Pakistan: The Australian Consul-General’s wife’s tale

If you visit the Israeli town of Ramleh, you will find a synagogue built by Pakistani Jews. It is named Magen Shalom, after the synagogue in Karachi which no  longer exists. The Jews of Pakistan once numbered about 3,000, but the violent repercussions to the Arab-Israeli conflict have driven the community  away. (In addition, as the case of Asia Bibi has shown, Pakistan is hardly today a beacon of religious freedom.)  The following story is based on real events and centres around the Jews of Karachi, who were desperate to  cross the closed border with India in the 1970s. Wayne Croning has recreated the story in his own words…names are made up.

Hannah made the driver cover the number plates of the Mercedes, even made him remove the flag
from the bonnet.  She got in front and gave him the address. Jamila Street, in the
Ranchore.

Her husband David was posted to Karachi a few months previously,  as the Australian Consul-General. Hanna and
their children arrived a few weeks later. They had been to several countries, including some in
South America. The city reminded her of Bombay, where she and her family once lived.

Crowded, bustling, hot and
humid. But she loved it. She loved the food, the people and the culture. The first thing she did on
arriving at any new country was to look up the Jewish
population; being Jewish herself.

After a short search with help through a high ranking local official, she found to her amazement, that there was indeed a small but thriving Jewish community with a decent-sized synagogue in the commercial hub of the city.

 As they drove from Clifton to Saddar, they eventually got onto Bunder Road (M.A.Jinnah
Road), and took a turn off this busy street.The street they were on now was narrow, but crowded with people, cars,
rickshaws, motorcycles. The synagogue was not hard to find. A large stone and brick building soon
appeared on their right. Above the steel gate, and on the building itself was a sign: ‘Magain Shalome Synagogue’.

An early picture of the Magain Shalome synagogue, Karachi (Photo: Haroun Haidar blog)

 They pulled up to the side of the street and parked. Hannah got out, walked to the gate and was stopped by the chowkidar or watchman.

 “Who is it you wish to see?” he asked, in Urdu. Hannah had
picked up a bit of Hindi after spending a few years in Bombay.“Rabbi sahib say milna chatha hoo.” (I would like to
meet the Rabbi).

 He replied that this was Saturday and to come back in one hour. She waited in the car, and soon observed a
number of people entering the premises. Men, women and children, families, all dressed for Shabbat, in their finest. They all appeared to be East Indian, but some of their features were a little different.

The gates
were fully open now and she decided to walk in. The main door of the synagogue was made up of
solid oak. She entered and was greeted by a high-ceilinged, cathedral-like room.and
spacious, wooden benches flanked each side of a narrow aisle. Women on the left, men on the rght. Men wore kippot, women wore shawls around
their head.

An elderly, bearded man stood to the side of the entrance on the inside, greeting everyone. He looked surprised when he saw Hannah.

Smiling, he introduced himself.“Hello and Shalom. I am Rabbi Simone Isaac. And you
are…?”

 Hannah smiled back. “I am Hannah. She had covered her head with a silk scarf. After
guiding her to a seat, the Rabbi went to
the back of the building. Large chandeliers hung down, brightening
up the space.

The Ark stood on a raised wooden pedestal in the middle of the wooden prayer platform. Torah scrolls were stored here. The Rabbi climbed the two stairs,
removed one of the large scrolls, holding it high above his head with both hands.  He walked around the prayer platform, reciting prayers in Hebrew.

After the service ended, Hannah managed to meet the Rabbi again. She learned
a lot after their hour -long conversation. Most of the Jews here were from the Bene Israel
community, that originated on the South West coast of India, just South of
Bombay. Some were Baghdadi Jews and a few had Afghani connections. Most of them spoke Marathi, Urdu and of course
English. Many had left in 1948, one year after the Partition of India and the birth of a new nation: Israel.

By the mid 1960’s the population had further dwindled. Most left for the UK, Israel and even India.

 This was now 1972, India and Pakistan had just gotten over a major war. The border was closed between the two countries.

 Hannah was seen regularly at the synagogue; attending Shabbat prayers, weddings and social events. She had even attended two funerals, where the dead were laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery not too far from the  synagogue. She got
to know most of the families, made close friends
with some of the women, hosting many parties and get-togethers at her home. Her own children
also attended prayers at the synagogue every Saturday.  She would supply the community with Kosher
wine, grape juice, etc., even medical supplies.

 As she grew closer to the community, and came to know several of them wanted to make
Aliyah’ to Israel, especially the younger generation, she devised a plan: Travel to Israel for
Pakistanis was not allowed (passports were stamped as such).But many had immigrated to Israel via
Iran and India.

 The bizarre idea came into her head one day.  She would drive
with two or three Jews to Lahore and then drive across the border at Wagh, hiding them in the
trunk of the same consular car.

“Are you
insane?” her husband asked as she prepared for the trip. “What if you are
caught? What if they are caught? Even if you do, what
will happen to them in India? They could
be arrested there!”

 Hannah smiled but said with confidence .“They will not stop a foreign consular car. I have made
arrangements with the British Embassy in Delhi. They will be given British passports.
The ones
who want to immigrate to Israel can do so as well.

There is a representative from Tel Aviv who will be in Bombay at the end of the year. They
are inviting Indian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

 When the day arrived, Hannah and two young women and one man, got into the Mercedes and bid tearful
goodbyes to relatives.

The long drive to Lahore took about two days, with stops along the
way. Hannah also took the family pet dog
along for the trip. The morning before crossing the border, she
hid the two young women in the trunk of the car. The rear middle armrest was removed and a plastic
pipe fitted to allow cool air from the air conditioner to reach them in the
trunk. The young man was given a consular uniform with a badge and would act as the chauffeur.

They drove
to the border. It was heavily guarded with signs posted along the fence. Guard dogs
began barking at the car. The guards
took a walk around and noticed Hannah’s dog in the back
seat.  in Delhi.” she told them, holding out her
passport.“This is my chauffeur and these are his papers”, she added, handing them his passport.

 After informing her that she would be allowed to cross, they refused to let the
chauffeur through. She looked up at the guard, half annoyed.
“I cannot drive! Do you want me to walk to
Delhi??

”He appeared confused for a second. After consulting with a senior official, he came back.“You can
both go through, but at your own risk. We cannot be responsible for your safety, or the safety of
the driver.” With that he handed back
the papers, opened the gate and let them through.

 On the other side, she encountered similar problems. “I can’t walk to Delhi!” and an
annoyed look finally got her through.

“I have to
make this trip two or three times a year. Make a note of my name and my number plate,”she said,
as they slowly drove away from the border.

 The two young women made it to the UK. The
chauffeur had to return with her to Karachi, so as not to raise
suspicion. She made several such trips
back and forth. Things became more
relaxed at the border
crossing.The chauffeur made it out to
Israel after the third border crossing.

Hardly any Jews
remain in
Karachi.
Many of them married into other
communities, changed their religion or just left for
good.

 Many years later, a journalist
interviewed the Karachi Jewish community who had settled in Israel
in a place called Ramleh. They had set
up a new synagogue and named it Magen Shalom after the one in
Karachi.

When one elderly man was
interviewed he had tears in his eyes.“I miss
Karachi. I was born there, I miss the
place dearly.What really hurts is that
I can never go back for a
visit. Never!”

Diplomat’s wife smuggled Jews out of Pakistan

Pakistani Jews go to court over synagogue

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