In October 1972, as a nine-year old girl clutching her new doll and separated from her parents and three siblings in the local Iraqi police station, Cynthia Shamash was interrogated by a police officer after the family tried to escape from Iraq. Already at that tender age, Cynthia (or Sanuti as her mother called her) was composed as the police officer alleged that the family was Jewish and spying for Israel.
Given her exposure to the anti-Semitism and persecution of Jewish families in Iraq, even witnessing the public hanging of Jewish men on television two years earlier for allegedly being spies, Cynthia denied being Jewish. The policeman then ruthlessly grabbed the doll from her and dismantled its head, arms, and legs to search for hidden messages proving espionage. Finding no such evidence, he dismissed Cynthia as she collected the broken pieces of the doll, which she has kept until today. Cynthia was returned to her family in the adjacent room, but the entire family was imprisoned in an Iraqi jail for five weeks.
Upon their release, Cynthia and her family returned to their home in Baghdad, which had been ransacked. Most of their belongings had been confiscated and the door of their home was sealed with the keyhole stuffed with red wax. The family moved in with friends and applied repeatedly for passports to spend a ten-day vacation in Istanbul though they never planned to return. They heard nothing for months but finally received word that their passports had been approved. With only some 300 Jews remaining in Iraq, it was clearer than ever to Cynthia’s family that life remained untenable for Jews in Iraq. Jewish men could no long keep paying jobs; universities were closed to Jewish students; Jews were ridiculed on television and in newspapers, and Jewish men were being taken from their homes and tortured in prison.
After arriving safely in Turkey, the family fled to Tel Aviv and then to Amsterdam, where Cynthia’s father soon died of a heart attack. At the age of 12, Cynthia was sent to London for schooling and lived in an Orthodox Jewish enclave with the chief rabbi and his family. She returned to the Netherlands at the end of the school year to navigate her adolescence in a culture that was much more sexually liberal than the one she had been born into, or indeed the one she experienced among Orthodox Jews in London.
After finishing her dental degree in Amsterdam, Cynthia moved to the United States in an attempt to start over. She got married to an endodontist she met in New York several years later and they had five children.
Cynthia wrote “The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews” to share her story and inspire others who are feeling isolated and alone or going through challenging times in their own lives.
Cynthia was elected to the board of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq in 2011 and has become an outspoken advocate for keeping the Iraqi Jewish archives, discovered in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in 2003 and now housed at the National Archives in Washington, in the United States rather than returning them to Iraq as promised by the administration of former President George W. Bush. She wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times on the topic in November 2013.
A delightful, articulate, and dynamic speaker, Cynthia speaks frequently about her own experiences, the plight of today’s refugees from the Middle East and around the world and the future of Iraq, the Iraqi-Jewish archives and the Iraqi Jewish culture and community. She has spoken at the United Nations, to U.S. customs and border protection workers at JFK, and at a variety of colleges, law schools, museums, Jewish community centers and synagogues.
Cynthia has been interviewed by NPR and Tablet Magazine and appeared in the 2015 PBS special “The Jewish Journey: America”. When she is not on the speaking circuit, Cynthia can be found treating patients in her dental practice in Queens, NY, spending time with her husband and five children or working on her second book.