Toronto woman single-handedly rescued thousands of Syrian Jews... one by one.

Published: Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:45 PM EST

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD - In 1972, a young Toronto mother and university musicology lecturer read in The Jerusalem Post about a group of 12 Jewish men trying to escape from their native Syria into Turkey. As Syrian border guards looked on, the men walked into a minefield and were blown up one by one. At the time, there were 4,500 Jews in Syria, a totalitarian country terrorized by the Muhabarat, the government's Nazi-trained secret police that maintains a special "Jewish Section."

Judy Feld Carr and her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld z"l, who were already passionately involved in efforts to free Soviet Jews, decided that they had to do something, and started organizing like-minded friends to focus on the plight of Syrian Jewry.

Ronald died the next year of a heart attack at age 39, leaving Judy with three young children. But over the next 28 years, Judy managed to get 3,228 Jews out of Syria to freedom, smuggled and ransomed one by one through a secret, dangerous, and complicated system that she figured out as she went along. In 1976, Judy married Donald Carr, and together the couple raised six children.

In 1995, when Carr's work could finally be revealed publicly, then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin commended her in a personal letter for "the biggest rescue of Jews done by an individual since World War II."
Carr's many honors include the Order of Canada, the highest honor awarded a Canadian citizen; the Simon Wiesenthal Award for Tolerance, Justice and Human Rights; The University of Haifa Humanitarian Award of Merit; the Brandeis Woman of the Year Award; an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; and honors from the Jewish Community of Damascus Origin Living in Israel and the Jewish Community of Aleppo Jews living in Israel and in Brooklyn.

Carr will tell her story at Temple Beth El in Stamford on Saturday, Dec. 12. She spoke to the Ledger about how she decided to become a rescuer.

Q: You had a nice quiet life in Toronto in the '70s. Why did you decide to shake it up in such an extraordinary way?

A. I'm a Jew, they are Jews, they were in trouble. Shortly after the Second World War ended, when I was about 6, a Polish couple - a Jew and a Gentile - moved into a rooming-house next door to us in Sudbury, northern Ontario. 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.

My parents didn't want Sophie coming over too much because they felt my brother and I weren't ready to hear about the Holocaust in such detail. But I'd sneak over to the rooming-house after school. One day, when I was 12, Sophie asked me when my birthday was and I told her. She said, "Today is my daughter's birthday." At first I didn't know what she meant and I said, "Happy birthday." Then in a blank voice, not even looking at me, she started reporting in a driven, hypnotic way: "There were two lines." Then she screamed a scream like I've never heard in my life, "I have to go into this line with my daughter!" Her daughter would have been six weeks older than me and she died at Auschwitz. Sophie said to me, "You can't let what happened to my daughter happen again ever." I remember going home very upset and crying and I couldn't tell my mother about this because she didn't want me going there.

Sophie had a tremendous influence on my life as a child. When I took my last family out of Syria - and I never believed I'd see an end to the rescuing in my lifetime; I always believed it was like Moses taking out the Israelites and never seeing the Land of Canaan - I actually started crying, one of the few times I did. I remember thinking, "Sophie, I did it for you."

Q: After you and your husband decided to help Syrian Jewry, what was your first step?

A. Ronald and I didn't know how to begin, so we invited six couples over for martinis and brainstorming. We all organized a teach-in on the subject of Syrian Jewry at a local shul. Thanks to heckling by a Palestinian in the audience, the event received publicity on the back page of the Toronto Star. We decided to try to make phone contact with the Damascus Jewish community, which was no easy task. After several weeks of trying to contact anyone we could in the community, we finally succeeded in placing a call with the help of a Moroccan-Jewish phone operator in Montreal we knew only as "Operator 14." We finally reached the home of a Jewish woman on the Muhabarat payroll, and only her husband was home. He gave us the name and address of Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra, who would become the Chief Rabbi of Syria.

That phone call remained the first and last I ever made to Syria, because it became clear that the Muhabarat tapped all such calls. So instead of a phone call, we sent a telegram, in French, to the rabbi, asking if he needed any Jewish books or religious articles. He sent a list and we mailed a package to him. With that contact established, we started exchanging messages in code; I would write a line from Psalms inside one of the books and the rabbi would send the same line back to me in a telegram, and that way I knew he had received the books. He would also send updates about the Jewish community, hidden in the telegrams.

After Ronald died, Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto set up the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands, which continued to fund the book packages.

Q: How did you make your first rescue?

A. Shortly after I married Donald in 1976, I heard about an elderly man, Toufik Srour, who was the first Syrian Jew in 20 years to leave the country legally, after bribing the Muhabarat with $9,500 for a visitor's visa to the U.S. From there, he hoped to join his daughter Esther, in Canada, where she had lived since World War II. Before he left Syria, Esther received an emergency telegram saying, "Send me $2,000 quickly," and she sent the money. When Toufik arrived in Canada, Esther mentioned the telegram and Toufik said he hadn't sent it. It was clear that someone in the Muhabarat was testing to see whether people in the West would pay bribes for Jews.

By coincidence, a Toronto gas-station manager named Hannah Cohen contacted me about her brother, Rabbi Dahab, after she had visited him in Aleppo. Four of his children had escaped from Syria to Israel and after each escape, the rabbi was imprisoned and beaten with clubs and razor-thin whips until his bones were broken and his kidneys had stopped functioning. I thought we might be able to get him released temporarily for medical treatment, and I gave speeches and raised money in small amounts, even from Jews of modest means, until Cohen had enough of a ransom to bring Rabbi Dahab to Canada.

When he arrived, the internist who assessed him, a doctor who had served with the Canadian Forces in World War II, said he hadn't seen a body that disfigured since he'd treated Auschwitz survivors, and that Rabbi Dahab couldn't be saved. The rabbi begged me to let him die in Israel near his children. I arranged a trip and joined him in Israel.

The day before he died, he begged me to get his daughter, Olga, out of Syria. I had no idea how to get this girl out, but what do you say to that? No? I had to let him die in peace. I altered his documents to make the Syrian authorities think he was alive, and asked them to release Olga to care for her father in Toronto. They named a price, and with the help of Ron Atkey, Canada's new minister of immigration, Olga got out and made her way to Israel. She's the only one I keep in touch with, since she was the first person I helped get out. Her daughter just got married in Israel and she has two sons in the Israeli army.

Judy Carr will speak on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 11:30 a.m. at Temple Beth El, 350 Roxbury Road, Stamford. For more information call (203) 322-6901 or visit www.tbe.org.






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