Jimmy Ezra and his siblings were among more than 2,000 Iraqi Jews who were helped by Kurdish Peshmerga to escape from the Ba’athist regime during the 1970s. Here he talks to Ben Cohen of JNS News about his fears for the Kurds following the disastrous referendum on independence. (With thanks: Janet)
“One day in 1970, my brother Farid was walking in the street when he was stopped for an ID check,” Ezra recalled. “He had a permit exempting him from serving in the army, and on every page it was written in red, yahudi, yahudi, yahudi (Jew).”
Farid was arrested and imprisoned on a spying charge. His voice breaking, Ezra recalled how his brother was beaten and tortured by his jailers until he suffered a nervous breakdown. Farid was then transferred to a prison for the criminally insane.
“In the hot summer, the prisoners would all run outside to drink the unfiltered river water that was brought in by a truck in the morning — they would fight over the dirty water,” Ezra said. “My aunt would send me with food and clean water for my brother, and he would beg me to take him away.”
At this point, Ezra said, he and his sister Gilda decided that it was time to leave Iraq. He ventured north to Iraqi Kurdistan, then enjoying a measure of autonomy under an agreement with Baghdad that was soon reneged upon by Saddam Hussein. Arriving in the Kurdish town of Haj Omran on the Iranian border, he came across an Iraqi Jewish family he knew who were taken across the border into Iran that same night. Ezra, meanwhile, was given a mattress in a room where he bedded down with ten Kurds. “I told them about how the Jews were suffering,” he said. “They promised to take me to Mustafa Barzani the following day.”
Masssoud Barzani in his youth
The next morning, Barzani’s aides hatched a plan that involved Ezra and another Jewish family returning to Baghdad to collect their relatives, after which they would travel to a meeting point back in northern Iraq. “That was on Monday; on the Thursday, back in Baghdad, I woke up my brother Farid, who was suffering badly from his trauma in prison, and I told him, ‘Come on, you and me and Gilda are going on a short vacation,’” he said.
Had they been stopped and discovered at one of the many security checkpoints along the way, certain imprisonment in a Ba’athist jail would have awaited — and, indeed, the family was pulled over by a soldier. “Luckily, the guy was an idiot,” Ezra remembered. “He couldn’t understand why my brother had an exemption permit from the army, so our driver kept explaining, ‘He’s not well, he’s not well.’ Eventually, the soldier said, ‘Ok, ok, you can go.’”
Arriving at the meeting point agreed with Barzani’s advisers, Ezra remembered that a high-level Kurdish intelligence official “came out and started briefing us.”
To maintain secrecy around Kurdish assistance to escaping Iraqi Jews, the official instructed Ezra and those with him to personally approach Masoud Barzani, who would be sitting in a cafe at an agreed time, and pretend they had a brother imprisoned by Kurdish forces. “We had to act,” Ezra said. “We had to beg and plead in front of Masoud.”
Following this ruse, the Ezra siblings got into a jeep alongside Masoud. At the border with Iran, Masoud got out and bade his farewells. “We had a gift for Masoud and his adviser,” Ezra said. “It was a Parker 21 pen, that was a big deal back then. We wanted them to take it, but they refused and refused. They said, ‘We are doing this because we care and we want to help you.’”
“They never took any money, any gifts, unlike the smugglers who would rob the Iraqi Jews they were supposed to be helping,” Ezra continued.
After crossing into Iran on September 1, the Ezras survived a long and arduous journey to Tehran, where they stayed at the aptly-named Hotel Sinai — then full of escaped Iraqi Jews in transit with the Jewish Agency’s assistance. “On October 2, we arrived in America,” Ezra said. “We came to New York.” Many other Iraqi Jews who escaped around the same time went to Israel, as well as the UK, Canada and other countries.