Past and Present

Jewish World Review March 19, 2001 / 24 Adar, 5761


In the early 1970s, 4,500 Jews were trapped in Syria, terrorized by Nazi-trained secret police. Then Judy Feld Carr, a music teacher from Toronto, began setting up an underground network to get them out. Today, only a few remain

By Norman Doidge -- IN 1982, Hafez zl-Assad, the Syrian dictator, put down a revolt in the city of Hama by murdering over 10,000 Syrian civilians, mostly Muslims. It was not out of character for his regime to resort to brutal violence to make a point; in the 1973 war against Israel, young Israeli soldiers caught by his troops on the Golan Heights were killed execution-style, their penises cut off and placed in their mouths. Yet, when Assad died a few months ago, President Clinton said, "I have met him many times and gotten to know him very well. . . . I always respected him." Western media ran images of Syrians wailing at their beloved leader's death-- scenes selected by Syrian state television.

But terror, not love, is the glue that ensures the Assad regime, one of the last Stalinist police states to survive the Cold War, stays in place. Syria's new president, Assad's son Bashar, is reported to have ordered the murders of hundreds of his chief rival's supporters--his chief rival being his uncle--before Assad's death.

Syria's totalitarian tragedy--the GNP is $1,160 (U.S.) per person--has, for the last thirty years, been supported by a socialist ideology, "show trials" in which prosecutors are also judges, and state-run narcoterrorism. (An estimated one-tenth of the Syrian treasury comes from heroin, crack, and hashish profits.) Squelching dissent is the job of the dreaded secret police, the Muhabarat, which, it is alleged, was trained in the practice of torture by the most important Nazi war criminal ever to evade justice, Aloďs Brünner, a favourite lieutenant of the man in charge of Hitler's Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann.

Brünner's Syrian trainees long made sure the Jews were subject to constant terror. The Muhabarat's special "Jewish Section" monitored everything they did. All synagogue services had a member of the secret police present. A mark appeared (and still appears) on the identity cards of Jews, revealing the bearer to be a "Mussawi," or follower of Moses. Jews were routinely interrogated and beaten. All of their mail was opened, and the few phones permitted to Jews were tapped. Quotas prohibited advanced education, and Jews couldn't operate a business without an Arab partner. Public-school texts denied the Holocaust had occurred. (Indeed, they still do, as does Bashar Assad's new "Syria Times" Internet site.)

On top of this, emigration was forbidden. When Jews tried to flee and were caught, they were imprisoned and tortured. If they succeeded in getting out, their family members who'd stayed behind were tortured.

Their situation seemed hopeless. Yet, in the face of this overwhelming oppression, help came from a most unlikely source: a Canadian high-school teacher, a widow and mother of three. In 1971, when Assad came to power, there were 4,500 Jews trapped in Syria. There are now about forty left. One woman got 3,218 of them out. By day she taught music in Toronto classrooms; after hours she masterminded a secret underground that reached from her Toronto home into the darkened bedrooms of Syrian generals, the windowless prisons, the pockets of border guards, and the Muhabarat itself.

A fur trader's daughter, raised in Sudbury, Ontario, she led this double life for twenty-five years. Yet few of the people she got out knew her name; she was, simply, "the woman from Canada," or "Mrs. Judy." Her real name is Judy Feld Carr. No one, except for her childhood friend Helen Cooper, who helped her, and later, the man she married, knew anything of her double life. Few knew anything at all about her remarkable story until an inspiring book about her efforts, The Ransomed of God, by the award-winning historian Harold Troper, was published in June, 1999. At the time, Feld Carr was still engaged in clandestine rescues, and many details had to be kept secret. Now, having completed her last rescue this March, she's able to reveal the full details of what she did, and what she experienced.

A fire is blazing. It's 1947, two years after the end of the Holocaust. Syrian rioters are setting fire to the ancient Aleppo synagogue. The United Nations has just voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and Syrian rage is unleashed on the local Jewish population. Syrian police look on as Jews are murdered. Inside the synagogue the world's oldest known manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the Aleppo Keter, is burning.

Forty thousand Jews flee the country. Some families have lived in Syria since 586 BCE, when they came, as they now leave, in the shadow of flames. Then they were fleeing the Babylonians, who conquered ancient Jerusalem and set the Jewish Temple aflame. Some came escaping other fires: notably, the Spanish Inquisition.

By the end of 1948 the Jews remaining in Syria are prohibited from leaving. Then the noose tightens further: they are prohibited from travelling more than three kilometres from their homes without a permit, and are confined to ghettos in three cities: Damascus, Aleppo, and Qamishli.

Ten years later, in secret, the charred fragments of the Aleppo Keter, which have been scattered and hidden, are smuggled into Turkey, then into the Jewish state. Two hundred and ninety-five pages of the original 487 are reassembled from fragments with Q-tips and saliva, a process that takes seven years.

She has Bette Midler's friendly energy and Fran Drescher-like good looks. In the seventies, I visited her Toronto home to pick up an article she'd written for a student magazine I edited - her first on Syrian Jews. She was Judy Feld, a spirited musicologist. Just a year before, her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, had died, leaving her a widow at thirty-three. One wouldn't have guessed she was grieving inside, she was such fun to listen to, describing her gutsy protests against Soviet human-rights violations. She had bright red-brown hair and a passionate voice that took some getting used to.

Now, twenty-seven years later, she is Judy Feld Carr, happily remarried, still a fireball, looking ten years younger than her sixty-one years. Her study is full of Damascene crafts, including a beaded heart with "Judy" woven into it that Elie Swed, a Syrian Jew she helped to escape, made to signal to her that he had been transferred from an underground torture chamber to Adra prison. There are photographs of many Syrian baby girls, all named "Judy." By coincidence, we meet the day after Assad has died and watch the news together.

"A news story is how it all began," she says. In 1971, Judy and her husband, Ronald, heard a report that Syrian border guards had watched quietly as twelve desperate young Jewish men died trying to escape the country. "They didn't know they were crossing a minefield. The Jews exploded one by one. After a generation of being forbidden to own cars and being confined to three cities, Jews knew little of the countryside, let alone borders."

The Felds wanted to help, but there were no Canadian groups advocating for Syrian Jews, a community sealed off from the rest of the world. Along with Rabbi Mitchell Serels, they went to a local synagogue and with the help of a translator, managed to get through to a Syrian operator. They simply asked for "the Jewish school." They were connected to the home of a woman who was a Muhabarat informer. She wasn't home, but her husband was, and they asked him for a Jewish name. He gave the name of the young assistant chief rabbi of Damascus, Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra. Later that day the Felds sent Rabbi Hamra a telegram and began a correspondence. They started sending religious items to Syria, figuring that even when the Muhabarat confiscated them, they'd know someone was watching out for Syrian Jews.

The Syrian Jews, using a technique developed during the Inquisition, quoted the Bible in their thank-you telegrams to convey information. For instance, shortly after the Syrians staged a bloody pogrom on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Judy received a thank-you telegram that alluded to the line from the Bible "Rachel is weeping for her children," indicating that children had been harmed. Soon, individuals, cities, countries, and fates were referred to in code.

The Felds began a human-rights campaign, informing MPs, writing letters to the editor, and holding public meetings. A Syrian military journal wrote that their campaign had to be stamped out. Ronald had a premonition something might happen to him. On June 6, 1973, a harrowing threat - the nature of which Judy will not discuss - was delivered to the Felds, and Ronald became extremely anxious. The next night, at home, while Ronald was playing a game of horsey with the couple's three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, he slumped down. Elizabeth cried out, "Daddy, Daddy, get off me." But Ronald was dead from a heart attack. He was forty.

"Had Ronald had a serious stress lately?" his doctor asked. Within hours of Ronald's death, Rabbi Hamra was interrogated by the Muhabarat about his ties to the Felds. Then they told him that Ronald Feld was dead - before Ronald's death had even been made public.

Four months after Ronald died, Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur and captured the Golan Heights. Now it was Rabbi Hamra's turn for deathly premonitions. With the war raging, he was summoned by the Muhabarat to a cemetery to perform a burial. When he arrived, he asked, "Who is it that I am burying?" "We don't know," was the answer. "We haven't killed them yet." The next morning, the bodies of five Israeli pilots were brought out. In a Syrian photograph, their blood can be seen seeping out of the caskets as two Syrian officials stand beside Rabbi Hamra.

Widowed, with children aged three, eight, and eleven to support, Judy juggled three part-time teaching jobs. Her synagogue set up the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands. And Judy, along with six other volunteers, started to raise money for the fund by giving synagogue speeches, beginning at her own synagogue, Beth Tzedec in Toronto. She handed out pamphlets requesting assistance. She approached relevant Canadian government agencies. In 1974, she pleaded with the External Affairs Department to meet with Syrian Jews to document their condition. Its officials refused, citing UN information that said the claim that Syrian Jews were being mistreated was "inflammatory." When she asked External Affairs to publicly support Amnesty International's bid to enter Syria, the minister sang a familiar refrain: any public statement might undermine Canada's ability to work with the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, establishment Jewish groups, such as the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), did little effective lobbying, declaring Syria the Arab state "most impervious to pressure." Some CJC members depicted Judy as a dangerous, brash amateur, whose lobbying was counterproductive.

In 1976, Donald Carr, a lawyer and one of the most respected establishment leaders of the Jewish community, himself a widower and father of three children, was sitting in Beth Tzedec synagogue. He looked over at Judy and thought, "I'm going to marry that woman." They went out on one date. The next day they were engaged, and they soon married.


JWR contributor Norman Doidge is a Canadian-based writer, research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Comment on this article by clicking here.


© 2001 Dr. Norman Doidge