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Ten years after a call for help, Iraqi Jewish documents go on display

In June of 2003, the National Archives Preservation Programs received a call for help from Iraq. Sixteen American soldiers had found tens of thousands of documents and 2,700 Jewish books while searching in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. The historic material was soaking wet.

And so Doris Hamburg and Mary-Lynn Ritzenthaler boarded a C-130 cargo plane and flew to Iraq.

“It was fascinating and exciting,” said Hamburg, Director of Preservation Programs at the National Archives. “We didn’t know quite what we were heading toward—but we were told everything would be fine.”

Materials being rescued in the flooded basement.

Materials being rescued in the flooded basement.

After Hamburg and Ritzenthaler arrived in Baghdad, they went to a warehouse on the banks of the Tigris River. Inside the warehouse was a freezer truck, and inside that truck were 27 metal trunks.

The trunks held masses of documents and books that had been submerged in four feet of water in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. And although the contents had been frozen to preserve them, Hamburg and Ritzenthaler could smell mold when they climbed into the truck.

“Freezing is a common way to stabilize materials when they become wet,” said Ritzenthaler, Chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory. “They acquired a freezer truck—it was quite a feat in those days in Baghdad to find a truck and to keep it fueled.”

Items recovered from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, before treatment.

Items recovered from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, before treatment.

The two women began to assess the wet and distorted documents. Prayer books, children’s Hebrew-language primers, fragments from scrolls, and other documents were jumbled together. Some were in Arabic, others in Hebrew, some in Judeo-Arabic, and a few in English.

The texts had been taken by the Baath Party regime. The damaged books and documents were a record of Jewish life in Baghdad from the Ottoman era to the 1970s—and they were a link to the more ancient Jewish community that had flourished for over 2,500 years in Babylon. But about 120,000 Jews had left Iraq in the early 1950s, and in 2003, only about 15 Iraqi Jews were living in Baghdad.

What to do with the documents? Hamburg and Ritzenthaler knew that a freezer truck could only be a temporary treatment. If the documents were to survive and be preserved physically and digitally for future generations, they needed to be dried and then treated. Options for treating the documents locally were limited.

A Torah fragment drying.

A Torah fragment drying.

In July 2003, the National Archives submitted a preservation report to Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the project moved forward. The National Archives and the Coalition Provisional Authority—with the agreement of the Iraqi state Board of Antiquities and Heritage—agreed that the materials would be shipped to the United States for preservation, and that when treatment was complete, they would be returned to Iraq.

Funding for the project came from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of State. The National Archives was limited to providing for security and preservation, since the IJA was not a U.S. Government collection.

Before any work could be done, the documents were freeze-dried. Although the mass of papers did not look any different, the mold was now neutralized and the documents were dry. The trunks were sent from the facility in Fort Worth, Texas, to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The conservation team began by removing the mold.

Conservation staff wore gloves and masks, and worked under ventilation hoods.

Due to the mold, conservation staff wore gloves and masks, and worked under ventilation hoods.

And then the work began. Each item received a number in a database, along with a digital photograph so that Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking catalogers could provide cataloging information.  Over the next several years, the documents would be cleaned, rehoused in custom-built boxes, stabilized, cataloged, and digitized. Experts in Jewish history, Iraqi and Jewish history, the Iraqi Jewish community, and Jewish rare books lent their skills and knowledge.

On November 7, 2013, the exhibit “Discovery and Recovery: The Iraqi Jewish Archive” opened to the public at the National Archives, and it will be on display until January 5, 2014. You can also see the documents online in a new website.

“It’s very rewarding and exciting to see how the project has progressed,” said Hamburg of the exhibit, adding “we’re really in the home stretch of making it available for people online.”

The story of this collection is not over. Two conservationists from Iraq just began fellowships at the National Archives in College Park, and as agreed, the entire collection will be returned to Iraq.

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Comment from Eileen Bolger
Time November 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Fascinating article and I’m sure a once in a lifetime experience. There was a story about this in the Denver Post last week, with quotes from Doris and Mary Lynn.