Secrets of Ceylon

    What happened to the Jews of Sri Lanka?

    by Andrew Harris

    Photo credit: Andrew Harris
    Carved wooden secondary entrance to an old merchant’s house
    Shabbat at Chabad Colombo. Ceiling fans whoosh languidly overhead, muffling the crowd of us individual daveners; four men – me, a backpacking Israeli father and son, and Rabbi Mendie Crombie – not even half a minyan, working our way through kabbalat shabbat, concluding roughly together. On the other side of the loungeroom mechitzah are the rebbetzin and my wife, Naava. At the only synagogue in the country, this, Rabbi Crombie later tells me, is an above-average turnout. Rabbi Crombie’s Chabad House is set
    up to serve the needs of a transient
    trickle of Israeli backpackers and
    Jewish businessman who pass through
    Colombo. It is the only synagogue (and
    mikvah) in the country. And yet, over
    many centuries, Sri Lanka has almost
    certainly had a Jewish presence of
    some sort – in fact, the southern port of
    Galle is believed to be the biblical city
    of Tarshish, from where in 1000BCE
    King Solomon once shipped elephants,
    apes, peacocks jewels and spices.

    Sri Lanka is an island 432km at its longest, and 224km at ats widest. The Sinhalese overwhelmingly Buddhist majority is almost three-quarters of the 20.4-million population, the Tamils – overwhelmingly Hindu; some are Christian – just under a fifth, the Sri Lankan and Indian Moors, who are Muslim, are just under a tenth. About 50,000 Dutch Reform Burghers and 2000 indigenous animist Veddah balance the equation.

    Rabbi Crombie, as I, was aware of only
    one self-identifying Jew, the poetess
    Anne Ranasinghe, and he couldn’t put
    me in touch with anyone who could tell
    me about the synagogue I had heard
    about in Colombo, long since vanished.
    He did point me towards a Queenslandbased
    researcher, Dr Fiona Kumari Campbell, whom I’d already tried to
    contact before going to Sri Lanka.

    Tracing Hidden Jewish Roots

    A couple of days later I sat down with JB Müller, a journalist during the turbulent ’70s and ’80s, who has devoted himself to researching the history of his own people – The Burghers – many of whom he believes to have Jewish roots.

    Over the course of a long afternoon at the Dutch Burgher Union, a social club, central meeting place, and genealogical storehouse for the Sri Lankan Burghers, JB told me that, fleeing persecution in Europe across two centuries of pogroms, from the 16th century to the 18th century, many Jews had ended up in the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam. When the Dutch needed labour to send off to far-flung lands with the Dutch East Indies Company, the Jews were only too happy to go – and much earlier, he argues, the same happened with the Portuguese colonisers, and the surfeit of fled Spanish Jews on Portuguese soil.

    As a consequence, he argues, a huge number of Burgher families with Portuguese or Dutch ancestry have Jewish roots. As evidenced, he posits, by their surnames – a list of which he has published in his book, The Burghers, which contains a chapter on the subject, ‘Semitic Ancestors’.

    Fiona Kumari Campbell’s mother’s maiden name is ‘Van Dort’, one of those on JB’s list – a ‘nonsense’ surname he explains these as. ‘Van Dort’ means ‘Over There’.

    I caught up with Fiona on my return to
    Australia. It turns out that an illustrious
    Jewish ancestor of hers, Leopold
    Immanuel Jacob Van Dort, was
    professor of Hebrew at the Christian
    Theological Seminary in Colombo 1758
    to 1760, the year Hebrew was removed from the curriculum. Ultimately forced
    to convert under Dutch rule in Ceylon,
    he established a strong relationship with
    the Cochin Jews, from whom he copied
    scrolls of communal record.

    Jacob Van Dort also translated the Koran into Hebrew (from a Dutch translation of a French translation from the Arabic) – a copy lives in the New York Public library. Although Fiona hasn’t converted to Judaism, she and her daughter keep a kosher home, and live what she describes as a ‘pretty Jewish life’. She hasn’t undergone the process because of the difficulty of obtaining any certifiable proof of descent. “‘Van Dort’ is a well-known Jewish name. Some of the Van Dorts went to a colony in South America; to Suriname, and retained their Jewish identity.” Fiona’s own ancestors ended up in Sri Lanka with the Dutch East Indies Company. They stayed, and apparently lost their Jewishness. Many generations later, Fiona says her daughter doesn’t know any reality other than being a Jew.

    Fiona says JB Müller was the first to put Jews and Burghers together in the Sri Lankan media. “He is to be commended,” she says. Although he tends to work not with hard evidence, but with inferences, Fiona freely admits that hard evidence is difficult to come by.

    Roadblocks in the Path

    As an academic pursuit, uncovering
    the Jewish history of Sri Lanka has
    been fraught. From social and political
    sensitivities; separating unverifiable
    stories from documented proof; a
    number of roadblocks have stood in
    her path.

    “Sometimes the stories that people
    tell, are conflicting and they’re hazy,”
    she says. “Remember that these
    recollections are of people who’ve had
    very little visual and physical exposure
    to Jews. That’s a problem in itself.”

    Photo credit: Andrew Harris
    The legacy of Israeli assistance to the Indian Ocean Tsunami on a T-shirt

    The well-known Sri Lankan writer Cecil V Wikramanayake, now in his 80s, published an essay entitled ‘Jews of Old Ceylon’, in which he recalled, “I remember, as a child, seeing many Jews in this country, always dressed in the customary white robe, head covered and kept in place with a phylactery tied around the head.”

    Who really knows what he was remembering – both Fiona and the poetess Anne Ranasinghe note that many Sri Lankans think a ‘Jew’ is some kind of Christian. Additionally, an expat Sri Lankan Burgher in Melbourne had told me that what I found later to be a South Indian Muslim sect, the Bohras, were Jews.

    The overarching issue with uncovering
    evidence of Jews in Sri Lanka is the
    tumultuous history of the island itself,
    and its successive waves of Portuguese,
    Dutch and British colonisation over
    hundreds of years, followed by a brief,
    relatively trouble-free period after
    independence in 1948, and, most
    recently, three decades of civil war.
    Every new administration and new strife
    meant the destruction of documentation,
    mass flights and displacements of
    population. “That’s the whole issue with
    colonisation. They were there to wipe
    out religious sentiment that they didn’t
    agree with,” she says. “People lose their
    connection, their identity.”

    Since Fiona published her article ‘A Historical Appraisal of Jewish Presence in Sri Lanka’ on the Chabad of Sri Lanka website, she’s had a trickle of enquiries from people who think they have Jews in their genealogy. “At least it’s opening up a conversation for people who maybe haven’t thought there was some kind of Jewish descent, to start exploring those issues.”

    When Chabad of Colombo was first
    established, Fiona asked whether or
    not tourists and businesspeople was
    the entirety of their mission; whether
    or not they were looking to reconnect
    those in Sri Lanka who had lost touch
    with their Judaism, or if they’d work
    with the descendents of those who
    were forced to convert. The answer was
    not in the positive. “I think it’s a moral
    responsibility; with colonisation, these
    people didn’t say, oh, I want to convert
    to another religion,” she says. “They are
    the legacy of tyranny.”

    “I am the Only Sri Lankan Jew”

    The poetess Anne Ranasinghe (born
    Anneliese Katz in Essen, Germany)
    was initially concerned about the
    establishment of the Chabad presence;
    that it would bringing too much attention
    to bear on Jews in Sri Lanka.

    Over a very crackly phone connection,
    Anne Ranasinghe was resolute. “I am
    the only Sri Lankan Jew,” she says.
    “I am the only Jew with a Sri Lankan
    passport.” And it’s true.

    Anne survived the Holocaust after being sent to England as a child. She grew up in London, where she met her Sri Lankan obstetrician husband. On starting a family in Sri Lanka, she decided to raise her children as Buddhist – not as Jewish. According to an essay published in the Jewish Quarterly, ‘Our Beginnings Never Know Our Ends’, Anne explains she had no option. She was culturally and spiritually isolated.

    Meanwhile, Anne kept up contact with
    the few Jews on the island of whom she
    was aware. One of her Jewish friends,
    who had married a Sri Lankan, towards
    the end of her life made it clear to her
    that she wanted a Jewish burial. In Sri
    Lanka, most people are cremated,

    in accordance with the predominant
    Buddhist rite; otherwise they’re buried
    in privately owned Muslim or Christian

    The Christian owners of the cemeteries
    that may have had plots refused to have
    a Jew buried in the ground. Anne was
    never able to find a plot for her friend to
    have a proper Jewish burial.

    The Search for Something Concrete

    Fiona confirms that there was, indeed, a synagogue in Colombo, as does JB, who mentions that it was known as ‘The Rotunda’, after its rounded architecture, a site now known as Rotunda Gardens, a few hundred metres south of where Fiona believes there was a synagogue. Along with many other historical buildings across the country, it did not survive three decades of civil wars and urban development. “There’s not that kind of archaeological sensibility,” Fiona says. This location also doesn’t corroborate with any other evidence.

    In the course of our brief conversation,
    Anne Ranasinghe though confirms that
    she remembers a synagogue replete
    with a mezuzah at the site at which Fiona
    believes it to have existed, opposite the
    Cinnamon Grand Hotel on Galle Road,
    in the upscale Cinnamon Gardens
    neighbourhood, on the grounds of what
    is now a Japanese cultural hall. The
    current Chabad House is an art-deco
    villa not far away.

    “They come, and they disappear”

    Photo credit: Andrew Harris
    Magen David carved into a pew in the Anglican Church

    Fiona is quick to point out that not only is there no surviving synagogue of the original community, no surviving Portuguese churches and only a few original Dutch sites stand today. “They come, and they disappear.”

    In her essay for the Jewish Quarterly, Anne Ranasinghe mentions that Jewish serviceman, in the British army, used the synagogue, and that it was demolished not long after her 1952 arrival in Sri Lanka. She recalls no actual Jewish community, and names in her essay the handful of Jews she was aware of – also mainly the European wives of local men.

    Still, despite the question of this
    vanished synagogue building, there is
    written evidence of an historical Jewish
    presence in Sri Lanka – Benjamin of
    Tudela estimated 3000 Jews in Sri
    Lanka in 1130; a famously open-minded
    9th-century Sinhalese king is recorded
    as having four Jewish advisers to his
    court of sixteen in total; a 16th-century
    Portuguese trader recounts a 50-day
    trade fair in which he specifies Jews
    participated; the Jewish de Worms
    brothers, cousins of the Rothschilds,
    established the first coffee, and then
    tea plantations in Sri Lanka; a handful of
    Jews were senior in the colonial British
    administration – what happened to their

    “In 1948,” JB Müller tells me, “with the
    establishment of the State of Israel, they
    left for Israel, and Singapore.”

    Of the permanent, original Singapore
    Jewish community, only 300 members
    remain. It’s such a small community,
    so important in the region; it seemed
    odd that they wouldn’t know about this.
    And yet, via email, Rabbi Mordechai
    Abergel of Singapore’s Jacob Ballas
    Centre stated clearly, “To the best
    of my knowledge, there are no Jews
    in Singapore who migrated from
    Sri Lanka.”

    “I think it is forgotten for those people, it’s gone,” Fiona says of the Singapore Jews. “I think for others, it’s about reawakening the memory.”

    Fiona puts the number of self-identifying Jews at about 60, including a Jewish monk of Buddhist descent, and a couple of Sri Lankan writers other than Anne Ranasinghe. No more are willing to be visible, she remarks. “People don’t want their graves dug up because of religious intolerance; people don’t want their houses burned down because of religious intolerance.”

    Sri Lanka maintains no diplomatic ties with Israel. An Israeli Legation was set up in 1957, but was expelled by the government in 1971 with the promise of massive Arab aid money as a reward. The Charge de Affairs was dismissed, but no aid arrived. During the initial Israeli tenure, though, Anne Ranasinghe renewed her ties with the Jewish world.

    In 1984, needing military hardware to help combat the Tamil insurgency, President Jayawardena established a non-diplomatic Israeli Interest Section at the American Embassy in Colombo. This was later also expelled, at the whim of incoming President Premadasa.

    “Eighteen, from memory”

    In 2007, Fiona and her daughter spent six months in Colombo. It so happened that the Kanatte (or ‘Borella’) general Christian cemetery was next to the school Fiona’s daughter was attending.

    With a hunch that there may be some Jewish graves among the sprawling plots, Fiona, armed with photographs of Jewish graves in lieu of speaking decent Sinhala to explain herself, and images of Hebrew script, marched in, and approached the old caretaker.

    “It was like something out of the movies – he went hysterical,” she says. “‘Madam, madam, madam!’ He grabbed the paper, and went off on his bike. He went flying down the middle of the cemetery. ‘Follow me. I have been waiting for someone for years – tell me, what is this writing?'” Fiona told him what the script was, and amid a gathering crowd, the old caretaker took her a scattering of Hebrew- and Yiddish-inscribed Jewish graves, all of which she photographed. “Eighteen, from memory.”

    Article and photography by Andrew Harris, a writer and photographer based in Melbourne. See his work online at www.andharris.com