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Smuggler of the Syrians

Baila Rosenbaum

For the next 28 years, I arranged for more than 3,000 Syrian Jews to be smuggled from Aleppo, Damascus, and Qamishli

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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J udy Feld Carr, Toronto, Canada

The moment I became a household name

One day in 1972 I read a report in the Jerusalem Post about 12 Jews who had attempted to escape from Syria and were caught and brutally murdered. My husband and I were appalled, and we decided we had to do something about it. We contacted the Israeli consulate, who told us to act on our own.

We had no knowledge of the country, so we started by trying to call someone in the Jewish community in Damascus. After two weeks, we got through to a Syrian operator who connected us to a Jewish woman who happened to be an informer on other Jews. In what can only be described as bashert, she wasn’t home at the time. Instead, her husband gave us the name and address of the Jewish school and its rabbi.

We got in touch with them and started sending religious items. Eventually, we were communicating through coded messages and I built up a network of secret contacts in Syria. No one in Syria talked about it — it was too dangerous — and no one here knew about it. The Syrian regime forbade Jews from emigrating, but there were officials I could bribe to let Jews out. For the next 28 years, I arranged for more than 3,000 Syrian Jews to be smuggled out of Aleppo, Damascus, and Qamishli to North America and Israel.

I also had the opportunity to rescue precious items like books and antiques. Once when I was in Israel meeting with a representative of the Israeli Museum, I was told about the lost Damascus Codex — the Keter. This Tanach was written in the Middle Ages and rumor had it that it was hidden in Damascus. But no one had heard about it for more than 500 years. The Syrians knew the value of the Keter and had it in their inventory; they didn’t want it leaving the country. In the end, I successfully smuggled out the Keter, along with other books.

In the beginning

I was married with three small children and living in Toronto. I was a musicology lecturer in a local high school and university, and my husband was a physician. We were involved in the community and worked for Jewish causes — petitioning to free Russian Jews, the JDL, and the synagogue. But it was a regular life, nothing like what followed.

How my life changed

Before we started rescuing Syrian Jews, my late husband and I sent seforim and religious items by mail. In 1973, my husband passed away of a heart attack. I remarried three years later, and during this difficult time, I was still communicating with the rabbis in Syria. My new husband and I raised a blended family of six children, and I continued in my commitment to the cause, rescuing individuals and families suffering under the Syrian regime.

This was a 24-hour operation, and because I had to be involved day and night, I gave up my job. I was always on call, and sometimes I had to travel to different countries. When I traveled, I didn’t even tell my husband where I was going until I was safely at home. There were times when nothing was happening, and it was all very quiet, but there were times when I was very busy. There were hard times — I endured threats — but I still maintained as normal a life as possible.

My family knew what was going on, but for them it was natural. They were sworn to secrecy. And to them it was a regular life: pack your lunch, come to dinner. But if I went into the study and closed the door, everyone knew it was off limits. I could be working out an escape route or bribing an official, and I wasn’t available.

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