Past and Present

Jewish World Review March 20, 2001 / 25 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

( PART ONE ) -- JUDY FELD CARR never dreamed of rescuing Syrian Jews herself. But shortly before marrying Don she heard that an elderly man, Toufik Srour, had become the first Syrian Jew in twenty years to leave legally. He'd had to bribe the Muhabarat with $9,500 for a visitor's visa to the United States. From there, he hoped to come to Canada where his daughter, Esther, had lived since World War II. But before he left Syria, Esther received an emergency telegram saying, "Send me $2,000 quickly" to expedite the visa. She sent the money. When Toufik arrived in Canada, Esther mentioned the telegram asking for $2,000. Toufik said he hadn't sent it. Clearly, someone in the Muhabarat was testing to see if people in the West would pay bribes for Jews.

Then, by coincidence, Hannah Cohen, who ran a Toronto gas station, contacted Judy about her brother Rabbi Dahab, who lived in Syria. Some of Rabbi Dahab's children - first a son and two daughters, then a second son - had escaped. After each escape, the rabbi was imprisoned and tortured, beaten with clubs and razor-thin whips until his bones were broken and his kidneys had stopped functioning. Judy proposed trying to get him released temporarily for medical treatment. She gave speeches, raising money in five- and ten-dollar amounts, often from Jews of modest means, until she had a ransom, and could bring Dahab to Canada.

When he arrived, the internist who assessed Dahab - a doctor who had been with Canadian Forces in World War II - said he hadn't seen a body that disfigured since he'd treated Auschwitz survivors. Rabbi Dahab couldn't be saved. He begged Judy to let him die in Israel, at his children's side. Judy arranged it, and joined him there.

"Then," said Judy, "the day before he died - he begged me, 'I want you to take my daughter, Olga, out of Syria.' I had no idea how to get this girl out. . . . What do you say to that? No? I had to let him die in peace." Judy altered Dahab's documents to make the Syrians think he was alive, then asked them to release Olga to care for him in Toronto. They named a price, and with the help of Canada's new minister of immigration, Ron Atkey (who stuck his neck out and sent her a visa surreptitiously from Lebanon to Syria), Olga got out too. Mrs. Judy was in business.

She operated in secret underground cells. Sometimes three or four Syrian Jewish neighbours would be involved, gathering information, each ignorant of the others' involvement so the work couldn't be endangered if the Muhabarat seized and tortured one. In rare instances when Jewish businessmen living in Syria were permitted to travel (on the condition that family members were held back), she'd meet them clandestinely in Europe, the Middle East, and North America to set up her underground network, exchange messages, and develop codes so that when they spoke on the phone they could convey vast amounts of information. A code based on references to Chinese food was developed. Judy was known as "Gin" because, as a girl in Northern Ontario, she had consumed her share to keep warm.

Each time she saved someone, everyone involved, whether it was a low-level bureaucrat or a general or one of the highest-ranking members of the Muhabarat, demanded bribes. Slowly she put together a picture of the Muhabarat, determining who had an expensive mistress or a second family, who needed cash quickly or was simply greedy. She bribed lawyers to let her know who was in financial trouble, and wardens to let her informants know who was in prison or had a family member before the courts. When she found out about a Muhabarat agent in need, one of her men would, on her instructions, float a proposal and negotiate prices. For women, the Syrians often bargained on the basis of looks. "A fat girl without teeth went cheap," said Judy. "A beauty was expensive."

A breach of secrecy could be catastrophic. In 1979, Batya Barakat, her husband Baruch, and their four children tried to escape without Judy's help from Qamishli with two other families. Soon after beginning their six-hour hike to the border, they ran into the Muhabarat, who had been alerted by the Barakats' Muslim neighbours. The Muhabarat opened fire on the family. Batya fell on her daughter to shield her, taking three bullets, including one in the spine that permanently paralyzed her from the waist down. She was bleeding to death, but no Muslim doctor would treat her. Finally, a Jewish physician did.

When an international campaign got Batya to Italy for treatment in exchange for a $10,000 ransom, Baruch and the children tried to escape again. Caught once more, Baruch was tortured, along with a thirteen-year-old boy who was with them. Eventually, Judy arranged to ransom Baruch and his four children. As their plane was taxiing down the runway, the Muhabarat stopped it, boarded, and told Baruch to leave two children behind. With unspeakable anguish, he decided to leave behind his oldest daughter, seven, and his youngest, a three-year-old.

Two years later, Mrs. Judy got them out too.

Escapes were arranged when ransoms could not be. Since many smugglers secretly worked for the Muhabarat, accepting money from unsuspecting Jews and then turning them over at the border, Judy set up her own contacts in neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, she raised money and made monthly trips to Ottawa, where her member of parliament and future External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall, along with government officials Percy Sherwood, Denis Grégoire de Blois, and Michel de Salaberry helped her contact people in Syria.

One escape involved the Gindi family. Mr. and Mrs. Gindi had six sons. One boy had been beaten so badly in Syrian prison that he became an epileptic. Mr. Gindi himself was ill. After Judy ransomed the sick father and son, the Muhabarat told Mrs. Gindi that if she or her other sons tried to escape they would gouge her eyes out.

A reliable smuggler was given half a necklace. The other half had been given to Mrs. Gindi. When the smuggler came for the family and showed his half, she would know to go. In May, 1983 - on the very day Judy's father died - an informant told Judy everything was in place. Cash, in certain U.S. denominations, was required immediately. Judy raced around that morning from bank to bank to get it. "I had to put off my father's funeral and not tell my mother about why I delayed things," she said. She gave the money to a man who took the Concord overseas. Later the same day a contact in Israel took the money to Turkey, and transferred it to someone in her underground who delivered half to the smuggler in Syria. Commissions were paid to everyone along the way.

In the middle of a moonless night, the Gindis walked to the suburbs and were picked up by a van and taken to hills near the Turkish border. They took no possessions, pictures, or money (Judy's rules). When they had crossed over, a Jewish man met them and paid the smuggler the remainder of his fee. The Gindis were then secretly taken out of Turkey. The Israeli Secret Service, initially wary of Mrs. Judy the amateur, were soon amazed by her.

Where in the world does such a woman come from?

Jack Leve, Judy's father, was a raw-fur trader. He was born in Russia. In 1904, when his brother was murdered in a pogrom, his parents, able to afford only one ticket, put nine-year-old Jack on a ship to Montreal, where he was to live with relatives. Fiercely competitive, he did far better than his classmates at Hebrew school, but one day the rabbi belittled him for showing it. Jack dipped a snowball in water to freeze it and beaned the rabbi on his walk home, knocking him out. When he was caught, rather than face the consequences, he decamped to New York and got a factory job, skinning skunks for fur coats.

After serving with the Canadian forces in World War I, Jack decided to trade furs, working in James Bay. He spent most of his time with native Canadians, befriended Grey Owl, and even bailed him out of prison once. In 1938, Jack married Sarah Rives. When Judy was born in Montreal, dog sleds were sent out to notify Jack, who was in an igloo on Baffin Island.

Eventually Jack settled in Sudbury. His company car was a canoe, and he paddled to meetings with Natives, bought and sold furs when he was not setting his own traps, hunting, or fishing. His work outfit was a parka the Natives had made him, one pair of pants, and his gun. He lived for long periods on reservations. Often he put Judy in his canoe and took her around with him. "I can remember, as a kid of about ten, watching him skin a beaver, cutting out its innards," she says. "I'd feel sick watching it, and say, 'I don't feel well.' He'd reply, 'Hmm. That must be because you're hungry.' Then he'd pull out a stick of salami - always kosher - and he'd wipe the knife he had just used on the beaver just once on his pants - and then use it to cut me off a slice, and pour me a glass of brandy to wash it down with."

Like much of Canada in the 1940s, Sudbury was not free of anti-Semitism. Judy was the only Jew in the Catholic school she attended for one year when the local public school had been closed down. "The name-calling began the day the nuns gave a lecture on Jews at Easter," she says. "The kids started calling me 'Christ killer,' and 'dirty Jew,' all the way home. I remember having to ask my father, 'Who is Christ?' Only once in all my public-school years was I invited to another kid's birthday party."

It was Jack who taught her to handle anti-Semitism. "My father said, 'You ignore that. Never take no for an answer. You go on and become successful.' When I got older, ready to leave Sudbury and go off by myself to university, he said: 'I've taught you to shoot, paddle a canoe, hold your liquor, swear, and be a good Jew. That's all you need to take care of yourself.'"

"And how did you come to take care of others?" I asked.

"Shortly after the Second World War ended, when I was about six, a Polish couple - a Jew and a Gentile - moved into a rooming house next door. The woman, Sophie, a seamstress, was Jewish, spoke Yiddish, and started visiting our family and paying close attention to me. One night she told us that she had been married before, and had had two children murdered in Auschwitz, and that she had been used by Dr. Josef Mengele in one of the 'medical experiments' there."

At that point, her parents ushered Judy and her brother out of the room, but they snuck down and peered through the door. Sophie undressed, revealing her stomach and breasts. They were horribly scarred and disfigured. "Mengele," began Sophie, "said he wanted to determine how much pain a woman could have if she had her ovaries taken out without an anaesthetic. . . ."

After Sophie told her story, Judy's parents didn't want her coming around too much. They felt Judy wasn't ready to hear about the Holocaust in such detail. "But I'd sneak over to the rooming house, around four o'clock after school. She'd make me chocolate milk and talk, and one day she asked me, 'When is your birthday, Judy?' and I told her the end of December. Then she told me 'Today is my daughter's birthday.' At first I didn't know what she meant. 'Today is her birthday? Happy birthday,' I said. Then in a blank voice, not even looking at me, something unwound in her, and she started reporting, in a driven, hypnotic way: 'There were two lines.' Then she screamed, 'I have to go into this line with my daughter!' She gave a scream like an animal. I can still hear it. I heard that sound come from other Syrian Jewish mothers to whom I had to say, I can get one of your children out, and only one, and I have to know which one in the next eight hours.' "

The link between the Dr. Mengele Sophie faced, and the Muhabarat Mrs. Judy confronted, was SS officer Aloďs Brünner. Brünner, an Austrian, had been an important member of Adolf Eichmann's Office 4b4, the Reich agency in charge of implementing Hitler's Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. One of Brünner's last wartime acts was to round up 250 Jewish orphans in Paris and send them by cattle car to Auschwitz, just three weeks before the Allies liberated the French capital.

While Sophie was showing Judy her scars, Brünner was in flight, wanted by the Greeks and the French for hunting down and deporting 120,000 Jews, most of whom were murdered in the gas chambers of death camps. French courts sentenced him, in absentia, to death. Germany issued a warrant in 1995, and Austria asked for his extradition.

Brünner arrived in Syria in 1954 using the alias Dr. Georg Fischer. The Syrians arrested him, but upon revealing his Nazi past, he was released. According to the Nazi-hunters Simon Wiesenthal and Beate Klarsfeld, and Andreas Sefiha, president of Thessaloniki's Jewish community, Brünner was given refuge in Damascus in return for his assistance in retooling the Muhabarat (later run by Hafez al-Assad's brother, Rifaat). The Daily Telegraph in London reported that Brünner had specifically helped train the Muhabarat in torture. He remained in Syria, except for a brief period during which he helped Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser recruit Nazi rocket scientists to help attack Israel. In 1985 the West German magazine Bunte published an interview with photographs of him in Syria. Der Spiegel reported he was living in the Damascus Hotel Meridian as of July, 1999.

Along with psychological torture, such as telling a victim his family is being tortured or staging executions, the Syrians, according to the Middle East Watch Report in 1990, developed torture machines, including al-Kursi al-Almani ("the German chair"), a metal chair with knives on it and hinges on the back. As the back is lowered, the strapped victim is slowly cut to pieces. Brünner, when he was an SS captain, favoured using a wire whip with fish-hook devices on the end. At Judy's, I met Gidi Ehrenhalt, who was an eighteen-year-old Israeli soldier when he was captured on the Golan, and placed in El Meza prison. He was in a two-by-one-metre cell without light for months, and visited daily by guards using the fish-hook whip. Ehrenhalt is now permanently disabled.

"The hardest part," she says, "was having no one to talk to. I had to keep things normal around the house, as in: 'Mummy, it's the phone, it's a Syrian Jew. . . .' 'Thank you, dear, you go do your homework.' They knew Mummy had some business, and knew not to ask.

I pulled out a copy of the letter from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in which he thanked her in 1995 for "twenty-three years of hard and dangerous work," and I asked her if she had thought much of the risks to herself, should something awful happen on one of her overseas trips.

"No," she answered. "I had blinkers on. But not any more. Sometimes when you are really determined you don't look to the right or the left. I felt it must be done. I focused on what I could achieve and trying to eliminate what was around me. I learned to do that growing up, with a difficult home life. My parents didn't get along. They were always fighting, like you can't imagine. I used to run away and hide under a tree, in the bush. To survive it I put blinkers on. I knew I'd have to have blinkers on until I managed to leave.

"If you give in, it's easy for everything to fall apart." She paused. "You know, it's twenty-seven years yesterday that Ronald died." Considering that we were meeting on the day after Assad had died, we both sat silently, absorbing the irony.

She wasn't only nerves of steel. "I'd sit and cry when I had to remove a child from a parent, or know a parent would have to choose which child to free," she says. "And they didn't even know who I was."

Eleven-year-old Shimon Swed, suffering from eye cancer, couldn't get surgery in Syria and was going to die. Judy ransomed him and his parents, getting him to Sloane- Kettering Cancer Center in New York on the condition they left the two young Swed children behind. "I couldn't get those kids out of my mind. . . . ," she says. "Meanwhile, the treatments were complicated - several years of surgery and chemo. The mother, Shafiya, was free but getting phone calls from her kids, weeping uncontrollably, 'But Mummy, I want you.' Four years passed. Shafiya couldn't take the mental torture and decided to go back to Syria. I begged her to give me more time to get her children out. 'I can't,' she said. Eventually, I got those kids. It wasn't for money that they held them, but for the pure cruelty of it. I learned to understand it only because I was able to get inside the minds of those on the receiving end. Their fear was coming out of their pores. And because Sophie became, along with my grandmother, a second mother, I did what I did for Sophie. I felt I owed her something. It felt like I, after coming from a difficult family, now had children, freedom, two wonderful husbands whom I loved, and who loved me. And, strange as it sounds, I felt I owed Sophie for the six million. So I thought, Sophie, I owe it to you to get these people out. And I did it."

Syrian Jewry had been rumoured to have a second precious manuscript besides the Aleppo Keter, the Damascus Keter. Rabbi Hamra, who had been staying behind, willing to be one of the last to leave, knew of its secret location. In one of her final covert acts, Judy arranged for one of her Arabic-speaking couriers, a Westerner and a non-Jew, to go over the border with it buried in his business documents. Judy travelled to pick up the Keter. When she opened it in her Toronto home, she immediately saw its original bill of sale, in medieval Rashi script, suggesting it might be the famous lost Keter of Castile, Spain, dating back before the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. A second bill, written in Judeo-Arabic, showed it had moved east when the Jews fled the Inquisition. It was sold in Constantinople in 1515. Then it made its way to Damascus. Unlike the Aleppo Keter, which had so many pages destroyed or missing, the Damascus Keter was delivered to Mrs. Judy, and then ultimately to the National Library in Jerusalem, each page intact.

Such luck might have been expected from Mrs. Judy. In 3,218 rescues, not a single Jew was killed or caught, and today, even Rabbi Hamra lives with his family in Israel, a free man.

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


© 2001 Dr. Norman Doidge