In Syria's three-year war, which is becoming more sectarian by the day, much has been made of the fate of the country's minorities. Christians, Druze and Kurds in the country have enjoyed more column inches dedicated to their plight over the last three years than ever before. But one Syrian minority is almost never spoken of—the Syrian Jews.
“If they were there now, what would have happened? I know what would have happened. It would have been the slaughter of the Syrian Jewish community, that is for sure," says Judy Feld Carr matter-of-factly. Delving into why this slaughter never happened uncovers a story of spy-craft, subterfuge and tightly-kept secrets.
In the late 1970's, Feld Carr, a Canadian mother and musicologist, was reading a newspaper when she was struck by an article about 12 SyrianJewish men who tried to escape into Turkey overland from Qamishli, in the north of the country. They stepped on a land mine and Syrian border guards watched them die.
She was so moved by the story that she decided to track down members of Syria's Jewish community. She began cold-calling numbers in Syria until she eventually hit upon a contact. "I sent a telegram to the Rabbi in Damascus asking if he needed religious books and prepaid [for his response]." she explains. "Who would have ever believe, an answer came back with a shopping list! That was the beginning, the first opening since 1948."
In the decades following the creation of the state of Israel, Syria's Jewish community had become isolated, says Sarian Roffe, a historian of the Syrian Jewish community. "After Israel's creation that was it. They shut the doors because they didn't want people to go to Israel and fight against them," she says. "So the doors to leave Syria were closed and there was increased persecution."
There was also enforced segregation—Jewish residents of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli were forced to live only in certain neighborhoods and initially had to seek permission to travel further than three kilometers from their homes.
Feld Carr's relationship with the Damascus Rabbi started to develop into more frequent coded telegrams and secret messages written into religious books. Eventually, she says, some members of the community managed to leave the country and meet with her. To do so, they had to leave family members behind as 'collateral'. "This one older couple came to meet me and told me what was happening in Syria." she explains. "Then somebody went to Aleppo in the north and asked me, 'Is there any way to get my brother out?' And that's how I started. It was crazy. I ransomed him. I started buying people!"
Now in her 70's, living in Ontario, Feld Carr tells the story with a delightful sense of astonishment that it ever took place. "Even I when I look back on it, I think the whole thing it was wild. But it worked, it worked!" she says about the mission that consumed 28 years of her life.
One person turned into two and eventually she gave up her career to undertake the rescue operation, which saw her smuggling 3,228 people out of Syria before she finished—coincidentally on the day of the World Trade Center attacks. "I finished in 2011. The day of the Trade Center tragedy was my last family. The last ones who wanted to leave," Feld Carr says.
For years her mission was a closely guarded secret. Even her close friends didn't know what she was doing. Funding was collected from private donors and people had to find her themselves; she never contacted them directly. They'd track her down through friends and family once they had exhausted every other available option. "I would be getting calls: 'Mrs. Judy, I have a mother, I have a sister, I have a child, can you do something to help? What can you do to get them out?' That's how these people came to me," she says. Even then, she was careful not to raise their expectations: "I never gave a promise that I was going to be able to do it, 'cause quite frankly, how did I know I would be able to do it? It depended about the secret police, it depended about the army, it depended on all kinds of situations inside the country."
Once they made contact, individuals left their fate in the hands of a Canadian woman they'd never met. Eventually, if they were lucky, they'd get a call. "They got a message, and my messages were all through an underground: 'Go now. In the next hour'. That's how it worked. They would leave everything they owned behind; their pictures, their clothing, everything. 'Just go now.'"
The stress of having strangers' lives in her hands was immense. "You can imagine dealing with somebody's life that you don't know. What if I made a mistake? One mistake and somebody would be caught because of me. This was very difficult to deal with emotionally," she says.
I can only imagine the angry comments if these people heard: “Hurricane Mahmoud is coming! Everyone evacuate because Mahmoud is a killer!”
Despite the anguish, she was careful to maintain her responsibilities to her own children and ageing parents.
She kept meticulous files on each person. An individual rescue could take months and she often had many in progress at once. As such, she needed to keep detailed records of everything she did. Each story was harrowing and she often had to split up families as she went. "I'll give you one example, it's like a Sophie's choice," she says. "I got the mother, father and kid into New York. The kid had cancer behind his eye. There were two little kids left behind. Then she had a baby in New York. She kept calling me and saying she's going back to Syria. She'd call me at least twice a week with a translator sobbing on the phone."
Feld Carr was tough on the woman and dragged the conversations out to buy herself some time. Months went by. "A few months later, I phoned her up and I said, 'What are you doing this afternoon? There's a present for your little boy but you have to pick it up Kennedy airport, it's a parcel,'" she recalls. "I figured if that if the kids got taken off the plane, I could say the parcel didn't arrive. But when she got to the airport, the two little kids came through customs and she almost died. But I couldn't have told her. If I told her and it didn't work she would have jumped off a bridge."
Families were resettled in Israel, Canada, New York and even in Mexico and Brazil. In Canada, Feld Carr would arrange foster families for children and university education for young adults The strong Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, expanded and took on a new life with the arrival of so many people from the 'old country'. "By 1992 you were already in your third or fourth generation. The new immigrants brought a resurgence of Arabic and a resurgence of the Judaeo-Arabic culture," Roffe, the historian, says.
In addition to Feld Carr's operation, there was an airlift operation in 1992 organized by the New York Syrian Jewish community, in which as many as 5,000 Syrian Jews were flown out of the country en masse in secret. Thanks to this mass exodus, ongoing escapes and Feld Carr's clandestine work, by 2001 there was virtually no Syrian Jewish community left inside the country. "There were maybe 30 left. Now there's only 11. Everybody has died or gotten out," Feld Carr says. "It finished. And that was the very good part."
Feld Carr has been recognized for her work a multitude of prestigious awards and accolades in Israel, America, Canada and England. But the two biggest rewards for her are personal. Many of those she helped escape went on to name their children 'Judy', she says: "Even the former chief Rabbi of Syria has a Judy. That's about the nicest thing about all of this."
And the other reward? When she watches the news of Syria's terrible carnage today, she knows she helped save a handful of people from its fate. "I know there would be a slaughter, and I say, 'You know what? You did good.'”