Jews were also in Sumatra

Baghdadi Jews  from Penang and Singapore were among Jewish merchants who settled in the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, although not in sufficient  numbers to establish a synagogue or a cemetery. Article in Inside Indonesia (with thanks : Lala)

The first department store in Sumatra was Jewish-owned. It closed its doors in 1939 after trading for 50 years.

The Deli region on the east coast of Sumatra was not developed until the mid-1860s, when a few Dutchmen accepted an invitation from the Sultan of Deli to establish tobacco plantations in the area. By the late 1890s it was one of the most profitable parts of the Dutch empire.

Deli tobacco leaves were ‘thinner than cigarette paper, and softer than silk’, and quickly the plantation zone’s tobacco became highly valued as a cigar wrapper. The result was a brown ‘gold rush’ of Deli tobacco in the late 1870s, attracting German, Swiss, English, and Polish planters as well as Dutch to the new ‘dollar land.’ Planters, tolerated and sometimes abetted by colonial authorities, instituted a brutal and often murderous system of exploitation of imported Chinese and Javanese labour.

Before long, merchants established themselves to serve the European population’s taste for European goods and technology. Among these new arrivals were several Jews, including Ashkenazi Jews from the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany as well as others who relocated from existing Baghdadi Jewish communities in Penang and Singapore. There is also scattered evidence of Jews in the Dutch army serving in Sumatra.

We know very little about how many Jews tried their luck in the eastern coast of Sumatra, but we have not yet found any evidence of a synagogue (as in Surabaya) or a dedicated cemetery (as in Aceh). The most consistent record of the community is through Amsterdam’s Nieuw Israëlietisch Weekblad (New Jewish Weekly). The first mention we have found in that newspaper was a report of an August 1879 anonymous donation of 60 guilders originating in the Sumatra’s east coast and destined for the Dutch branch of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, an international Jewish educational charity.

Between 1899-1901 the NIW published letters from N. Hirsch, a non-commissioned officer initially writing from the fortress of Fort de Kock (now Bukit Tinggi). In his letters, Hirsch is troubled by the challenges of Jewish life in the Indies (when not speculating that some Indonesians might be descendants of the lost tribes), without religious or community institutions. Months after his first letter, Hirsch joyfully reported the arrival of a kosher butcher and in 1901, having since moved to Padang, on the first religious services in his home.

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