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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2955

Jews Of Sri Lanka: An Untold Story

By Tuan M. Zameer Careem

During the Colonial era, Ceylon was a safe haven for foreigners in general, especially for émigrés, missionaries, traders, idealists, and asylum-seeking migrants who surged in from all quarters of the globe to make permanent settlements on our sun-drenched Island. Among those who sought sanctuary in Ceylon, were the Jews. Although the vast majority of them were non-observant Jewish servicemen and traders from Continental Europe, there were also a significant number of Jewish émigrés and theosophists who took up residence on the island.

The most renowned among them was Marie Musaeus Higgins, a German Jewess educationalist, in whose memory Musaeus College Colombo was named. Likewise, the founder of the Ceylon Buddhist Publication Society, Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera (born Siegmund Feniger), was a German Jew who was ordained into Buddhist monkhood at Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. Startling as it may sound, two of Ceylon’s Chief Justices were Jews, namely Sir Sidney Abrahams and Sir Alan Rose.

The first Professor of Modern European Languages at the University of Ceylon was Dr. Vally Reich, an Austrian Jewish refugee from London. As a matter of fact, a German Jewish planter named Maurice Benedict de Worms, fabled as the “developer of Ceylon” brought the first tea seedlings from China in September 1841, and formed a nursery of them on his estate at Pusellawa.

There was even a Jewish Synagogue ‘Rotunda’ at Steuart Place, Colpetty (opposite Cinnamon Grand Hotel) which was used by Jewish servicemen in the British Army. Sadly, the old building was razed somewhere in the sixties, to make room for Sasakawa Hall. Colpetty’s Rotunda Gardens road and a small number of Hebrew and Yiddish inscribed tombstones at Kanatte (Borella) cemetery are all that remains to memorialise the Jews who lived in Colonial Ceylon.

After Ceylon gained her independence in 1948, and following the establishment of the State of Israel, most of the Jews who lived in Ceylon made Aliyah [Aliyah is the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel. Also defined as "the act of going up"—that is, towards Jerusalem—"making Aliyah" by moving to the Land of Israel is one of the most basic tenets of Zionism] and left the country in the mid-1950s. Only a handful of Jewesses who were married to Ceylonese Burghers, Sinhalese and Malays, remained on the Island. Poetess Anne Ranasinghe (born Anneliese Katz), who died aged 91, in December 2016 at her residence in Rosmead Place, Colombo was the last full-blooded, “Sri Lankan Jew.”

The first Jews

Contrary to popular belief, the history of Jews in our country goes back several centuries, and surprising as it may sound to many readers, their advent and settlement in Sri Lanka predate Chola rule. The first written record of Jewish settlement in Ceylon can be traced back to the early 9th century, when the Persian polymath and geographer Abu Zaid al Hassan (916) from Siraf, who sojourned in Ceylon, mentioned in his travelogue about the Jewish community that lived on the Island.

Later in the 12th Century, Arab geographer and explorer Al-Idrisi reaffirmed Abu Zaid’s account of the Jews in Ceylon in his well known, Geography in 1154 A.C. stating that the King of Serendib (Old Persian name for Sri Lanka), had four Jews in his Government Council of sixteen.

In the same part of his work, Al-Idrisi goes on to say that he found in Ceylon many Christians, Muslims, Manicheans, and Mussenden. My mentor, Deshamanya Sir Tissa Devendra, postulates that the Lankan King whom Al-Idrisi refers to in his work is King Kasyapa IV. Moreover, according to the itinerary of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, a medieval Jewish traveller and writer, there were three thousand Jews living in Ceylon at the time of his visit in the 12th century. In the same period, there were Jewish merchant vessels that sailed regularly from the ports of Middle East to Ceylon and India.

Jewish merchants, like David Maimonides (Moses’ brother), had an Aden-Ceylon route for spices like cinnamon. What is most interesting, however, is the fact that Galle is believed to be the biblical city of Tarshish, from where in 1000 BCE King Solomon once shipped elephants, apes, peacocks, jewels, and spices. You may wonder what happened to those early Jews; sadly, however, there are no written records or other evidence to tell us what happened to them. Their history after the 12th century remains shrouded in mystery and brim with unanswered questions. Howbeit, some historians surmise that most of the Jews left Ceylon and joined the Cochin Jews in the 16th century, because they were persecuted and martyred by the Portuguese Conquistadors for their refusal to convert to Catholicism.

Portuguese rule

In 1492, Spain enacted the infamous Alhambra Decree (Edict of Expulsion), which declared that all Jews must either convert, be expelled or be sold into slavery. Hundreds and thousands, if not millions of Jews who lived in Iberia converted to avoid religious persecution. These baptised Jews and their descendants who were suspected of secret adherence to Judaism were called ‘Marrano’ meaning ‘swine,’ in Spanish, insinuating the Jewish abhorrence of pork. With their conversion, they (Marranos) dropped their Semitic surnames and started using Christian names instead. Some adopted names derived from natural features, hence the names of Caldera (crater), and Silva (woodland).

Howbeit, some of them (Marranos) retained their Jewish (Sephardic) surnames. De Fonseka, Rodrigo (Rodrigues), Nunes, Pereira, Mendes (Mendo), Fernandes, Miranda, Costa, Dias, Pinto, Cardoso and Silveira are examples of Jewish surnames borne by Marranos and their widely-spread descendants. When Portugal established a footing in Asia and Brazil, many Marranos voluntarily enlisted to serve as soldiers in any of Portugal’s Colonial Forces, mainly to escape religious persecutions and oppression in Iberia. Based on service dossiers and enlistment records, it is evident that Marranos did accompany the Portuguese colonisers to Ceylon. For this reason, historians like Fiona Kumari Campbell are of the opinion, that our Portuguese Burghers and some low-country Sinhalese might have Jewish antecedents.

Dutch Ceylon

Like the Iberian Marranos, the Jews from Holland, Germany, France, and Belgium also sought employment in the colonial enclaves in Asia and Africa by joining the Dutch VOC. Leopard l.H. Van Dort, a Dutch Jew was a Hebrew Professor in Colombo at the Christian Theological Seminary. He rendered the Holy Quran into Hebrew, maintained strong friendships with Cochin Jews and translated their unintelligible scrolls into Hebrew. According to J.B. Müller, the Dutch Burghers have Jewish roots, as many of them bear “Sephardic” surnames.

Altendorff, Anderson, Arndt, Daniels, de Jong, Ephraums, Felsinger, Joseph, Kalenberg, Kellar, Koch, Leembruggen, Landsberger, Martensteyn, Martin, Meier, Nicholas, Nagel, Oppenheimer, Oorloff, Reimers, Runtsdorff, Rose, Scharff, Schneider, Schumacher, Smith, Van Dort, Werkmeister, and Willenberg, to name a few. Howbeit, many have expressed doubts concerning the veracity of Müller’s claims.

Under British rule

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the influx of Jews into Ceylon and India increased, thanks to the ambivalent attitude of the British towards the Jewish population. The Jews who lived in Ceylon thrived under the benevolent shade of British rule. In fact, British Prime Minister and 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli, was born a Jew, but converted to Anglicanism. In 1809, Chief Justice and Advocate Fiscal of Ceylon, Sir Alexander Johnston wanted to persuade Jews from Africa and Asia to form settlements in Ceylon.

He even submitted his proposal to the Marquis of Londonderry, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, but to no avail. In fact, two of Ceylon’s Chief Justices were Jews, namely Sir Sidney Abrahams and Sir Alan Rose. Sir Sidney Abrahams founded and presided over the Medico-Legal Society of Ceylon and when Governor-General, Lord Soulbury was away in England on short leave, Sir Alan Rose served as Ceylon’s Acting Governor-General.

The Jews also held high positions within the civil service, most notable among them being Leonard Woolf (husband of author Virginia Wolf) who served as Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota. Leonard, besides being an eminent civil servant, was also a prolific writer, in point of fact, his famed novel ‘Village in the Jungle’ was based on his escapades in Hambantota District. Some of the notable Jews who rendered yeoman service to the University of Ceylon include clinical psychologist Dr. Edith Gyomroi Ludowyk, theatrical producer Neumann Jubal, and Dr. Vally Reich.

Dr. Albersheim, a German Jewish refugee was among the best dental surgeons at the time. The Jews were also actively involved in local Politics. Rhoda Miller de Silva, Heidi Simon Keuneman, Dr. Edith Gyomroi Ludowyk, and Claudine Leibovitz, to name a few. A Jewish banker named W. Cohen established and managed a branch of Mercantile Bank in Ceylon. Interestingly, many of Geoffrey Bawa’s early projects were undertaken with a Jew named Ulrik Plesner, who was one of the top-notch architects in the 1960’s. Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Bandarawela (1962), Bishops College, Colombo (1963), Ekala Industrial Estate, Ja Ela (1959–1960) and S. Thomas’ Preparatory School are some of the finest Bawa-Plesner creations.

Ceylon tea

Of all the professions in which Jews excelled, commerce, tea-trade, and banking were preeminent. German Jewish brothers, Maurice, Gabriel, and Baron Solomon de Worms were the pioneer tea planters who put Ceylon tea on the map.

They owned some of the biggest and best-cultivated coffee plantations in the island and the de Worms prospered from trading coffee with Europe. But after the great coffee blight in 1869, they replanted their estates with tea. They built up one of the largest tea plantations on the island, known as the Rothschild Estate, which was named after their maternal grandfather, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty.

By the 1860s, the de Worms owned some twelve properties across the island, totalling over 7000 acres, widely scattered over the island’s Central Province. They also owned a successful shipping and banking company known as G. & M.B. Worms, headquartered at 19, Baillie Street, Colombo, and the depot was at Grandpass. In 1847, Gabriel de Worms stood as a member of Ceylon’s Legislative Council, but despite being elected, was denied his seat on the grounds of his Jewish faith. As ardent philatelists, they built some spectacular and celebrated collections of the world’s greatest philatelic treasures.

The de Worms left Ceylon in 1865, but the Rothschild Estate yet flourishes under the same name. Apart from de Worms, there were a handful of other Jewish planters who owned estates in Ceylon, notably A.C. Meyer, who established Tientsin in Dickoya, Antoine Joseph Van der Poorten, a Flemish Jew who became the first Belgium Consul in Ceylon, and Elias David Sassoon, who founded what became the Sassoon Bank

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