Since the founding of the USC Shoah Foundation in 1994, more than 56,000 survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have recorded their testimonies for our Visual History Archive. As we mark our 30th anniversary year, we highlight some of these remarkable stories by sharing a curated selection from our Voices from the Archive series. A version of this article originally ran following Ruth Pearl’s passing in July 2021.

Iraqi Survivor Ruth Pearl Fostered Harmony and Understanding in Memory of Son Daniel Pearl

Wed, 05/29/2024 - 11:12am

On January 23, 2002, Ruth Pearl dreamt that her son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was scared and in trouble. In her dream, she told him she would bring him tea and take care of him. She woke up in a panic and sent an email to Daniel, who was on assignment in Karachi, Pakistan.

“I said, ‘Danny, this is a dream that I had. Please humor me and answer this email immediately.’ He never did,” Ruth said in an interview with the USC Shoah Foundation in 2014.

That night, terrorists connected to Al-Qaeda had kidnapped Daniel on his way to an interview. He was murdered days later, on February 1, 2002. Daniel’s widow, Mariane, gave birth to their son, Adam, four months after Daniel was killed.

Ruth and her husband, Judea, established The Daniel Pearl Foundation in his memory, which promotes cross-cultural understanding through journalism and music. Ruth, an electrical engineer and computer software analyst who was born in Baghdad, became the CFO of the foundation.

The vivid dream Ruth had about Daniel the night he was abducted was not unusual for her. When she was five years old, she survived the 1941 Farhud, an antisemitic pogrom that tore through Baghdad. Throughout her adult years, she had a recurring nightmare that a man with a big knife was chasing her up the stairs at her school.

Ruth Pearl shared her recollections about Baghdad and her experience around Daniel’s murder in an interview with the USC Shoah Foundation in 2014. Her testimony is one of 20 in the Visual History Archive collected in recent years about the Jewish experience in the Middle East and North Africa. Jews who fell under German occupation in these regions were subject to Nazi persecution, and some 850,000 were expelled from Muslim and Arab countries after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

The USC Shoah Foundation recently launched an initiative to collect more testimonies related to the Jewish experience in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a significant expansion of the Contemporary Antisemitism Collection, which focuses on post-Holocaust antisemitism. Other groups in this collection include Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, survivors of antisemitic incidents around the world, and witnesses and survivors of anti-Israel terror attacks, including the October 7 Hamas attacks in Israel.

Ruth Pearl passed away in July 2021.

Born Eveline Rejwan in Baghdad on November 10, 1935, Ruth lived in a mixed Muslim and Jewish neighborhood with her parents and four siblings.

Her peaceful childhood was shattered when a failed coup left a power vacuum in British-controlled Baghdad and on June 1 and 2, 1941, thousands of Iraqi civilians, soldiers, and paramilitary youth gangs, prompted by Nazi-inspired propaganda and anti-Zionist fervor, rampaged through the streets with machetes and guns. The violence became known as the Farhud, a Kurdish word denoting a breakdown in law and order.

In her testimony, Ruth recalled looking out the window and seeing Jewish homes and shops being looted and bullets flying past her mother, who was holding Ruth’s baby sister. Her father ushered the family down to the cellar, but allowed Ruth to go back upstairs to retrieve his cigarettes, warning her to not look out the window.

“Of course, I looked. And I saw a man [who was a looter] with a sack next to him, injured, leaning at the door,” she said.

One-hundred-seventy-nine Baghdadi Jews—some historians say the numbers are much higher—were killed during the Farhud, and hundreds of others were raped, injured, or had their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

After the Farhud, the Rejwan family moved to the suburbs. Still, Ruth said, “We were at a state of panic—the kids—at all times. Because we were afraid that there will be another violence.”

She and her best friend would stand look-out for each other when they walked home at night. Her father was attacked while riding his bicycle, losing vision in one eye. Her brothers were arrested for no reason and released only after their father bribed the police.

She remembers the bodies of Jews—accused of being Zionists, Communists, or on trumped-up charges—hanging in the public square.

Ruth and her siblings were members of the Tenuah underground Zionist youth group, and her two older brothers were smuggled from Iraq to Palestine around 1948.

In February 1951, Ruth, then 15, her parents, and her two younger sisters were part of a mass exodus of Jews allowed to leave Iraq if they forfeited their citizenship and all their assets. They were transported to Israel on cargo planes through Cyprus.

Ruth was in a refugee camp in Holon when she met a friend from Baghdad who revealed shocking news: Ruth’s oldest brother had been killed fighting in the Israeli army in 1949.

“I felt like somebody hit me on the head ... And I was walking. And I didn't know how to go back to the tent, because then, you know, how am I going to tell my mother? How am I going to tell the family?” she said in her testimony.

She walked aimlessly for hours and then found her father, who confirmed what she had heard. He had not wanted to tell his daughters or his wife before they embarked on their risky journey to Israel.

The family subsequently bought an apartment in Tel Aviv and Ruth attended high school in the evening while working during the day. She enlisted in the Navy in 1955 and then earned a degree in electrical engineering at The Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

At Technion, she met Judea Pearl, whose family had come to Israel from Warsaw in 1924. They married in 1960 and moved to New Jersey to pursue graduate degrees. They had three children in eight years as Judea earned a PhD in electrical engineering. The family then moved to Los Angeles, where Judea took up a teaching post at UCLA in 1970 and Ruth—who had earned a master's degree in electrical engineering—worked in the field.

Daniel, the middle child between sisters Tamara and Michelle, was born on October 10, 1963, and became a precocious child who loved music and sports. He was 40 years old when he was killed.

“It's very hard even today. It doesn't change. Time doesn't do anything. I miss him. We all miss him. And it doesn't end, because he's always in the news,” Ruth said in her testimony.

Since his murder, every year on Daniel’s birthday dozens of communities around the world host bridge-building concerts as part of the Daniel Pearl Foundation Music Day project. The Foundation also sponsors a fellowship that brings journalists from Muslim countries to the United States and also hosts several other journalism fellowships and programs.

Ruth ran the foundation, working to perpetuate her son’s commitment to reaching across divides.

“Dehumanizing people is the first step to inviting violence, like Nazism and fascism,” Ruth said in her testimony. “It's very easy to dehumanize. I'm sure the killers of Danny didn't have any sense of identifying with the humanity that connects us. For them, Danny was an object. And that can happen only if you really don't have your own self-respect and your own respect for human beings. So we have to figure out ways to educate the next generation differently.”

Watch Ruth Pearl’s full testimony.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.