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Between Iraq and Hard Places

Barbara Bensoussan

Despite tragedy, poverty, and continuous turmoil, Chava Shamash Kaplan emerged from her journey through exiles whole, and with a stronger connection to Hashem and her heritage.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The doll’s blond curls were mussed, her red and leopard-print outfit manhandled, and the little voice box that mewed “Mama” dismantled. But over 40 years later, Chava (Cynthia) Shamash Kaplan still treasures that doll. Together they survived; together they crossed worlds. Born in Baghdad in 1963, Chava and her parents were among the 300 Iraqi Jews left in the city after Operation Ezra and Nehemiah spirited off the vast majority to new lives in Eretz Yisrael. Chava’s father headed the British accounting company Whinney Merry (today Ernst & Young), and the family enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle until government purges forced him to resign. In 1972, the family attempted to escape. They took a train north toward the Iraq-Iran border, hoping to cross; the Shah of Iran was friendly to Jews, and quite a few Iraqis had escaped this way. They disembarked in Arbil and hired a driver to take them toward the border. But he betrayed them to the police, and they were brought to the station for interrogation. Even eight-year-old Chava was brought in for questioning. Convinced her doll was a Zionist espionage device, two officers opened its back to inspect the wires that made her “talk.” “My parents are not spies, Sir,” Chava quavered repeatedly, trying to avoid arousing their ire. When it became clear the doll was only a doll, they tore her apart and threw the pieces across the room, shouting at Chava to get out. She scurried across the room to retrieve the dolly’s scattered limbs and stylish clothes. The voice box remained on their desk for further investigation. “You could say I was trained from birth to deal with trauma, kind of the way Olympic athletes train from childhood,” says Chava, a slender, olive-skinned woman in a short black wig and tasteful knit dress. We’ve met in the coffee shop of Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, where an exhibit of Iraqi Jewish archives is on display. “I was born the year the Ba’ath Party seized power in Iraq,” she continues. “When I was a year old, my father had a minor heart attack. My very first sentence was, ‘It will be alright.’ By the time I was interrogated, I already had developed a sense of how to answer the police.” The family spent a horrendous three months in the Zaafrania prison before being released. Was Chava traumatized, left with PTSD or nightmares? She says she wasn’t. “Maybe I was at a resilient age when I went through all that,” she speculates. But she knows people who later cracked under the strains of that era: a man who became a paranoiac, another who committed suicide. Today Chava’s life is worlds away from those terrors; she lives in Queens, a frum wife and mother and successful dentist. But it’s impossible to forget the experiences she and her family endured. She’s busy polishing a compelling memoir of her family’s exile from Iraq for publication. She also serves as the officer in charge of public relations for WOJI, the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, which represents Jews of Iraqi origin in the Diaspora.

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