A Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a 16th century Hebrew bible, a text of the mystical Zohar — among 2,400 great artifacts of the once flourishing Jewish community of Iraq went on exhibit on November 8 at the National Archives in Washington.
Three days earlier, reports had surfaced of the existence of another near-priceless trove — 1,400 works of art unearthed in a Munich apartment building and belonging to Jews of Nazi Germany.
Both collections had been seized—in the first case by the Mukhabarat, the feared secret police of Saddam Hussein, and in the second by the storm troopers of Hitler's Gestapo.
The Iraqi artifacts are going back to the successors of those who seized them. The Nazi treasures will be returned to their owners or their heirs, whenever they can be found.
The Iraqi artifacts were liberated from four feet of water and mold in the basement of Mukhabarat headquarters by American troops not long after their arrival in Baghdad in 2003.
Deteriorating and badly maintained, they were immediately spotted by U.S. experts as a remarkable find and shipped back to Washington for restoration and preservation.
But not before a pledge by the Americans that they'd go back to Iraq, not their owners, at some appropriate time. That pledge was made, of course, to the interim government the United States had installed.
Now there are new individuals in charge. But the time for the archive's return is now drawing near.
"The entire premise is flawed," says "Stanley Urman, executive vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
"These were never Iraqi heritage materials, never the property of the Iraqi government. They were seized and looted from synagogues, schools, hospitals, private homes."
In many cases, the owners relinquished them only to win their freedom. "They were allowed to leave [for Israel] only if they gave up their passports and all their worldly possessions," Urman continues in an interview.
In short, it was part of the systematic destruction of what was once among the most vibrant and thriving Jewish communities in the Middle East.
At the end of World War II, there were more than 130,000 Jews in Iraq—a quarter of the population of Baghdad. By the time of the Six Day War in 1967, that number had dwindled to barely 3,000.
Today there are at most seven Jews left — each fearful even of disclosing his identity — indeed not even a minion, the minimum number (ten) required for Jewish worship.
But abroad, they constitute an enormous community, united under the banner of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, according to its president, Maurice Shohet who himself fled Iraq in 1970 at the age of 21.
The largest single Iraqi Jewish community, outside of Israel, is in the United States. And this is where the Iraqi diaspora wants these artifacts to remain.
Just why the Iraqi government wants these items returned is an open question—likely a pastiche of the public position authorities have expressed to Urman, that it wants to showcase the "contributions of the Jewish people to Iraq," and the reality that they are aware of their enormous and unchallenged value.
"From our point of view, they were taken from us and as a result we are the official heirs of the material," Urman observes.
"This is not like material looted from national museums. It was taken by force by intelligence agents." And now, some substantial force is being brought to bear on their behalf.
On November 13, a bipartisan group of 47 House Democrats and Republicans signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the State Department to "facilitate the return of these items to their rightful owners or their descendants, and not to the government of Iraq." Why?
"The government of Iraq has no legitimate claim to these artifacts," the letter concludes. But there is a larger issue at stake here as well. Across the Middle East, shards remain of once thriving Jewish communities — each with its own history, its own relics and its own documents.
Only rarely are these artifacts carefully preserved or displayed. Cairo's Jewish community has shrunk from more than 100,000 to barely 100, with every Jewish school, hospital and club shuttered.
Moreover, Urman says, few of its rich collection of artifacts are on display — most held in basement storerooms of a museum.
David A. Andelman, a member of USA Today's board of contributors, is the editor in chief of World Policy Journal and author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.