, for the first time, packages could be picked up from our families. When I received a package from home, which contained my first change of clothing, I realized just how much weight I had lost when my pants practically fell off of me.
I began to feel that the situation was changing for my prison mates and I for the better. The governor in my room told us that, from what he understood, this treatment meant that release was imminent and we could be home shortly. This was the beginning of the end of our months in prison.

Days passed and we adjusted to our new freedoms of food, showers, and the freedom to talk. One day, while I was in the shower, I found a used shaving blade on the ground, and I took it back to the room. I used it to cut a piece of cardboard into the shape of a shesh-besh (backgammon) board. We used two different types of coins as the playing pieces, and the hardened part of the inside of a bread loaf was shaped into the dice pieces. The room was big enough to allow us to walk around and around for a bit of exercise after months of sitting.

A few days after we were transferred to the new rooms, we heard that two new prisoners were brought to the same complex. One of them was named Albert Herdoon. It was the first time in Iraq that I encountered a relative whom I never knew I had. Salah Haddad, my prison mate, told me that this man had sent his wife and two children to Israel 25 years earlier. He and his business partner, however, remained in Iraq and operated their company that supplied merchandise to the Ministry of Defense.

One day, I was sitting near the entrance of our room, when a guard summoned me. He told me to take a garden hose and water the courtyard between the rooms because the dust was bothering him. While I was watering the yard, a man from behind a window began whispering to me. It was Albert Herdoon. He asked me to go across the yard and relay a message to his business partner, an Armenian man. The message was, “If you are thinking of telling them any information that will incriminate me, you will not be safe. If I am to be hanged, so will you!” I stood and listened to him telling me the message from behind my back, and I calmly walked across the yard and stood in front of his partner’s room and relayed the message. This was very difficult to do because the guard was close to me, reading his paper. If he had looked up from his paper, who knows what he would have done to me!

After giving this message, I was curious as to what had gone on between these two men. After my eventual release from prison, I heard that Albert and his partner were eventually released. I was told that they were originally taken to prison to be investigated for holding foreign bank accounts. After a long and very painful investigation, neither of them confessed, but the Armenian partner was under so much pressure, that he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. The guards rushed him to the hospital where he was saved. He was brought back to prison, but was no longer under the threat of investigations. However, one day, without reason, Albert’s partner called out to a guard and said he was ready to confess. He told the officer that he and Albert did indeed have a bank account in London where Albert transfers funds monthly for his wife and son in Israel. I don’t know why, but after this confession, they were moved to the area where I was being held and released soon after that. The reason why no action was taken against them is still a mystery to me today.

On another occasion in the new rooms, a man who was the second in command of the entire prison came into the room and asked in a very stern manner, “Who is Saeed?” I stood and responded to him “I am Saeed.” He looked at me and asked, “Who is Farah?” I told him that she is my sister and the wife of my brother in law, who was next to me. He held a note in his hand and read it aloud. The note simply said, ‘The family and children are alright, we are praying for your well-being.’ (Since we were taken, my sister had been standing outside of government buildings, mostly the Ministry of Defense, pleading various officers for information about us. One day at the Ministry of Defense, a high ranking officer stopped his car near her and inquired as to what she was doing there day after day. She told him that her husband and brother were taken months earlier and that she hadn’t heard from them. He saw how distraught she was and told her to write a note for us and he will make sure it reached our hands.) He then looked up at me and asked, “Do you want to speak to her?” I did not know how to react, was this man playing with my emotions, or was he making fun of me? He saw the doubt on my face and said, “If you want to speak with her, come with me.”
I followed him with my brother in law. As we walked past the other cells, the other prisoners looked at us through the glass in horror, because they thought we were being taken for investigation and torture. Instead, we followed him inside the royal palace to his enormous office, filled with luxurious furniture, carpets, and paintings (and of course, and painting of Saddam Hussein). He asked what number he should dial, as we stood in front of his desk. I told him that my home had no phone (After the June 1967 War, the Six Day War, all Jewish homes were disconnected of their telephones.) Instead, I gave him the name of the family across the street from my home and he looked up the number and dialed. Unfortunately, there was no answer. Seeing the disappointment on our faces, he told us that we would be able to try again on a later date. When the guard walked us back to the new cell, I intentionally smiled so that my other prison mates would realize that I was all right, and had not been interrogated, or tortured.

The next week, the man did not return, but I saw him the week after and reminded him of his promise. He took my brother in law and I to his office once again, and this time, my neighbor was home and answered the phone. My neighbor, a Shiite Muslim, ran across the street in his pajamas (it was early in the morning) and woke my parents up. Before the general handed the phone to me, he warned me that my conversation would be brief and I am only to say hello and that I was all right. I did this, and handed the phone to my brother in law, who only said hello, as to let the family know that he was also alive and well. After we got out of prison, we understood that my neighbor was also emotional after the call as my parents were. He took them, still in his pajamas, in his car, to my sister’s house so that she too would know that her husband and brother were all right. When he dropped my parents off at home, he told them that he would pray for our safe return. After our call, the other men were also given permission to make calls, but few were able to contact their families because of the phone confiscations.


A few weeks passed with no new activity or word about our futures. However, on one particular day, an incident occurred that could have had very dangerous consequences. As I previously mentioned, our new rooms had windows that looked out onto the former royal gardens. One afternoon I noticed a man working in the garden who looked familiar. When I looked again I realized that he was the same man that I was cellmates with in the 6×6 cell. Because I knew that he had no money, I took an empty packet of cigarettes and placed in it one Dinar (equivalent to what he would spend in a month on cigarettes). He saw me drop the packet out the window and he bent down to pick it up.

Meanwhile, a solder that was sitting close by on a tank saw what had happened and disappeared for a moment to call his superior. My heart was pounding. I crouched down so they could not see me through the window, but so I could continue to watch the solder. He appeared a moment later with an officer who approached my cellmate and began to search him. Since he was wearing the typical Arab long dress with only a belt and no under garments, it didn’t take long to complete the search. My cellmate simple stretched out his arms, while holding an ordinary pack of cigarettes in one hand. The officer found nothing and left. Needless to say, we both breathed a long sigh of relief.

As part of the daily routine, it became my job to water the yard. Because I was outside my cell for a while each day, I was able to overhear stories and see what was happening with the other men in the prison. As it turned out, in the cell next to mine, the former head of Iraq’s military academy was being held. Unlike the rest of us who were close to our release date, he was being held there because the officers that he had once trained wanted to grant him preferential treatment. However, the new regime was putting him though an intensive investigation. As part of this investigation, the officers would take him from his cell at night, torture him till he said the things they wanted to hear, and carry him back to his cell on a stretcher in the morning.

Ironically, the same officers that he had trained, would torture him at night because it was their duty to do so, but would salute him in the morning because they still regarded him as their superior. It was almost as if nighttime was the time to perform their investigative duties, but in the mornings they could salute him and try to comfort him from his pain. I saw one officer bring him a warm bucket of water to sooth his red and swollen legs from hours of torture. The same officer that probably caused his condition was now trying to make him feel better! What a paradox!!

Anyhow, weeks had passed and we still had no word about our fate. We were able to speak to our families once, as I wrote about in the last chapter, but since that one instance, we remained clueless about the future. Then, one day, the same officer that took my brother in law and I for our first phone call home appeared and asked us how we were doing. I said that all was well, but I wondered if I could call home again because several weeks had passed since the call. He smirked and asked, “Do you want to call or would you rather go home?” I looked at him, puzzled. He simply said, “Tomorrow you will go home.” We did not sleep that night, as we wondered whether he was telling the truth or not.

The next morning, guards entered and took the fifteen of us, with our belongings, towards the inside of the palace. For the first time, we came in contact with the man who headed the prison. He told us, “You are going home. But, you didn’t see anything, you don’t know where you were, you didn’t hear anything, and you will never tell anyone what happened here. If you do, our hands can reach anyone and it will be the end for the one that talks.”

They put us in a bus and we were given back all the items confiscated from our office. At this point, we thought we were really going home, but instead, they dropped us off in a small house used as a detaining center by the Iraqi Intelligence Department. It was a rather small building, filled with prisoners from all over the country. When we managed to squeeze inside the building, I saw a lot of men that I recognized from the Jewish community. It was there that the authorities dropped another surprise on us. They told us that we had to arrange a 5,000 Dinar bail in order to be released. Just so you have an idea, this amount was equivalent to a modern, four-bedroom house in Baghdad. This was especially shocking since no Jew could post such a bail because the government would not accept bail from a Jew.

We were given permission to contact our families and tell them where were being held. Our families were allowed to visit us at the intelligence center every other day. The first time I saw my family, it was an incredibly difficult moment for all of us. They never thought I would return alive after all these months. Although we all tried to remain hopeful about my return, there was always a sense of uncertainty for me in my prison cell and my family waiting at home.

My family began to arrange my bail as soon as possible, although this was very difficult to do, since only a non-Jew could post the bail. With the help of a well known activist in the community, the late Naim Attar, a lawyer from the Baghdad bar association was contacted and gathered several other lawyers. They agreed to post the bail and take a 10% cut. It was in this manner that many of my friends and I were released. It was quite a lucrative business for these lawyers and, within three weeks, my bail was posted and I was released.

I was finally home. It had been almost six months, from Passover in March 1969 till right before Rosh Hashanah in September. I arrived home to see a stack of newspapers that my brother had saved for me; it seems some guy landed on the moon while I was away! The first evening of my return home, my house was packed with friends and family that came to welcome me home and congratulate me on my safe return. It wasn’t until past midnight that everyone left and the house was silent, that I heard a knock at the door.

I opened the door and saw my neighbor and his wife there. My neighbor, the councilor at the Kuwaiti embassy, whom I had never really spoken to, felt that it was better for him not to stop by when my house was filled with guests. Instead, he waited till the last guest left and he came to my house to tell me how relieved he was that I was back safely and how he had worried about me. From then on, my neighbor would bring me magazines such as Time and Newsweek that were banned by the Iraqi government, but were brought to his embassy.

From the time of my release, till the next summer, I did not return to work, but spent the majority of the time with friends and family and began thinking towards a future away from the threats that plagued my community.


In the north of Iraq, there had been a nine-year war between the Iraqis and the Kurdish community, which ended in a cease-fire in March of 1970. Right after the cease-fire, people from around the country once again began to travel to the north for vacations. As the north was the green, mountainous region, filled with rivers and cool weather, it was a popular resort area. People even say that the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden had taken place in that area. In the summer of 1970, my family joined many others and made our vacation plans in Northern Iraq. Although we went there as tourists, we had other intentions. Our agenda would be to plan an escape route, through the mountains, and into Iran. The northern boarder was the only possible boarder to do this. The plan was unspoken, even amongst family members. I returned home, however, without any connections made.

I secretly started to make the twelve-hour trip to the north once or twice a week to plan the escape. I stayed in a hut in the Kurdish areas until I successfully found a smuggler that was willing the help me. The huts, called Kapras, were the Kurdish style hotels made out of straw and used only in the summer times because they remained quite cool inside. Although they were huts, they had all the amenities that a hotel room would have. During the nights, I would usually be kept awake by mesquitos, so instead of sleeping, I would watch the local Kurdish men in their all night poker games. Even in times of fun, I always had my eyes and ears open incase I came across a potential smuggler.

When I finally found a man that would help to smuggle my family and me across the mountains and checkpoints and into Iran, we had to make a deal for a price. I told him that I needed to take four people out, and we made a deal for 1000 Dinars (about $10,000), and told me to return soon. I returned with a gift of expensive, European fabric for suit tailoring, and we set a date for the next week for the escape.

The day that we were set to leave Baghdad, I came home and was told by my mother that a Jewish acquaintance of mine had stopped by and left a note that said ‘your appointment tomorrow is cancelled.’ I was shocked. It seems that this friend had receive word from the Kurdish smuggler that the plans were off, maybe it was a dangerous time to attempt to flee. I decided however, to continue on as planned, and remain in the north for as long as it would take to find another smuggler. I had no other alternative but to leave as planned. My brother in law, his family, and the family of his business partner were also leaving that night. It would have been dangerous for us to remain behind after my sister and her family had left. The authorities probably would have questioned us if it was reported that they had left.

That night, after midnight, a Kurdish driver that I found earlier and made arrangements with, came to my house to take my family and my sister’s family, and five other families as well. The only thing that I had done that day was to take a large, tin laundry basin and put all of my family pictures and slides in it, poured gas on top, and burned them. I couldn’t have taken all of the pictures with me and I would not leave such personal items behind for someone else to touch. After I finished doing this, a friend of mine, Eli Denus, who was unaware that I was leaving that night, stopped by my house. His story is worth telling.

The Iraqi authorities had taken Eli over a year earlier while he was sitting in the office of a local Jewish merchant, Charles Horesh. Although the authorities had only come for Charles, they took Eli as well simply because he happened to be in the office. Eli was actually only in Baghdad for a visit from England. His father was very ill and he came to be near him. The two men remained in prison with eight others accused of spying against Iraq. The Iraqi authorities, to prove their fairness, set up mock trials that were broadcast for the entire nation to watch. Nine out of the ten men were convicted of spy activities, and only Eli was released. His release was supposed to show that the Iraqi judicial system was just- but the Jewish community knew otherwise. In January 1969, Eli was released, and the nine other unfortunate men were hanged in the main square of Baghdad with a quarter of a million cheering Iraqis present, many of whom were paid to be there. He had witnessed the days of torture and investigations that the nine men were subjected to unfairly.
More than a year after his release, Eli was still suffering from the psychological trauma of what he experienced. He was visibly and constantly shaking and looking over his shoulders. Eli came to me on the day that I was leaving desperately asking me for advice on how he could get out of Iraq. He was so sad and hopeless, that I decided to tell him my secret plans about escaping that night. I told him that, if he could manage to do so, he should arrange his own taxi and join my family and I in the north. It only took him a moment to think about it, and he agreed. He left me house, made arrangements with a Kurdish driver to pick him up and then he drove to his girlfriend’s house. He picked up his girlfriend and his rabbi and went to his ailing father’s bedside and was officially engaged in the Jewish-Iraqi tradition.

When it was time for us to leave, we took only a few small bags, locked the door to our house, and got into the taxi. Imagine, not being able to say goodbye to friends, not being able to ship your family’s belongings, or even liquidate your assets. We could not do any of this because we would certainly face persecution if word got out that we were planning on escaping to Iran.


The Kurdish taxi driver drove all-night and arrived at an army checkpoint at noon the next day. There, two solders stopped our caravan of seven cars. My car was first in line and my brother, mother, father and I all handed over our identification papers. The solders went to each car and collected identifications. Since our car arrived a few minutes before the six others, we did not tell the solders that we were all together. Everyone was shaking with fear as the solders took our papers and asked us where we were going. We said that we are vacationers and that we were here alone. You can imagine our fear- especially since my brother in law and I were ex-prisoners and out on bail. The solders took the id’s back to their cabin and made some calls. They spoke for over 5 minutes and read all of our names over the phone.

After a few minutes (which felt like hours) they came back and returned our papers to us and simply said, “Proceed.” We breathed a huge sigh of relief, including our Kurdish driver, whose people were enemies with the Iraqis and who had just fought a nine-year war against them. Later we heard that just forty-eight hours after we passed that checkpoint, another convoy of Jews was stopped, taken back to Baghdad, and imprisoned for a few days.

At 4pm we reached our final destination. We were in the north in an area that was one hundred percent Kurdish. In their village of huts, called Kapras, each family rented a hut, but we only ended up remaining there for two hours. During those two hours, Odil Dallal, (wife of Yitzhak Dallal whom, as I previously mentioned, was with me in prison and unfortunately was hanged shortly after my release) came to my hut in a state of fear and absolute panic. She told me that she had been accompanied to the north by a man from our community who promised to help the widow and her small children cross the boarder into Iran safely. However, that man had now decided that the situation had become too dangerous for him and he would no longer be able to help her. Apparently, she had mentioned to him that she believed that men were following her from the Ministry of Defense. (While Odil’s husband was in prison, she would frequently go to the Ministry of Defense and plead for her husband’s life to whoever would listen. Now she suspected that some of the same men were following her.)

She came to me for help and I told her that I had no concrete plans for how I would cross the border. However, I gave her my word that when I find a way to get to Iran, I would not leave her or her children behind. I told her to go back to her hut and that I would get in touch with her when we were ready to leave. I did not want her in or around my hut because I was scared to death when I heard the words, ‘Ministry of Defense.’

That same evening, only a few hours after we first arrived, three land rover jeeps drove to the village. The drivers got out and asked if there were any Jewish families who were ready to leave at that moment to go to Iran. He knew to ask this question because some one in our group had previously made arrangements with the Kurds to pick up Jews in the area that were interested in fleeing Iraq. We made our intentions of leaving clear to them, since we felt more comfortable to discuss this matter freely because the area was under Kurdish, not Arab, control. However, there were only three jeeps, so the drivers asked for the women and children first. We hesitated to allow this, but decided it was ok since the Kurds could be trusted. They made their first trip and were back within fifteen minutes for the rest of us.

When were arrived in the next village, we saw that it was filled with Jewish families, forty-nine people in total ranging from infants to the elderly. While we stayed in this area awaiting our escape, we were shown incredible hospitality by the Kurdish people. They gave each family huge trays of food that included meat, rice and chicken. At night, we were taken to a place that they called ‘the castle.’ In reality it was a large, mud structure, with several long hallways and rooms lit by lanterns, with rugs on the ground.

As we settled into these rooms, four heavily armed Kurdish freedom fighters (the Pish Morga) entered the room with a man dressed in the traditional Kurdish costume. The man sat down with us and, with a smile on his face, asked us if there was anything we needed to make our stay comfortable. He then asked us if there was anyone in our group that had encountered a Kurd that asked for money in exchange for smuggling services. I am sure that, as I had, many other people had encountered such men, but we said nothing. The Kurd, however, apologized to us if we had, and explained that within each community in society, there are always those that want to profit from and take advantage of a tragic situation. He added that if we know any names of such men, that we should given them to him and they would be punished severely. Then, he asked if we knew of other families in Baghdad that were interested in escaping as well. We gave him many names of families, and he wrote them down and promised to make contact with them. (Later, we learned that he kept his promise and aided many other escapes.) Finally, he smiled and asked, “Is your final destination Israel?” We were all in shock, since the thought of even whispering he word Israel was out of the question for us. However, I smiled back at him and said in a low voice, “Yes.”

He looked at his watch and told us that it was time to go. He shook each ones hands, and when he shook my hand, I tried to express my appreciation for what he has done for us in the face of such danger. Upon saying this, he quickly pulled his hand back and said, “If Israel had not helped us by supplying arms, training, and medicine, we would have been in a dire situation. Israel supplied us with everything we needed (during the nine year war with the Iraqis) and even broadcast our plight against the Iraqi government, which was so important to us” Remembering his kindness, unselfishness, and his altruistic manner still makes me emotional even today. I asked him who he was and he said, Adris al-Barizani, the son of the head of the Kurdish people. He was a very well educated man that knew five languages including English, French, and German.

We were loaded into the land rovers again, and the windows were covered with blankets, making it impossible to see us inside even thought it was already nighttime. When we reached the Iranian boarder, our driver used a flashlight and gave a signal in the dark to the boarder patrol on the Iranian side that let our cars cross (remember, this was almost a decade before the Iranian Revolution, after which, such an escape would have been impossible.) Our driver took us to a small motel near the border with only four rooms. The women and children slept in the rooms, while the rest of us anxiously paced in the lobby till dawn.

In the morning, two buses from the Jewish agency arrived and drove us for seven hours to the closest train terminal, where we boarded the 8 p.m. train to Teheran, the capital. Each family had their compartment in the train, and as I promised, Odil Dallah was with my family. As you can imagine, she was having tremendous emotional difficulties after the imprisonment and execution of her husband, and now with the fear that she was being followed. In our train compartment, I assured her that if she would relax and go to sleep for a few hours, I would stay awake and keep a look out for the men following her. (We soon realized that she had imagined the entire event- there were no men from the Ministry of Defense following her.) However, I still took it upon myself to try to comfort her and stayed awake for the third night in a row.

We arrived in Teheran at 8am and were taken to two very big, Jewish owned hotels (later burned down during the revolution) arranged for us by the Jewish agency, where we stayed for about a month. On my first day in Teheran, I went down to the lobby of the hotel and met a friend that had arrived a few days earlier. He smiled at me and asked, “Do you want to go to the Israeli embassy?” What a difference a day makes! Just a few hours earlier I couldn’t even whisper the word Israel and now, here I was strolling towards the embassy!

When we returned to the hotel, I called some relatives in Israel, whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years. When I spoke to my uncle, I was struck with terrible news. My grandmother, whom I was so anxious to see, had passed away two years earlier.

The month in Teheran was like a new life for all of us. During my last two years in Iraq, my life was filled with terror and fear. Now, we were going out to clubs every night, eating out in restaurants, shopping in the open-air markets, and going to museums. It was the first time in years that we felt free and happy. The Jewish Agency had to make our visa arrangements with the interior ministry of Iran. There were many arrangements to be made because, essentially, we were stateless (leaving Iraq meant renouncing citizenship). The head of the Jewish Agency, Uzi Narkis accompanied by Israeli Knesset member, David Patel (who was also an Iraqi Jew) even traveled to Teheran and expressed their happiness and congratulated us on a successful escape. He invited us to the Israeli embassy where we were shown a video of the Six-Day War of 1967. When an El-Al flight became available, the agency arranged our flight and my family and I landed in Israel in late August 1970.

In just a year, I went from the darkness of Saddam’s prison, to the light of my new home in Israel, where I was given immediate citizenship. Not surprisingly, it took us a while to adjust to the sudden air of freedom that greeted us as we were smuggled through the mountains and across the Iranian border. I never forgot a moment of months I sat in prison or of my escape, but I was ready for a new life where I would marry and start a family that would never have to encounter the hardships that I endured.