Preserving Jewish Calcutta

The dwindling Jewish community - now under two dozen - is on a mission to document its 200-year history before it disappears altogether.

By JPOST.COM STAFF
March 22, 2014 11:35
calcutta jews

Interior of the Magen David Synagogue, Calcutta.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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The once-influential Jewish community of Calcutta has dwindled to fewer than 20 members.

Jael Silliman, who in her late 50s is one of the youngest members, says she is on a mission to educate the community and document its 200-year history to preserve a record of its former glory before it is too late, the BBC radio program Outlook recently reported.

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The first Jews arrived in Calcutta from Syria and Iraq, seeking business opportunities in the 18th century. The community prospered under the British Raj, exporting silk and indigo and playing a important role in the opium trade. Schools and newspapers were founded, and the community grew.

By World War II, the Jewish population of Calcutta had swelled to 5,000, but when the British left in 1947, Indian Jews began emigrating elsewhere.

Although, as Silliman says, Indian Jews were always welcome in India and spared the anti-Semitism experienced by Jews in Europe, the Hindu- Muslim riots during Partition contributed to mass emigration, as did the British open immigration policies for residents of former colonies. Most moved to Britain, Australia, the United States or Israel when it was established the following year.

The few remaining Jews have been focusing on preserving their schools and synagogue.

None of the students in the Jewish Girls’ School is Jewish.


They are nearly all Muslim, as is the caretaker of the Magen David Synagogue. Silliman believes that the continued existence of these buildings will serve as monuments to what was.


Memorial plaques in the Magen Davd Synagogue, Calcutta.

The few remaining Jews have been focusing on preserving their schools and synagogue.

None of the students in the Jewish Girls’ School is Jewish.

They are nearly all Muslim, as is the caretaker of the Magen David Synagogue. Silliman believes that the continued existence of these buildings will serve as monuments to what was.

Magen David Synagogue is still home to the largest in Asia, according to Silliman. The building boasts a church-like steeple, which was highly influenced by the British, and remains the center of the tiny community today.

The role of caretaker has been passed down through the same Muslim family for generations.

The current caretaker, Rabul Khan, has promised to continue to “watch over” the synagogue and “preserve the memory” of the community, even if the seats remain empty.

 

 

 

 

 

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