“To say that we are gone, finished and that we’ve left forever is unbearable for me,” laments Edwin Shuker of Baghdad’s once-flourishing Jewish community.
For 2,600 years, Jews lived, worked and prospered by the rivers of Babylon, but only a generation ago they were forced to leave everything they had ever known and start again in a new country.
Shuker, 62, who today lives in Finchley with his wife and three children, shares his poignant memories of the place he once called home – and reveals why he is determined that Jewish life in Iraq continues – in a new documentary, Remember Baghdad.
Directed by Fiona Murphy, the film brings together home movies, archive news footage and interviews with eight people who fled from Iraq with their families.
Many recall the golden days of Baghdad during the first half of the last century, a place transformed from a sleepy Ottoman city into the commercial hub of a British-dominated, oil-driven country, where Jews were represented in parliament, held official positions and ran lucrative businesses.
“I remember my parents having a party, five or six times a week. Beautiful parties, from one house to the other,” Shuker tells me.
“I remember picnics by the riverside and good times. We were the upper middle class of Iraq and we had servants and maids and big houses. My grandparents even had a butler.”
For David Dangoor, he too remembers the opulent parties, where his well-connected family rubbed shoulders with members of the royal family and government ministers. In 1947, his mother was crowned the first ever Miss Baghdad.
The family enjoyed a good life and they, much like the majority of the 140,000 other Jews living in Baghdad, never believed it could all come to an end.
His neighbour, David Shamash, reflects on how even the events of the Second World War did little to impede Iraqi Jews from believing they were safe and secure.
“It hardly touched them,” he says in the film. “There were parties every night. The community was living in a bubble.
“They were not touched by the Holocaust and they were living as if there was no war and nothing much has happened.”
However, under the surface tangible signs began to emerge all was not well.
Dangoor’s aunt, Eileen Khalastchy, speaks of an idyllic childhood, where people of all backgrounds were treated well. “Jews, Muslims and Christians, we [were] all Iraqis. It was a good time.”
But a swell of nationalism during the 1930s gave rise to anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda, suggesting that Jews, like the British, should be ejected from the country.
Tensions came to a head following the collapse of a pro-Nazi coup with a violent pogrom on June 1 and 2, 1941.
Known in Arabic as the Farhūd, around 200 Jews were murdered, hundreds more wounded and 600 Jewish businesses were ransacked.
That same year, Khalastchy was also a victim of anti-Jewish feeling, but was too young to understand why an unknown Arab man had thrown acid over her shoulder.
It was just the beginning of things to come. Although peace and prosperity returned, Jews were again targeted after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
“They took away our IDs and issued us with yellow cards. For the first time in our history, we were identified as not like others. Certainly, we were outsiders in our own country. It was utter hell. Baghdad was an open prison.”
Within three years, 95 per cent of the Jewish population (120,000 to 130,000) signed up to be airlifted to Israel by Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, a project largely funded by American Zionists.
Still, 4,000 Jews remained in Baghdad hoping for better times ahead. That was not to be. In 1958, the king was assassinated and Iraq declared a republic, followed by a Ba’athist coup in 1963 steered by a young officer named Saddam Hussein.
Shuker recalls: “They took away our IDs and issued us with yellow cards. For the first time in our history, we were identified as not like other citizens. Certainly, we were outsiders in our own country.
“It was utter hell. Baghdad was now an open prison.”
By 1967, when Iraq joined Arab forces fighting Israel in the Six Day War, there were only 2,000 Jews left in the country.
When the defeated troops returned, more reprisals followed, with Jews living under house arrest and having their telephones taken away.
Two years on, Hussein was back in power as deputy to al-Bakr and was responsible for putting on a spectacular event – the public hanging of 13 men accused of spying for Israel.
Among them was the uncle of Danny Dallal. With tears in his eyes, he recalls: “I remember staying up all night and just hoping for an earthquake, another coup d’état, just something.
But he was hanged and nobody got to see him. That was my turning point. I just had one thought: ‘Let’s get out’.”
For Shuker, his family would hold onto their beloved country until 1971, when his father finally gathered everyone and said it was time to leave. He was 16 at the time.
While the majority of those interviewed said they still miss Iraq, they would never return.
But following the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Shuker was among the first to set foot again in his homeland after an absence of 32 years.
“I celebrated Rosh Hashana 2003 by the rivers of Babylon – anyone who was there will never forget that time.”
Today, just five Jews reside in the whole of Iraq, but that has not stopped the Finchley resident from believing a community will one day flourish here again. In fact, he has even bought a house in Erbil to keep this dream alive.
“It’s a symbolic move, it’s saying I am not going anywhere. I am the eternal Jew who was here and worked here and contributed to the civilisation of this particular land and I have not finished yet.
“I am eternally gracious to Britain, this generous and hospitable country for opening its arms, giving us the opportunity to live free and prosper and send our kids to the best schools.
“But I feel like a Babylonian Jew – that’s what I owe to my ancestors.”
Remember Baghdad (15) is released from Friday (tomorrow). Join director Fiona Murphy and Edwin Shuker for a Q and A at Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley on Sunday, 3 December, 5.15pm. Screening details: rememberbaghdad.com