By Lael Dalal
While interning at the American Jewish Historical Society New England Archives and working on their collection of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), I came across the file of the Aghassi Family, Iraqi Jews (Mizrahi), who struggled to immigrate to the United States. The overwhelming majority of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society cases are of Ashkenazi Jews who tried to immigrate to the United States from European countries. I was very excited to come across a file of a Mizrahi family not only because it was rare to find an Arab family in the collection but also because I felt a personal connection as my grandparents were Iraqi Jews.
Iraqi Jews are one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities dating back to the Babylonian conquest in the 6th century BCE, where Jews learned to survive alongside of or under other religious groups. Jews became citizens who could vote and hold office in 1921, following the establishment of the Iraqi state under the British Mandate. Previous to 1930, Jews viewed themselves as Arabs and were viewed by others as Arabs because they had lived in Arab countries for centuries and were part of the various political and governmental systems. But as Nazi ideology started to spread beyond Europe, Iraqis also started to turn against their Jewish neighbors. Resentment towards the British for their colonial actions within the Middle East and especially Iraq also complicated the situation so that Jews were linked together with the British as the enemy of a independent Iraq. By 1934, Jews were dismissed from political posts in Iraq and violence against Jews spread; Zionism, Hebrew, and Jewish teachings became outlawed. (My own family lost a relative during this time in Iraq; my father’s uncle was hanged, suspected of “political crimes.”) Anti-British Nationalist groups carried out a military coup against the pro-British government in Iraq on April 2, 1941. The pro-German government that followed threatened the Jews. Following the coup on June 1, the Farhud, (meaning pogrom in Arabic) left roughly 200 Iraqi-Jews dead and caused most of the remaining Iraqi Jews to seek refuge elsewhere because of the killing and rape that erupted. The Aghassi family was among those attempting to flee an inhospitable Iraq.
The Aghassi family was an Iraq Jewish family that had lived in the country for many generations. Isak Aghassi was born in 1889 in Baghdad and worked with his father importing dyes and teas from India, eventually importing carpets and tobacco. In 1946, and as a result of the Farhud, Isak put himself, his wife Marcelle, and his two sons Badri Munir and Jacob Jamil on a waiting list as prospective immigrants to the United States. He would write to the American Embassy in Baghdad at least once a year (he would receive a yearly reply) inquiring when he and his family would be able to get out of the dangerous country. The reply was always the same, the quota was over-prescribed and they would need to wait patiently. Their life their must have been treacherous and full of hardships, as indicated by a letter from their file which states that Isak Aghassi “comes from a distinguished Iraqi Jewish family. He at one time had a fortune of money which was confiscated by the Iraqi government.” In 1953 the family was still not permitted to immigrate but they now desperately needed to leave Iraq as life became even more difficult for them, so they immigrated to Mexico City. Unfortunately, Iraqi-Jews were part of the “non-preference portion” of the Iraqi quota for American immigrants, which was incredibly small; in 1956, the quota for Iraqi immigrants was 100 persons annually. Helen Alpert, Executive Director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society who sought the Agassi’s approval for immigration was told in 1961 “as there is no provision of law whereby visas can be issued to intending immigrants out of their turns because of hardship factors or extenuating circumstances, I regret to inform you that there are no administrative means by which visa issuance may be hastened in this case.” Helen Alpert fought tirelessly for the Aghassi family and became close with them over the years. She continually received New Year postcards and greetings from the family –a personal connection I haven’t seen in other HIAS files. They called her “our dearest Miss Helen Alpert” and she called them “my sister and brother.”
Although it is unclear if Isak and Marcelle ever were able to became permanent residents of the US (they were living in Mexico City from 1954-1963, and from 1963 to at least 1969 were living in Boston but were yet not granted permanent residence status), they were incredibly grateful to Helen for aiding their two sons and helping them to become permanent residents. One card to Helen reads “Our dearest and fine sister Miss Helen Alpert, fondest love and much respect and God bless you forever.” The parents were so thankful to Helen since she had helped their children in the most important way possible: she had been able to provide them with means to live a safe and successful life in America instead of the dangerous and inhospitable one in Iraq. The sons had been allowed residency to go to school, where they excelled and both received their Doctorates at Boston universities. Helen helped to place Badri and Jacob within college, facilitated letters of recommendation for work, and made sure their visas were renewed and approved so they were able to stay in the United States to continue their studies and then find jobs. Badri went on to become a Physicist, researcher, and eventually a professor, and could read, write, and speak six languages. Jacob attended MIT and received his Doctorate from Boston University. Helen expressed to Badri her sincerest congratulations for his engagement and was invited to his wedding in 1964. The sons were also incredible grateful to Helen for her efforts to help them. Helen was there to aid Badri to become a permanent resident with his marriage. Badri would send HIAS donations and personal thanks.
The story of the Aghassi family is an extraordinary one of resolve and courage that epitomizes the struggle Iraqi Jews went through before, during, and after the WWII period. Their story revels another side of the Jewish struggle during WWII, that of the Mizrahi Jews, one that is not as commonly known or understood.