Victor Ozair

Victor Ozair

Victor Ozair was born in Baghdad, Iraq on April 27, 1930. His name originates from Ezra the Scribe. According to Jewish oral tradition, Ezra the Scribe led the Jews of Babylon who had been exiled after the destruction of the First Temple back to Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. Ezra the Scribe died in Baghdad, never reaching the holy land. His tomb and the city he is buried in is known as Ozair. Victor believes he may be related to Ezra the Scribe due to his family’s deep connection with the town of Ozair.

During the British Mandate period, Victor’s father was the director of the border control police on the Iraq-Iran border. Upon being granted Independence, the new Iraqi government fired all the Jews in the Iraqi police who had been trained by the British colonial authorities. His father was forced to seek other work and took a job as an auditor and accountant with the Iraqi rail company.

His mother was a teacher, she had graduated from the Alliance Israelite School. Her parents met on a trip they both took to Basra. He had a grandfather who was a merchant. He owned a shop in Basra.

Victor still remembers the address of his first home in Baghdad: 66/113 Taht- al Takiya, Baghdad where his family lived with two brothers and two sisters. At the time, Taht- al Takiya was a Jewish neighborhood. He remembers that only one Muslim, Yahiya Al Auj lived on his street.

The Ozair family lived in a typical home for Iraqis in Baghdad- the home had two stories below the roof. The two-story house was built around a central courtyard. The layout maximized the amount of sunlight into the rooms. People would sleep on the roof of the house in beds. His grandfather, grandmother, uncle and immediate family all lived in the same house together with his family. Even after his uncle got married and had children, they all still lived together in the same house. Taht- al Takiya had 5 or 6 functioning synagogues next to each other near Victor’s house. His uncle had purchased specific seats to sit in the synagogue. He remembers many kosher restaurants and Jewish shopkeepers. His family would gather around his kitchen table to sing Kiddush. The Jewish holidays were important occasions for Jews to keep up their traditions. Purim was known as Munjallah, it was the greatest holiday for children. He recalls beating drums, wearing masks and shooting noise pistols for the holiday. Shavuot was known as Eid Al Ziara, when people would visit one another. Pessah was also a major celebration known as Eid Iftir.

Linguistically, every aspect of life was in Arabic. At home he would speak a Judeo-Arabic but he knew the Arabic of the street and in school he studied literary-classical Arabic.

The Tigris River splits Baghdad into two areas, one area is known as Al Rusafa and the other is known as Al Karkh. Victor remembers moving to a new house on the Al Karkh side of the Tigris. From the Al Karkh neighborhood Victor attended the Alliance Israelite School and received several certificates. He received the government certification known as Mutawasifa. For High School, he received his proficiency in English. University enrollment in Iraq became impossible for him upon the establishment of the State of Israel and all schools were closed for Jews. Victor wanted to get a passport so that he could study at the Sorbone, in France, but the government did not allow him to leave the country.

Life in Iraq was often very difficult for Jews. He experienced anti-semitism many times. Once, an Arab boy punched his nose because he was a Jew. Another time he received a slap in the face for being a Jew. Jews were always under attack, and often faced hatred and antagonism. He has many bad memories along with his good ones.

In Iraq, Jews developed a psychology for getting along with Muslims. The Jews got used to living as second class citizens in their own countries. He tried, and did his best to get along with Muslims. “You could make friends by not antagonizing them,” he said. There were many non-Jewish friends who he made while living on the Karkh side of the Tigris.

Every Jew learned from childhood that he was not an equal with the rest of the population. “Mothers would say to their babies ‘quiet, quiet, quiet the Muslim is coming, he will hit you.'” Jews were not taught to defend themselves against anti-Semitic attacks.

Christians lived in their own areas of Baghdad. He knew some but they were not his friends.

Until 1941, the Jews of Iraq still identified strongly as Iraqis. However, on Shavuot, June 1-2, 1941 the Jews of Baghdad faced a massive anti-Jewish riot which led to the deaths of 179 Jews known as the Farhoud. More than 1,000 were injured. The reaction to the Farhud in the Jewish community was immediate. There was a feeling that Jews had lost their place in Iraq. Victor remembers how all the Jews in his neighborhood were very scared. Attackers were descending on Jewish houses from the roofs. His house was tall, luckily he was safe there. He remembers how men were reading from the Book of Psalms and women had tears in their eyes. During the day the Jewish youths who were seventeen or eighteen years old were defending their houses from mobs brandishing only rocks and bottles.

His house and family were not touched by the Arab attackers. He was spared of violence during the Farhoud but his life changed forever. Jewish youths feared for their future. Many felt staying in Iraq with Arabs would not work, the political tide turned towards many Jews joining Zionist organizations. He remembers how his uncle was the first in his family who decided to immigrate to Israel.

In 1942, he joined the Zionist organizations. The Zionist organizations not only taught people Hebrew and the Zionist ideology they were also geared to learning trades: some members took training classes to be electricians, carpenters and a few other trades. By the time he came to Israel in 1951, Victor already knew Hebrew.

It was not until he got to Israel that Victor was able to enroll in University courses. Once in Israel, he enrolled in the Technion, Israel’s technical University, known today as the MIT of the Middle East.

Unlike many Jews who traveled by plane, Victor traveled to Israel over land through the Jordanian desert. He moved to Kibbutz Beit Hashita in north-eastern Israel.

Victor sees the establishment of Israel in a very positive light for the Iraqi Jewish community. If there was no Israel, many Jews would have left Iraq for another country. Iraqi Jews did not only immigrate to Israel but they immigrated to the US, England and many places in Europe. If Jews has stayed in Iraq, the future regime of Saddam Hussein would have killed them by putting them in the front lines of the decade long war with Iran.

Most Iraqi Jews left Iraq with nothing. Those who wanted to leave to Israel were forced to register with the government. Once the government had a list, the parliament passed a law freezing all the assets of Jews who had registered.

Jews had all their assets confiscated, in a 6 month period in 1950-1951, 90% of the community had left Iraq. Jews were not allowed to take anything with them except clothes and one trunk. At the airport the police checked the departing Jews, making sure they did not take gold, diamonds or anything of value and they confiscated all valuable assets. Victor’s family left behind their house, furniture and savings in the bank.

Even though people had nothing they were happy to leave Iraq. They knew they were leaving for their survival. Life would be difficult and it would never be the same but leaving was how the Jews of Iraq would avoid a catastrophic situation.

Settling in Israel was not easy. Victor’s family spent five years in a Ma’abara camp with no infrastructure. The Ma’bara contained Jews from several countries. Including the North Africans there were 800,000 Jews who came to Israel. There were also remnants of Jews from Europe mainly Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and other Eastern European countries living in the Ma’abara camps.

Victor was an officer in the Israeli Navy from 1956 until 1959. He recalls that discriminatory policies in Israel worked against Jews from Arab countries. In 1952, Victor took the Technion entrance examination and of the 60-70 Jewish Iraqis who took the exam only 4 were accepted. The test had stringent Hebrew qualifications. The Technion did not allow in applicants who did not know Hebrew. This worked against many qualified Iraqi Jews.

At one point in Israel, Victor met someone who studied with him in Iraq, a very good student. The man did not pass the entrance exam for the Technion and ended up selling watermelons instead.

At the Technion, Victor earned a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering. He studied Soviet Nuclear explosions and their impact on the air in European countries at the Chaim Weizmann Institute.

From Israel, he was accepted for a scholarship at University of Toronto, monitoring levels of radiation for industry. From Toronto he moved to the Los Angeles area where he settled with his family.

For Victor, home is both in the United States and Israel. His first daughter was born in Israel but the rest of his children were born in the United States. He preserves his Iraqi heritage by speaking the Iraqi-Jewish dialect with his wife, mixed with Hebrew.

He has many Iraqi Jewish friends and enjoys eating Iraqi Jewish food. He has greatest affinity with Iraqis who came from Israel.

He still goes to the Iraqi Synagogue in Los Angeles, yet presently he has no desire to return to Iraq. Sometimes he has memories of swimming in the Tigris River. Iraq has changed dramatically in the more than 60 years since he left the country. What were once beautiful neighborhoods where Jews lived are now slums. When he saw pictures of the old Jewish neighborhoods they looked very neglected. Since he saw the pictures he has no interest in going back to Iraq, even to visit.

Israel has a Babylonian Heritage Center at Or Yehuda known as Moreshet Yehudi Bavel. He feels that Israel is composed of Jews who came from all over the world to form one country and one Israeli identity. He is proud of Israel, a country built by Jews from all over the world, who despite some difficult circumstances have built a country for the Jewish people.