Maurice Shamash remembers a time when growing up a Jew in Baghdad was pleasant, even idyllic. A time when there actually was a large Jewish population, thriving businesses, schools and synagogues. But he also remembers the pogroms, the executions and the mass exodus of more than 100,000 Jews following World War II, of which he was one. Today, the Jewish population in Baghdad is estimated at less than 10, according to The Jewish Agency.
This Sunday, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Shamash will be speaking about his memories, the happy and the tragic, in connection with the museum’s current exhibit “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.” The exhibit traces the discovery and recovery of tens of thousands of historic Iraqi Jewish books and documents from Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. The documents are slated to return to Iraq next year.
Shamash, born in the 1930s, grew up in a large family, one of nine children, in the center of the city. His father, originally from Mosul, moved to Baghdad and became successful in the textile business and with real estate investments. He was able to purchase a house that Shamash remembers fondly for its large, open center courtyard, with second-story bedrooms and for summer nights spent sleeping under the stars on the roof.
At the French Alliance Israelite School, he studied in French immersion and received a French high school degree. He also learned English, Hebrew and Arabic, excelling in school and in athletics.
“So, here I am, seven years old, studying four languages. People will think children cannot do it, but we did it,” he said.
When he was about 7, Shamash’s father bought a large, new house outside of northern Baghdad with a garden, a garage and a cow and hired a gardener, a Muslim woman to milk the cow and two women to cook and help with the children.
Life was good. He took swimming lessons in the Tigris River and played tennis on a tennis court he built himself. But the idyllic life of Christians and Muslims and Jews getting along didn’t last. With the rise of Nazis in Europe, anti-Semitism took hold, and boys in the neighborhood began shooting at him with a BB gun and chasing him home from the school bus.
“In June 1941 we had the pogroms, people died,” Shamash said. “During Erev Shavuot we were sleeping outside, and I could see there is smoke or fire, things burning [in Baghdad].”
A Muslim business partner of Shamash’s father came the next morning to warn them, and a few hours later, three policemen with guns knocked on the door. Shamash remembers the policemen saying, “This is a Jewish home, and we are here to kill everybody.”
But the Muslim friend convinced the men to leave by reciting the Quran and giving them all the money he had in his pockets.
“I was scared to death,” Shamash said. “That day, 200 Jews were murdered, 2,000 were wounded, 911 homes were looted, and many, many women were raped.”
The story of how Shamash escaped Baghdad as a teen is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. After excelling in school, he wanted to go abroad to college and prepared to get his passport. But Jews trying to leave Iraq came under suspicion, and he was arrested and held for nine days. About a year later, he was taken before a tribunal and finally granted approval to leave.
In 1950, a bill was introduced into the Iraqi Parliament permitting Jews to emigrate only by forfeiting their citizenship.
“So, for one year you could go out, but not come back,” he said. “120,000 Jews registered.”
Shamash’s odyssey to get to the U.S. involved a harrowing plane trip to Israel, where he was kept in a displaced-persons camp and later was able to go to school. There, he served in the Israeli Air Force and, while taking night classes and working in the engineering department, he learned to repair jet airplanes. Rejected for immigration to the U.S., he went to England for a few years and continued pursuing his education. Finally allowed into the U.S., he moved to Boston and got a job with Raytheon and pursued a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of New Hampshire. At MIT he did research for NASA, then pursued a doctor of science degree at Columbia University in New York and worked in the aerospace industry.
“I helped people go to the moon,” he said.
Married to his wife, Ann, in 1967, he eventually relocated to Baltimore, settling in Owings Mills for 37 years. Now retired, he and Ann live in Quarry Lake in Pikesville. They have two children.
In October 1972, one of his brothers, a father of two, who had remained in Baghdad was taken.
“We never heard from him again,” said Shamash, who will speak of his odyssey in detail at the museum event on Sunday.
As far as the disposition of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, Shamash is passionate about it remaining in the U.S.
“Iraq does not need it, does not care for it, does not treat it well, does not believe in it. Saddam Hussein is gone. To the Jews, this means a lot, especially to the Jews of Iraq,” he said. “I don’t mind if it goes to another state. It would be nice if it stays in Maryland. This is like a part of my life.”
For more information Iraqi exhibit events, visit jewishmuseummd.org.