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When U.S. troops entered Saddam Hussein's secret police building in Baghdad back in 2003, they were looking for weapons of mass destruction. They didn't find them. But they did discover a trove of documents from what was once a thriving Jewish community in Baghdad. Those documents, rescued from the basement of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, go on display this week here in Washington.
The big question, as NPR's Larry Abramson report, is who owns the documents, Iraq or Iraqi Jewish exiles?
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The basement was flooded, and floating in the muck, according to Doris Hamburg of the National Archives, were scads of documents. Some are centuries old, others more recent, and they chronicle Baghdad's role as a center of Jewish life.
DORIS HAMBURG: There were holiday prayer books, sections of Torah scrolls, books on Jewish law, Baghdadi Jewish Community organizational documents.
ABRAMSON: Hamburg got a call from Iraq's interim government, which asked the Archives how to save the documents. Hamburg told them freeze them, it's the best way to prevent mold. Then she rushed from Washington to Baghdad to inspect the collection herself. Somehow, in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, authorities had procured a freezer truck, which created a strange work environment.
HAMBURG: It was below freezing in this truck. And outdoors it was over a hundred degrees. And so, you were going between this frozen environment to this very hot environment. And actually, after a while, you started to get headaches.
ABRAMSON: After an initial assessment, the Archives agreed to take charge of restoring the documents, and the trove began its odyssey to preservation facilities outside Washington, D.C.
For the better part of 10 years, experts have been working in this special lab in Maryland, teasing apart stuck-together pages, and they are still at it. The transformation could be called miraculous. A Passover Haggadah has been restored from a moldy mess into a museum piece; the beautiful cover drawing once again shows a Passover meal.
HAMBURG: And so we see the family sitting around the table eating matzo. And I believe they also show Elijah as having joined the family, as well.
ABRAMSON: The Archives are best known for safeguarding documents like the original Declaration of Independence, so this is an odd project, the Archives first work on non-U.S. material. Even now, workers like Kathryn Kelly are still opening up file folders, and discovering documents that bear witness to an Iraqi Jewish community that has been almost completely wiped out.
KATHRYN KELLY: These are almost all extremely moldy and so we always open this in the fume hood for our initial assessment.
ABRAMSON: Many of the records are not religious. Some document the parallel administration that organized Jewish life in Baghdad. After World War II, there were still over 100,000 Jews in the city, but most fled rampant persecution after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Those who stayed continued to attend separate Jewish schools and their records have survived.
Librarian Dina Herbert shows me the records of one student.
DINA HERBERT: There's grades and enrollments and photos, and sometimes there's even an elementary school photo, a middle school photo and a graduation photo.
ABRAMSON: It's not clear why Saddam's secret police decided to confiscate and store this mix of religious texts and administrative papers. But the personal nature of some documents has raised this question: Who owns this stuff?
MAURICE SHOHET: This material is the patrimony of the Iraqi Jewish community.
ABRAMSON: Maurice Shohet grew up in Baghdad. He's now president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq. Shohet has been trying to get the Iraqi government to give up its claim on the documents, so they can be returned to individual Jews or to the community at large - but not to the Iraqi government.
SHOHET: It was confiscated from them. Logically it should be returned to them.
ABRAMSON: Shohet and others have been urging the U.S. and Iraqi governments to change the 2003 agreement. It says the materials should return to Iraq after they are exhibited in Washington and New York.
Filmmaker Carole Basri is a descendant of Iraqi Jews. She says the Jewish population of Iraq is now down to a handful of people, so these materials should remain accessible to the exiled population.
CAROLE BASRI: And it should be somewhere where that they can see it. So if it stayed in the United States, or it was on permanent tour, I don't think the situation in Iraq is safe enough for it to go back now.
ABRAMSON: The State Department and the Iraqi government would only point to the agreement, which says the collection must go back. The National Archives is putting all the documents online, so that people anywhere can see what remains of the Iraqi Jewish community that was.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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