Tag: Jews of indonesia

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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Jews suffered hunger and torture in WWII Indonesian camps

Baghdadi Jews formed communities in the Far East and 600 settled in Surabaya on the island of Indonesia. Stories are beginning to emerge of their suffering in Japanese internment camps during WWII. Deborah Cassrels writes in Haaretz:

“We were all starving; the hunger was horrendous. Sometimes we collected banana skins to roast and eat. We were like skeletons.”

Benjamin David, an 84-year-old Australian-Iraqi Jew, could be recalling Holocaust scenes. He is not. But his own nightmare, which played out simultaneously on the opposite side of the world in Europe, has left a bitter legacy.

Talking from his home in Sydney, Australia, David is reliving childhood memories of the years he spent in Japanese internment camps on the Southeast Asian archipelago of Indonesia – then known as the Dutch East Indies.

He was just 4 when he and his family were forced into a camp, along with other Jews, after the Japanese invaded the then-Dutch colony in 1942. He still bears the physical and psychological scars of deprivation and brutality.

Stories of repression, disease, starvation, torture, segregation, resilience, faith and death are largely unknown – but are starting to emerge.

“After the war I had nightmares for about 20 years.” David closes his eyes and tilts his head back. “My nightmares were about the Japs knocking at our door, taking us to the camp … and I saw a lot people hung.”

He recalls his incomprehension at witnessing, as a young child, five Indonesian men hanged for stealing or smuggling just before the war ended. His mother pulled him away, saying, “They’re only dolls.” He did not learn the brutal truth until he was married and had a daughter.

David’s parents had migrated to Indonesia, where he was born, from Burma (now Myanmar) in 1933 to escape conflict. His maternal grandfather had left Iraq in about 1926 for Rangoon, where he met his future wife (whose parents were Iraqi).

Of some wonder is how David’s indomitable mother, and other Sephardi women, still managed to observe the Sabbath and Jewish holy days while interned – to the bemusement of their Japanese captors.

A rare Jewish grave in Indonesia.
A rare Jewish grave in Indonesia. (Photo: : Deborah Cassrels)

“After the war I had nightmares for about 20 years.” David closes his eyes and tilts his head back. “My nightmares were about the Japs knocking at our door, taking us to the camp … and I saw a lot people hung.”

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Baghdadi survivors of WWII Java camps tell harrowing stories

For the first time,  the harrowing stories of Iraqi Jews interned in Japanese camps on Indonesia during WWII are being documented.

Sybil Sassoon,pictured  aged 35 in 1955: had a pistol held to her head (Courtesy and Deborah Cassrels)

In the 19th century, Jews  left Baghdad to flee persecution or follow the trade routes of the British Empire: they went to India, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They  were relative latecomers to  the Indonesian archipelago, and only settled there in any numbers when it became the Dutch East Indies. The community comprised a few thousand Ashkenazi Jews from Holland. But some 600  Baghdadi Jews also settled in Surabaya,  the port capital of East Java. They led a charmed life until World War II.

During the war they were joined by refugees escaping Nazi persecution in Europe.  When the Japanese occupied Java  in early 1942, most of the community was  interned for being Dutch civilians. In the latter half of 1943,  the Gestapo mounted antisemitic campaigns in Indonesia. They persuaded the Japanese to intern all the Baghdadi Jews simply for being Jews.

This little-known episode was researched by Rotem Kowner of Haifa University. However, more stories have come to light thanks to an investigation by Australian journalist Deborah Cassrels, who interviewed several survivors for a book she is writing. Deborah was the guest speaker in an online ‘Lockdown Lecture’ organised by Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

Beginning in 1943, Jews were rounded up, men and women segregated and sent to four separate camps. In one camp the prisoners were made to build a railway which was never completed. Most inmates did survive, but  suffered infected mosquito bites and diseases like amoebic dysentery. It was a daily struggle to stave off hunger. The prisoners ate stray dogs, worms, snails,  anything they could find.

Five-year-old Edward Abraham’s father died after eating raw cassava, which can contain poison. Edward’s  pregnant mother was made to stand all day staring at the sun without food and water – a favoured Japanese punishment –  until she fainted. Solomon Elias recounts how his sister Hannah was punished for trading jewellery for rations and confined to a rat-infested dungeon for two weeks. The Japanese guard who helped her was shot. Hannah bore the mental scars  of  her ordeal for the rest of her life.

Sybil Sassoon, pregnant with her second child, had a pistol held to her head if she refused to go to the local hospital for the delivery.  Thankfully the baby was born without complications. She remembers being so thirsty during a train journey to a camp that the inmates tried to capture rainwater in their cupped hands.  The prisoners still managed to observe Yom Kippur by asking for the guards not to give them rations of rice with worms and vegetables that day, but bring them tea and bread at night. Sybil remained in the camp for one and a half years.

Benjamin David, 4 at the time, recalls eating banana skins. One day he picked up some green beans from the ground. When his mother tried to boil water for green bean soup, the guards instructed her let the boiling water run over her hands.

When the the Japanese were defeated in 1945,  the Jews found themselves caught up in anti-colonial struggle for independence no less brutal than what they had been through during the war.

Today the survivors are in their 90s and live in Australia, California and Israel. There are no more than 10 Jews still in Java.

Link to Harif ‘Lockdown Lecture’, Lost Jewish Voices of Indonesia


Indonesians mark Passover amid upsurge in hostility

In an unmarked warehouse in a commuter suburb of Jakarta, 20 Indonesians with Jewish roots  discreetly  sat down for a Passover Seder, officiated by Indonesia’s only ordained rabbi, Benjamin Meijer Verbrugge. Report in the Financial Times (with thanks: Laurence):

Fonny Ratumbanua holds up a piece of matzo at a Seder service in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta (Photo: Krithika Varagur)

 It is not easy to be Jewish in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but it is even harder this year, as anti-Semitic sentiment has grown since Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is holy to both Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians.

Hardline Islamists organised mass protests in Jakarta and top Indonesian leaders rebuked Israel.

“Every time the Israel-Palestine issue flares up, it gets harder for us to live in Indonesia,” said Mr Verbrugge. Mr Verbrugge, like many of the roughly 200 Jewish Indonesians today, is descended from Dutch Jews who came to the archipelago in the colonial era. His grandfather was a Dutch civil servant, and Mr Verbrugge lived as a Muslim and a Christian before converting to Judaism and founding the United Indonesia Jewish Community.

Judaism is not one of the six religions officially recognised by the Indonesian constitution.

“We aren’t ashamed of our faith but we don’t go around proclaiming it to strangers,” said Fonny Ratumbanua. “I still list my official religion as ‘Christian’ on my national ID card,” she added.

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Indonesian Jews hold multifaith seder

Fifty Indonesian Jews gathered for a Passover seder in Jakarta on Friday
night, with a guest list that included US Deputy Secretary of State
Antony Blinken and several local Muslim clerics, the Times of Israel reports: 

The festive Jewish ceremony took on special significance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, just three years after radical Islamists pressured authorities to shut down the only synagogue in the Indonesian capital.

Members of the country’s tiny Jewish
community, which numbers only about 200 people, have kept a low profile
following the closure of the Ohel Yaakov synagogue and a series of
anti-Semitic attacks.

Indonesian Jews are mostly descendants of Iraqi and Dutch Jews who immigrated in the 1920s, according to the (Hebrew) news report.

Since Judaism is not recognized as one of the
country’s official faiths, the identity cards of most of the country’s
Jews identify them as Christians.

An Indonesian Jewish woman, who was not named
in the TV report, said Indonesian people’s perceived hatred of Israel
and Judaism stems from ignorance.

“When they say ‘I hate Jews, I hate Israel,’
you can’t really judge them, because they haven’t actually met any Jews
at all,” she said.

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