Furloughed Fed volunteers at local historical society

When the National Archives closed its doors on October 1 due to the government shutdown, staff did not know when they would return to work. So Meris Westberg took her skills to the Historical Society of Washington, DC (HSW).

When Westberg joined HSW a few months ago, she had talked to the collections manager, Anne McDonough, about volunteering there. But the hours were similar to her work hours at the National Archives, where Westberg works on books and manuscripts in Hebrew and Arabic from the Iraqi Jewish Archives, so it didn’t seem likely she would be able to give many volunteer hours—until the furlough allowed her the time.

To read more about this story, visit NARA’s Prologue: Pieces of History blog

Sefer Sipur Nes Hanukkah (The Book of the Story of the Miracle of Hanukkah) Baghdad, 1926

“This book contains the prayers for Hanukkah and the story of the miracle in Judeo-Arabic.

The eight-day holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE. Festive Hanukkah celebrations in Iraq were marked by the eating of a local delicacy–fried sweet fritters known as zengoula. Local foods shaped the cuisine and traditions of Iraqi Jews”

[IJA 1103/ReD 26574—Hanukkah Book]

(via Iraqi Jewish Life: Constancy and Change | Iraqi Jewish Archives)

This book was among the cache of water-soaked documents relating to the Jewish community of Iraq discovered in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. The National Archives was asked to provide advice on how to rescue this important group of materials, and over the past years intensive efforts have been involved in the preservation of these important books and documents. Many of these items including this book, are currently on exhibit in “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, through January 2014.

Happy Hanukkah!


[Images: Photo and prayerbook from the Iraqi Jewish Archive.  See images for descriptions.]

The result of a massive preservation and digitization project, the Iraqi Jewish Archive and its story are now available online.  These prayerbooks, community letters, photos, and religious items, which were seized and stored in a basement of Iraqi intelligence headquarters, narrowly missed being obliterated by a U.S. bomb which perforated the headquarters, but did not explode.  The building damage caused massive flooding, however, and when the documents and items were found by a U.S. Army team, they were under several feet of water.  Their removal and subsequent expert care by preservationists has allowed them to reveal the rich, vibrant Jewish community that once lived in Iraq.

Inititially, the U.S. promised to return the items to Iraq after restoration and cataloging, but now seems reluctant to do so, prompting comparisons to earlier European and American removals of Egyptian and Greek art from its homeland to be displayed in museums or held in private collections.  It is to be hoped that an amicable solution can be struck whereby the documents can be made widely available to all, perhaps digitally, while still held in their place of origin.


Preserving History

Next week we will be opening an extraordinary exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The exhibit, spanning more than 400 years, tells the story of the dramatic recovery on May 6, 2003 of 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents from a flooded basement in the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police.

The discovery, named the Iraqi Jewish Archive, included some of the most sacred texts of the Jewish people, including an ancient Torah, Talmud and Zohar—along with tens of thousands of documents relating to the Jewish community in Iraq. Upon the discovery of the documents, we were immediately called in due to our Agency’s extensive expertise in protecting great cultural treasures such as these from decay and destruction.

The exhibit, in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, opens on November 7th and closes on January 5th, 2014.

Read the full post on the AOTUS blog

Just two days left to see our exhibit “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” before it closes on January 5!

This volume of the Hebrew Bible is in the exhibit. It is one of the earliest printed books discovered in the flooded Mukhabarat headquarters in Iraq in 2003.

Printed in the late Renaissance Venice by Giovannidi Gara, the central biblical text is surrounded by rabbinic commentaries. Of the nearly 1,200 religious books recovered, approximately a quarter were printed in Baghdad, but others were imported from Hebrew presses worldwide—from India to Lithuania.

Can’t come to the exhibit in person? You can see it online:


📚 The Iraqi Jewish Archive, comprising “over 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents” about “the once vibrant Jewish life in Iraq,” is now online! 📜💻

(Also available on Google+ [a, b].)

Iraqi Jewish Archive

2000 books and tens of thousands of documents pertaining to the Iraqi Jewish community were found damaged in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in 2003.  NARA’s Iraqi Jewish Archive preservation team is very busy stabilizing, conserving, boxing and digitizing these intriguing items. The project is funded by the Department of State. In the fall the digitized images will be accessible for free online.

Conservator Katherine Kelly is piecing together document fragments.

Photo by Richard Schneider.   

Don’t forget to take a peek at The Washington Post article about the Iraqi Jewish Archive!

The Remnants of a Culture’s Heart and Soul
Iraqi Jewish Documents at the National Archives

These are not the weapons of mass destruction that the American Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha was seeking in Iraq during the spring of 2003. But the books and manuscripts that the team found in a flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters — now on display for the first time at the National Archives here — look like victims of some form of ordnance.

To read more about this story, visit The New York Times website!

Celebrating Passion and Accomplishment

With the opening of the “Discovery and Recovery” exhibit, I had a chance last week to thank many of the National Archives staff who made it possible.  And it truly took a village to make this happen!  Staff from just about every corner of the Agency contributed—preservation and conservation, security, legal, communications, exhibits, digital engagement, innovation, digital preservation, holdings protection, programs, and facilities. Truly a team effort.

Read the full post on the AOTUS blog.