Iraq had a flourishing Jewish community until political regimes forced most Jews to leave. Only a few remain, but people can view their rich culture at the Breman Museum’s latest exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” running through April 29.
The collection portrays the recovery and preservation of objects such as books, letters and documents found in a flooded basement in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in 2003.
Conservators and archivists spent long hours restoring the documents, which are written in Arabic and Hebrew and date as far back as 1524.
The National Archives collection contains some rare pieces, such as a lunar calendar in Hebrew and Arabic from the Jewish year 5732 (1961-62), one of the last examples of Hebrew printing in Baghdad. A haggadah from 1902 is hand-lettered and decorated by an Iraqi Jewish youth.
The exhibit is divided into six sections and recounts the discovery of the documents, the text and heritage of the books, and the communal life of Iraq’s Jews.
The Iraqi government built the collection with items seized as wave after wave of Jews emigrated. A digitized version of the collection is available at www.ija.archives.gov.
In a preview and reception for Breman members Sunday, Jan. 28, conservator Anna Fridley expanded on her work with the collection and the preservation process in general. Fridley, who worked on the collection from 2012 to 2014, is the daughter of Lynn and Murray Friedman, a longtime docent and a supporter of the Breman.
Fridley said the material was flown from Baghdad to Texas and was commercially freeze-dried, a process that involves a cycle of dehumidification to pull water molecules out of the documents and stabilize any mold before the restoration begins.
She highlighted objects that she found significant, such as school records of Iraqi Jews. “The transcripts and photographs made everything personal,” she said. “The students from the photographs would look like my cousin or my nephew or my sister just staring up at me. … To know that I was part of bringing people’s personal histories back really made that category of records important to me.”
Fridley could not comment on whether the materials will be returned to Iraq, but said the National Archives will remain the custodian until it finds another responsible party to take care of them.
Most people don’t even know Baghdad once had a large Jewish population, Fridley said, so the collection is crucial.
“Part of the reason I wanted the Breman to host the exhibit is because there are people who don’t know that Atlanta has a Jewish community,” she said. “So to be able to have this very special, very niche community experience on display, in a community that has its own niche and specific Jewish experience, is very rewarding.”