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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Helen Bekhor records it all: From Iraq to India to Japan to Internment Camp in China to Australia

Story by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

The first member of my extended family who found a home in Australia is the keeper of family records that date back for centuries in Iraq.

Australia became home some 60 years ago to Helen Bekhor ( bottom photo), born Habiba Helen Reuben in Bombay, India to Iraqi Jewish parents in 1925. She picks stories to tell from the meticulous records she keeps in her Melbourne home.

For instance, she might tell you about a relative, Reuben Battat, who froze to death in 1950 when he tried to escape from Iraq to Iran, hidden inside a freezer on a truck. That was during the mass exodus of relatives from Iraq after Israel became a nation (1948) when the Muslims in Iraq persecuted Jews.

Meanwhile for Helen the post World War II years were good. She drank Coca-Cola and sang, “drinking rum and Coca-Cola, working for the Yankee dollar.” It was a time of celebration for her in Shanghai, China. Helen and her sister, Florence, (now Florence Ovadia of Chicago, USA ), were working as mail sorters in a U.S. army base.

They had just been freed from a Japanese Civilian Internment Center in China along with their sister, Grace, brother, Felix, and mother, Naima. World War II was over (top photo, Helen, after the war). During the war, the Japanese had imprisoned Helen and her family as “enemy subjects” because they were British. They had become British citizens while living in India under British rule.

When Helen first became a prisoner, she went to work clearing rubble with her long, manicured nails. Before camp she had been living in a Shanghai she called “a shopper’s paradise” with an elegant social life among foreigners.

Asia became home to the Reubens since before her birth when her father, Sassoon Reuben (my great-uncle), opened an office in Bombay to export textiles and other goods to Iraq. Then, in 1932, my grandfather, Salim Reuben, left Baghdad with his wife and children to open a Reuben Import Export Company office in Kobe, Japan.

Political upheaval then blew Reubens to other lands. In 1939, Japan became Germany‘s ally; all foreign schools closed down in Japan, and the Reubens sailed to Shanghai.

However, the war followed them; Japan took over Shanghai after its attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Sassoon was in Bangkok; Salim was in Bombay on a business trip. The war prevented the family patriarchs from returning to Shanghai. Soon after the war, communists took over China, and the Reubens fled to Hong Kong.

Helen meticulously kept records as both sides of her family scattered all over the U.S., Canada, Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. She also compiled family trees of ancestors as well as their descendants.

High tech Helen’s work became easier with the advent of computers; she also contributed to a genealogy website about Iraqi Jews. See

Helen gathered the genealogy data because she said, “I wanted to know who my relatives were in Baghdad or wherever.“ Referring to her memoir material, she simply said, “I guess I wanted to keep a record of my life.”
Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter


  1. this is a fascinating story and a gift to the extended family! jkj

  2. Marja from Kuala Lumpur airport;_
    Hi Carola,
    This is a wonderful read. I am looking forward to following your 'adventures'.
    Hope your arrival in Melbourne was a little easier than KL!
    Thank you for making the 'wait' so interesting.

  3. Marja: Thanks for your comments. Yes, the arrival was easier. I imagine Perth also welcomed you. Carola

  4. So I am asking permission Carola. Reproducing your post on my blog I knew Helen well (we were related to Ken) and she stayed with my mother, Bertha Bekhor on her last trip to London. Lyn Bekhor Julius