20 min read
Elisha Cohen’s family was the victim of unimaginable terror under Saddam Hussein. But he survived to tell the world.
“It’s very important for people to know what happened to my parents – what happened to my mother, what happened to my brothers and my sisters. No one heard their voice.”
Elisha Cohen speaks clearly and confidently when discussing the history of his family in Iraq, but there are moments when you can hear the emotion permeate his voice. Some of those are when he discusses the tragedies and vicious persecution that they faced under the Baath party and Saddam Hussein, and some of those are when he talks about his faith in the face of events almost too terrible to contemplate.
Elisha was imprisoned at a young age and forced to endure the murder of much of his family.
Imprisoned at a young age and then forced to endure the murder of much of his family, Elisha, known as Marvin in English, survived and escaped, eventually making his way to his present home in Perth, Australia. In his book My Salvation, which was transcribed by Andrew Blitz and published in 2014, and in speeches he’s given in Australia, he has continued to make people aware of the fate of the Iraqi Jews who remained in the country until the later years of the twentieth century.
Iraq’s Jewish history dates back to events recorded in Tanach; Nevuchadnezzar’s exile of the Jews to Babel established a community that would exist for thousands of years. The periods of the Amoraim and Geonim were golden ones in Babel, the area of modern-day Iraq, for the Jews. But even as the centers of Jewish life moved elsewhere and the rise of Islam created hardship and suffering for Jews, there was a strong Jewish presence in Iraq. That would all change in the twentieth century.
The early years of that century were relatively good for the Jews, particularly under the British Mandate during the 1920s. In fact, the first finance minister and one of the architects of the modern state of Iraq, Sassoon Eskell, was an Iraqi Jew.
During the 1930s, Iraqi Jews were subjected to increasing persecution. Nazi propaganda had made its way to Iraq from Europe, partially promoted by the Mufti of Jerusalem, an associate of Hitler.
During World War II, attacks on Jews intensified. Rashid Ali, who had become the prime minister of Iraq for the second time in 1940, worked on an alliance with the Nazis, hoping that they could help drive the British out of the country. He eventually initiated the Anglo-Iraqi War, a series of battles during 1941 that ended with a British victory and Rashid Ali fleeing the country. Immediately after his defeat, his followers carried out a pogrom in Baghdad against the Jews. Known as the Farhud, the riots killed close to 200 Jews, though some estimates put the numbers higher.
The Farhud was not the end of major Jewish life in Iraq, though some would later look back at it as the beginning of the end. But in the late 1940s, the numbers of Jews in the country remained in the hundreds of thousands.
The period after the establishment of the state of Israel saw an increased level of violence against Jews, and accusations of Zionism led to public executions. From 1948 until 1950, Iraq refused to allow the Jews to emigrate, claiming that they would increase Israel’s strength. But in March of 1950, Iraq reversed the decree and Jews began leaving the country in a mass exodus. Around 120,000 to 130,000 left in an Israeli campaign known as Operation Ezra and Nechemia, over a period of a few years, with the possessions of many of the Jews confiscated by the Iraqi government.
Elisha told me that there were more Iraqi Jews left in the country than official statistics showed, in some cases because they had thought they were going to be able to leave and weren’t able to. Many were able to get papers as Christians, rather than Jews, though they kept in contact with the Jewish community. Official numbers showed only several hundred Jews in Iraq during the late twentieth century, but Elisha stated that he believed there were as many as 20,000 living under assumed identities as Christians and other ethnicities.
And while for most Iraqi Jews the end of their time in the country had come, for a small minority, like Elisha Cohen’s family, Iraq would remain their home.
Elisha’s family was, as were many Iraqis, both rooted in the country and cosmopolitan at the same time. Though both of his paternal grandparents were born in Iraq, they met in Germany in the 1920s, where many Iraqi Jews traveled to for business. His maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who had entered Iraq after the war, where he married Elisha’s maternal grandmother in Baghdad.
Elisha’s mother also traveled for a time to Europe, where she studied in France to be an ophthalmologist. “My experiences have left me with some difficulty in remembering our childhood,” Elisha writes. “I have vivid recollections of the last time I saw my brothers and sisters, however my memories of how we grew up together have since been disturbed.”
Elisha and his seven siblings grew up in a large house in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. He had three older brothers, a twin brother, then two younger sisters with a younger brother in between them. Only the two oldest brothers attended school; the rest of the children were taught at home, as Jews were not anymore allowed to attend Iraqi schools.
Elisha's sister was given to his aunt who was living under an assumed identity as a Christian.
Elisha and his twin were born in 1974. The Baath Party had taken control of the government in the 1960s, and Saddam Hussein had already taken much of control of the party and the government by the time of Elisha’s birth; he would officially take control in 1979.
Elisha recounts that the dangers in being Jewish at the time were so great that when his youngest sister was born, she was given to his mother’s sister, who was living, like many other Jews, under an assumed identity as a Christian.
Elisha’s family was fairly well-off; his grandfather and father were all in the international gold and jewelry trade and owned real estate, as well. Unfortunately, that would not spare the family from grief.
The government grew gradually more hostile to his family. Real estate belonging to his father was confiscated in 1978; jewelry stores were taken in 1983. “They did it slowly just to humiliate my father,” Elisha said
Soon they had confiscated the passports of Elisha’s parents. Saddam Hussein’s government tightly controlled the movements of all Iraqis, especially out of the country, but the confiscation made clear that the government had decided that the Cohens would not be allowed out.
“My parents wanted to leave but could not. The government didn’t want you, but they didn’t let you go,” Elisha told me.
The church took possession of Elisha, forcibly baptized him, and kept him there for a year before his father could secure his release.
Elisha had an early traumatic experience. When he was eight years old, in an emergency, his father had asked a non-Jewish neighbor to watch Elisha. Out of fear from the authorities, the neighbor took Elisha to the safest place they could think of: a local church. But the church took possession of Elisha, forcibly baptized him, and kept him there for a year before his father could secure his release.
But the next year was hardly better. Elisha’s father now had started keeping Elisha with him while he worked, and one day, Iraqi soldiers arrived at the office and took them both away. Even before the Osirak reactor had been bombed by Israel in 1981, the Iraqis had accused Iraqi Jews of being spies for Israel. Afterward, it was practically a given.
Torture was systematical and ubiquitous under Saddam Hussein. The government’s totalitarianism promoted informing; disloyalty to the regime was punished by detention and horrendous torture. Everything from acid baths to the burning of limbs was employed on prisoners. One of his sons had his own private torture chamber for his own enjoyment.
The BBC’s correspondent for Iraq at the time, John Sweeney, described some of the torture victims he’d seen and the fear that such behavior had created: “I have been to Baghdad a number of times. Being in Iraq is like creeping around inside someone else's migraine. The fear is so omnipresent you could almost eat it. No one talks.”
Elisha’s father was not spared – and neither was the young boy.
“They started to beat [my father] in prison,” Elisha writes, “and after he refused to confess the crime of spying, they also started to beat him in front of me. I was both shocked and scared. My father did not want to show himself as weak in my presence, so he held his head up and refused to show emotion. He told me afterward not to be scared, to remember that King David would sing and cry out to God when in times of trouble.”
The two of them would be held in prison together for four or five years.
Elisha describes the privation they suffered in captivity, his father softening the hard bread they were given to eat in water, and then passing it to him. Both of them were tortured, with everything from beatings to electrocutions. “I didn’t do anything in prison, just accepted the fact that I had to suffer,” Elisha writes.
My father told me not to be afraid of death… they could kill my body, but they couldn't take away my soul or my faith.
But he also describes the faith that his father instilled in him. “He taught me to keep my faith under any situation. He wanted me to be strong. We had no choice. Even though I was only a child, I had to be tough and understand the danger that surrounded me.”
He mentions further: “I used to ask my father what would happen if they would kill us. I wanted to know what happened to people after they died, and my father told me not to be afraid of death. He told me that they could kill my body, but they could not take away my soul or my faith. My father told me that these people could harm my body, but not my mind. This is given to us by God and taken from us only by God.”
Elisha is uncertain why, but one day his father and he were handcuffed and driven away from prison. They thought that they were likely being taken to be killed, but instead, they were dropped off at the side of the road, with nothing in their hands but once again free.
They cautiously made their way back home, only approaching the house under cover of dark. “We could hear the locks of the door opening. It was my elder brother Naftali, and he could not believe we were back. All my brothers came out, and then my mother stepped forward and immediately started to cry.”
Elisha’s youngest brother had been born shortly after he and his father had been imprisoned. It was the first time they had seen him. The two of them had not been allowed any visits from their family for the entire duration of their imprisonment.
They were still wary from the years in prison, but Elisha’s father began plans for a bar mitzvah for the twins; Elisha had already turned 13 in prison.
Public celebrations were dangerous, so they snuck out of the city; Elisha’s father did not tell them where they were going. They traveled to a solitary house in a remote field; inside the house, they entered a trapdoor to reach a secret underground room. Soon, a number of men showed up, including a chacham (rabbi), who gave everyone an arachina, or kippah. Then a man brought forward a sefer Torah.
This was the first time the boys had been in a synagogue. As they celebrated inside, several men from the group would stand guard outside, armed and looking for any sign of danger.
That special day was soon followed by some of the most horrific ones.
That special day – ”the best day of my life” – was soon followed by some of the most horrific ones.
As an openly Jewish family that had some wealth, the Cohens were obvious targets for a regime that regularly brutalized Jews.
In 1988, Elisha’s oldest brother Naftali was working in their father’s office on the day of Purim with a Christian man when soldiers entered. They handcuffed the Christian to a chair, then proceeded to tie up Naftali and viciously mutilate and kill him. The Christian was released with the instruction to tell Elisha’s father what had happened, and then the men took Naftali’s remains, bundled them in a bag, and threw them in the Cohens’ garden.
“My father found the bag in the garden first. He instinctively knew that it was the body of my brother because he hadn’t come home from work.”
Elisha’s father took him to bury Naftali outside the city, and then they returned and told his mother what had happened.
At that point, Elisha’s father resolved to try to leave the country, but he was unable to. Contacts that he had made in European countries and to whom he had sent money for safekeeping did not answer his pleas.
And then tragedy struck, again and again and again. Elisha’s next two oldest brothers were murdered, one shot on the road by Iraqi police and the other arrested while trying to buy food, then mutilated and stabbed to death like the oldest brother; his remains were shoved in their garage, wrapped in an Israeli flag. Both of these brothers were buried in their garden.
“In February 1990, the authorities came and arrested my father. They took him to prison and he was killed there in the same month. The authorities came to the house one day and knocked on the door,” Elisha writes. They were there to tell him that his father was dead; all of his body that they would give him was his eyes.
“I looked at them and knew I had to say the right thing, otherwise they would arrest me and the remaining members of the household, so all I said to them was ‘Thank you.’” Elisha buried what they had given him in the garden, next to the graves of his two brothers.
Elisha decided that he needed to get his family out of there. He took his twin brother north to a Christian family that had been close to his grandfather and left him there. Then he returned to Mosul and took his younger brother and sister (one sister was already in hiding with his aunt) to a local Catholic family and left them there. But his mother refused to leave the house.
“About five hours later into the evening, I heard a noise outside in the street.” When Elisha went to an upstairs window, he saw that a number of government cars had surrounded the house. “Someone rang the front door bell, but I did not open the door. All of a sudden, I heard a loud crash and realized that one of the cars had slammed into our garage door.”
The Iraqi agents broke into the house, grabbed Elisha’s mother, and pulled her out to the street, where they tied her behind a car and dragged her in the street. After they were done, they brought her back to Elisha.
“She was alive but barely conscious. They untied my handcuffs and I took my mother in my arms for a few minutes and said to her, ‘I am sorry I couldn’t help you but I am here with you now.’”
A few minutes later, she died, in her son’s arms.
Elisha was taken to prison once more, where he was beaten and questioned. When he gave them no information about other Jews, they sent him to the prison northwest of Mosul known as Badush, where he was put in a cell with a Christian pastor.
Days in prison were spent in backbreaking work, usually in a quarry. Food was barely edible. And the torture and interrogations continued. Elisha describes his reaction to a water torture: “I felt like my head was going to explode. My body would feel very cold and I thought I was losing my mind. It felt like every drop weighed 100 kilos. I screamed from the pain; it was driving me insane. I just screamed and screamed.”
Elisha endured further terrible tortures. But one day they stopped. An officer who had tormented him mercilessly and had threatened him with worse was killed in a car accident, and the next officer assigned to him saw it as a fulfillment of something that Elisha had said during the torture sessions. Instead of inflicting pain on Elisha, he would make it sound like he was, and Elisha would scream, and instead nothing would happen.
“I thanked God for hearing me and saving me from more torture.”
A prison escape engineered by an Iraqi tribe angry with the government ended with all the prisoners who had escaped being recaptured and re-imprisoned. But several months later, the pastor who shared the cell with Elisha arranged that he be rescued from the prison, by bribing guards and arranging for them to bring him out of the prison and release him into the custody of others who were being paid by the pastor.
Elisha’s first attempt to escape the country almost ended in disaster. While attempting to cross into Turkey – which was the only country that was a feasible transit to Europe – from Iraq with a group of smugglers, Elisha was washed downstream, so that he ended up in Syria. It took him several months, as well as a period of internment in a refugee camp, before he was able to make it back into Iraq to once again attempt crossing the border into Turkey.
Life as a refugee was not easy, Elisha found. His travels – undertaken with fake passports, subterfuge, and other survival techniques he improvised or learned from others – took him from Turkey to Hungary to Vienna, Austria, where he found sanctuary with a Christian couple and Chabad rabbi Dov Gruzman. Along the way he had altercations with Muslim refugees, escaped from a Hungarian refugee camp, and evaded border police on a cross-European train.
But despite all of this, Elisha soon began thinking about how he could get back into Iraq, to rescue his siblings. He was looking for a country that he could receive papers in that would allow him better legal coverage for travel in and out of Iraq.
After an abortive attempt in Germany, Elisha decided to try Australia. He flew to the continent using a fake passport, then destroyed it enroute and declared that he had no passport and had come directly from Iraq.
With the help of the Jewish community, including contacts given to him by Rabbi Gruzman, Elisha was allowed to stay in a detention area in Pert, where there was a Jewish community. Elisha was eventually granted residency in Australia.
But even though he had found some stability, Elisha was unwilling to remain there while he still had hope of rescuing his relatives. He applied for Australian travel documentation, which would allow him to travel to Europe and back even though he did not have an Australian passport.
His plan was, to put it mildly, audacious. He would travel back to Europe, back into Turkey, and slip back into Iraq, where he would find his twin brother and send him back with the identification, since they looked the same.
As it was, almost all of the plan went off as he hoped. He even was able to find a family that had been helping his brother, who was hiding in a cave in the mountains, near the burial place of the Prophet Nachum.
But he received devastating new, as he waited for his brother to come down from the mountains. The couple asked a shepherd to go up into the mountains to find Elisha’s brother.
The shepherd found my brother lifeless at the foot of a cave.
“He found my brother lifeless at the foot of a cave,” Elisha writes. He had been suffering from a heart condition, which may have been the cause of his death.
The shepherd brought the body back to town and buried it, though Elisha writes that he was unable to visit the grave because the area was under surveillance and it was too dangerous for him.
Elisha managed to return to Turkey and then fly back to Australia, where he began to make a life for himself, eventually finding work as an auto mechanic
He attempted to help his youngest sister, who had been hiding as a Christian, escape Iraq, as well, by attempting to arrange funds for her to hire a smuggler to get her across the border to Jordan. But he learned, after losing contact with her for a month, that she had been caught by Jordanian border guards and turned back, where she was assumedly killed by Iraqi soldiers. Her children would eventually leave Iraq in the 2000s, and Elisha was able to meet them in Europe in 2010.
There are still relatives that Elisha is working on getting out of Iraq, but he is unable to discuss the cases due to his concerns about their safety.
That these horrifying events, reminiscent of the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, happened just a few years ago is shocking – as is the fact that the world doesn’t know more about them. Elisha noted that Israel is often berated for its treatment of Muslim terrorists without any remembrance of what Muslim countries have done to the Jews, and what such terrorists are capable of.
In January 2012, Elisha traveled to Israel for the first time. One experience he had, which he admits was questionable according to Jewish law, was ascending the Temple Mount. Because he looks Middle Eastern and is a native Arab speaker, he was able to enter the Dome of the Rock without any problems. And he returned there on a trip in 2013. Elisha sees his presence there as a defeat of his enemies, the enemies of the Jewish people.
Elisha’s story is incredible; the fact that he survived his travails is amazing. But perhaps even more amazing is that his faith in God survived, as well.
I asked Elisha whether his experiences have left him adversely affected. He told me the opposite was true.
“Actually, my past makes me stronger every day. You have to know if I was not Jewish I would not have survived.”
He told me that he sees his survival as having been in the hands of God. “I was in His hands wherever I went. If you look at my book, it was not me escaping; it was me going from one trouble to another trouble. But God always sent me someone to help. There always was someone there. It was like I felt I was in His hands.”