To celebrate Chanukah, The CJN is running a series, eight miracles for eight days. In this first instalment, Judy Feld Carr looks back at her role in the rescue of the Jews of Syria.
In 1947, the UN passed a resolution that approved a Jewish and an Arab state in what was to become Israel.
With it, the Jews of Syria – who lived in that land since the Second Temple – were swept into unspeakable circumstances by the Baath party-controlled government, shaped along Nazi lines. “Moussawi” (“Jew”) stamped on identity cards, travel limited to three kilometres, synagogue services and schools monitored, no government jobs, Muslim partners forced on business owners, a special division of the secret police, arrests on any pretext, torture and deprivation in underground prisons, physical attacks encouraged, Palestinians billeted in adjacent homes and unpursued murders.
Above all, Jews were not allowed to emigrate or travel abroad, without leaving close family members and monetary deposits behind to ensure return. A hostage Jewish community, in Damascus, Aleppo and Kamishli, held incommunicado, cried out for help.
Learning of this situation, in 1973 my late husband Dr. Ronald Feld and I made secret contacts with that community. We learned who the rabbis were and that religious books for school and synagogue were desperately needed. Not knowing if it would reach them, we sent a shipment by registered mail. Miraculously, they received it.
That led to a series of clandestine communications and shipments, which, although never originally even imagined, was converted, some considerable time after the sudden death of my husband, into a dangerous, covert rescue operation, described by the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, as “the biggest private rescue of Jews since the Second World War.”
“often, parents were oblige to choose which child to leave”
I established codes and, using underground channels through Syrian Jews in other countries, as well as sympathetic Christians, contacted the rabbis in that community. As a result, from 1977 until 2001 (the morning of 9/11) often one by one, but, occasionally, a whole small family, 3,228 Jews (by the count of Israel security officials) were, either spirited out of that country by drug smugglers, or were issued exit permits by bribed officials.
Each story was different. Often, parents were obliged to choose which child should leave and be entrusted to someone they did not know, and which sibling or siblings were to remain. Each rescue had its own risks, with heart-stopping twists and turns, across mined and guarded borders, until I knew the people were safely in the hands of Israeli security, or had reached the West. (Successive Canadian governments – with the exception of that of Brian Mulroney – refused entry to these desperate souls, even temporarily).
Trumped up charges against Jewish residents, as well as failed attempts to escape on their own, had resulted in many imprisonments, in the worst possible conditions, for which, as Amnesty International reported, the Syrians were infamous. I was able to smuggle necessities of life into the prisons. A baby, born on the cold prison floor, received milk that way. Ultimately, I bribed to freedom every Jew who had been incarcerated. I then had to find ways and means of getting them out of the country.
The source of moneys for these activities was a fund established in my late husband’s name, by the then board of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation. With no employees, no fundraising dinners, no advertising, sustained only by appeals from pulpits and word of mouth information across the country, the amounts required, almost miraculously, flowed in.
While these hidden operations were going on, I played another role – this one more overtly. I was the national chairman of the Committee for Jews in Arab Lands of Canadian Jewish Congress. We publicized the plight of Syrian Jews and repeatedly and overtly pleaded with federal ministers of External Affairs to intervene for the Syrian Jewish community – quite unsuccessfully.
Almost incidental to this rescue of our people, I found the opportunity to remove countless religious books, some going back hundreds of years. The ultimate glory of this part of those activities was the undercover removal of both the last Torah in Aleppo and, miraculously of all, a Damascus Keter (the Tanach) beautifully handwritten in the 1200s on almost translucent parchment, which now rests – properly protected – in the National Jewish Library in Jerusalem. Al Akhbar and other Arab publications have continued to brand me, alternatively, a spy and a “Canadian-Israeli agent.”
Looking back, I realize that for many years, I lived two separate lives. A wife and mother of six children (I had remarried in 1977 to a supportive Donald Carr) and, concurrently, an international dealer in human lives. There is an aura of unreality, combined with one of concern, as my life has been threatened more than once. “Hard and dangerous work,” wrote the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. However, I have a great sense of accomplishment in that I did what countless of our people have done over the centuries – redeemed the hostages.