One of Iraqs last Jews speaks out in Europe

VIENNA — "Jacob" will proudly tell you he is one of the last Iraqi Jews from Baghdad.

But he's very happy to have left what was his home for more than 50 years.

Jacob, who started his journey on Feb. 23 and traveled through other Arab countries, says he feels safe and relieved now that he has arrived in Europe.

For security reasons, his real name and whereabouts cannot be published.

When asked about the situation of Iraq's Jews now that Saddam Hussein has been deposed, Jacob is mildly optimistic.

"It will be better, but it will take a long time," he says.

He still fears for the Jewish community because it is hard being such a small minority in an Arab country, he adds.

There are believed to be approximately 35 Jews left in Iraq.

Jacob has not been in contact with them since the phone lines went down during the war in Iraq, though he has tried.

He is hopeful about his own future after having celebrated his first Passover since his own exodus.

A religious man, Jacob strongly believes that he was saved by the good deeds he did for the community, including bringing kosher meat to families who could not come to synagogue to pick them up.

Jacob also made sure before he left to teach someone how to slaughter chickens and sheep in accordance with Jewish law.

"Mitzvot tatzil mi'mavet" he says — good deeds save one from death.

Jacob has an amulet that he carries in his pocket, one of the only religious articles he took on his flight out of Iraq.

Jacob had wanted to leave Iraq since 1977. However, the government told him that he could only get a passport after retirement, which would be granted after a minimum of 25 years of work.

Not wanting to leave illegally for fear of being caught, Jacob stayed and finally got his passport after working for 32 years.

After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, all Jewish studies were forbidden in Iraq, but Jacob's parents taught him about Judaism, including how to read and write Hebrew.

He was very involved with the Jewish community, performing ritual slaughter, leading synagogue services and blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

"We used to bake our own matzot in a small mud oven. Two and a half kilos of flour was enough for one person for Pesach,'' he says.

He proudly speaks of the ancient Jewish prophets and leaders buried in Iraq, whose graves also have become holy sites for Muslims there.

Yet Jacob claims that only his close friends and neighbors knew he was Jewish. At work he went by a different name that was less conspicuously Jewish.

His caution was due to the sporadic persecution of Iraq's Jewish community.

In 1969, a few years after the Six-Day War, innocent Jews were falsely accused and hanged in a square in Baghdad.

Many Jews disappeared during 1972 and 1973 — and no one is sure what happened to them.

After leaving Baghdad Jacob hid with a farmer in another Arab country, under a false identity. He kept his Jewishness secret for fear of being killed, he says.

Jacob then was able to move on to Europe, where he celebrated Passover with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

He hopes to be granted refugee status soon in order to be able to join his family, who live in a different European country.