For 28 years, Canadian Judith Feld Carr ran a clandestine rescue network that spirited most of Syria's Jews from captivity. Her little-known heroic feat rivals that of celebrated Holocaust saviors such as Oskar Schindler.
The final family arrived in New York in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001. Just 38 Jews remain -- by choice -- in Syria, she said, where they are barred from emigrating and tortured for trying to escape.
Her mission concluded, Feld Carr is free to talk about the international exploits of "Mrs. Judy," as she was known by Syria's Jewish underground. Yet, she still zealously guards many secrets of the covert mission that ultimately freed 3,228 people.
For instance, the Toronto musicologist never explains how she bribes drug-dealing Syrian commanders who control border escape routes through Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Neither does she say how one goes about learning which military official hungers for payoffs because of "overhead," a euphemism for funds required to keep second wives and support illegitimate children.
What Feld Carr does outline is fueling a dangerous, modern-day exodus from one of the last Stalinist police states to survive the Cold War, rivaling ancient Egypt for its oppression.
"It was a lifeline like no other," Feld Carr said. "The Jews of Syria didn't make the agenda of any human rights organization."
And she is belatedly receiving international credit. Last June, Feld Carr received a humanitarian award by Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center; the year before, she was appointed to the Order of Canada; and, in 1999, she became the subject of a book, "The Ransomed of God," by Harold Troper (Malcolm Lester Books).
In a lecture last month at Tustin's Congregation B'nai Israel, she recounted relying on a Mideast network of shadowy agents and trusted smugglers, coaxed into paying ransoms and bribes for her. The audience of 150 were held spellbound by the woman, with auburn hair primly clasped in a white-and-navy bow, which coordinated with a double strand of pearls that topped a close-fitting, blue suit.
Among them were congregants Joe Bati and his wife, Yolande, who in 1947, when 40,000 Jews lived in Syria, escaped Aleppo by fleeing to Israel through Lebanon. The Batis invited Feld Carr to pick up the tale, Rabbi Eli Spitz explained, of "what happened to [Yolande's] friends who were left behind in Syria, which became a prison for Jews."
As an isolated but telling example, Feld Carr described the plight of two Damascus brothers, who failed to return home from a trip to Rome and disappeared for two years. Held in solitary confinement in underground cells by Syria's notorious Nazi-trained secret police, the brothers were subjected to a trial without counsel.
Living conditions were so barbaric that the wife of one brother, when permitted a visit, could not recognize her spouse. "Their crime?" Feld Carr asked. "They had secretly visited their sister in Israel."
To win the brothers release, Feld Carr went so far as to bribe Syrian Supreme Court judges. "Every month, bribe money went to pay for medicine," she said. "We paid for every piece of soap, every cold shower once a month."
"Jews were being sold at a price like cattle, and I was buying them," Feld Carr said, although few would ever meet her.
Feld Carr, 63, and now a grandmother, started living a parallel existence in 1973, continuing work begun with her late husband, Ronald Feld. She described the pair as activists. They raised money quietly by word of mouth and with the help of Beth Tzedek Congregation, their Toronto synagogue, and another in Baltimore. In 1977, she married again to Donald Carr.
"I'm painfully aware my country is only referred to in weather forecasts. It couldn't have been done from any place except Canada," she said, since her secret would not have escaped media scrutiny in the United States, Europe or Israel.
"It is precisely that we didn't hear about her that she was able to succeed," Spitz added, calling her "a hero of our time."
Her second career of intrigue included late-night phone calls from desperate parents, payoffs to Syrian immigration officials for passports and exit visas, currency smuggling, midnight visits to Israeli embassies and becoming accustomed to the watchful eyes of security minders. Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was the first to mention her work in April 1995, seven months before his assassination.
Explaining little more than that she was off for another "spa" visit, Feld Carr would change her appearance, loosening her dark hair and rimming her eyes boldly in the style of Arab women. "It was hard to live two lives," she said. "The kids knew I was leaving from the briskets I was freezing."
The dual lives did cross paths, sometimes humorously, sometimes not. Feld Carr described shopping for pantyhose with her daughter, who was attending graduate school in New York. "Is he with you?" the girl asked her mother, referring to a plainclothes security guard. "Is he going to the bra department, too?"
En route home after a "spa" trip, inevitably the gin inventory on Feld Carr's flight would be depleted. "My nerves were shot," she said. Often, she needed to recuperate from her "vacation."
Feld Carr has never stepped foot in Syria, despite an invitation by a diplomat. Canadian officials advise against it. "If I did, I wouldn't be talking to you now," Feld Carr said.
Her extraordinary feat was born out of a half-hearted gesture by a rabbi, who wrote an op-ed piece appearing in Canada's national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, in 1972. Distraught over 12 Syrian Jews killed trying to flee across a mined border to Turkey, the rabbi pledged to establish a group to aid Syrian Jewry. The Felds wanted to join. They never heard from him.
Undeterred, they decided to contact Syrian's Jewish community on their own.
"Anyone special?" the operator asked.
"The rabbi," they answered.
"What's a rabbi?"
"A Jewish priest."
Eventually, the Felds got through, offering to send religious books.
"That was the opening in Syria," she said. Â