Indonesian Jews fondly remember tropical home

Scholars, ex-members meet in Haifa to discuss a now-extinct Southeast Asian community.

Indonesian Jews 311 (photo credit: Dr. Ely Dwek)
Indonesian Jews 311
(photo credit: Dr. Ely Dwek)
In 1938, as Nazi Germany absorbed Austria and anti- Semitic violence worsened, the situation of Jews in Europe became desperate. Lines of would-be émigrés formed outside embassies hoping to get permits that would allow them to escape.
Most were turned away.
The Lehrers of Vienna were among the lucky ones. They boarded a boat that took them halfway across the world to Indonesia, where a relative who had been working as a physician had helped obtain permits for them.
Shoshana Lehrer, who was then four years old, recalled arriving in the Dutch East Indies and her encounter with the small but vibrant Jewish community.
“It was very hard, we were like olim,” Lehrer, who lives in Haifa’s bayside suburbs, said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “I never wanted to speak German so I had to speak Dutch with the other kids, which wasn’t easy. We were very poor, living together with other refugees in houses rented out for us by the Jewish community. It was a hard life,” Lehrer said.
“In Vienna I had a room and in Indonesia I had nothing but my bear. But although we had a very hard time there I loved it, it’s a beautiful place. It really felt like it was my country.”
The history of the Jews in Indonesia was the subject of a two-day symposium at the University of Haifa that ended on Monday. The gathering included many firsthand accounts by former community members like Lehrer, who spoke about what it was like being part of a tiny Jewish minority in what is now the most populous Muslim country in the world.
Prof. Rotem Kowner of the university’s Department of Asian Studies, who organized the event, said there was an unusual revival of interest in the remote and largely forgotten Jewish community.
“This is an interesting story of a community which was reformed in Israel after it had fallen apart,” Kowner said. “Seven years ago, the community members here decided to officially form an organization and sought funding but were largely ignored. The Dutch weren’t interested and the Indonesians certainly weren’t. Up until then not a word had been written about them.”
Lehrer is the head of Tempo Dulu, the association of Indonesian Jews in Israel, whose name means “former times” in Indonesian. She said the idea for members of the community to meet regularly emerged in 1995, when a Dutch film crew interviewed several of its members for a documentary.
“We meet in kibbutzim once or twice a year and at least 50 people come,” Lehrer said of the get-togethers, where participants often share spicy homecooked Indonesian food. “It’s not just members of the community but their children and grandchildren sometimes come, although they’re not as interested.”
Jews first arrived in the islands of Southeast Asia from the Netherlands when they were being colonized by the Dutch East India Company in the 19th century. These Jewish merchants and plantation owners were later joined by Jewish Iraqi businessmen, who had created a network of trading posts covering most of Asia from Mumbai to Shanghai.
Finally, the community was bolstered by refugees like the Lehrers fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.
The Indonesian Jewish community was never big. At its peak shortly before outbreak of World War II, it numbered 3,000 people, based mostly in Surabaya, the island of Java’s second largest city; Batavia, later renamed Jakarta; and a few other smaller cities and towns.
With the exception of the refugees, life for members of the community during those years was one of privilege. Old photos reveal festive banquets held in large mansions, sports competitions and many religious ceremonies.
“We had a sports car which my father would drive around the island,” said Dr. Ely Dwek, who was born in Indonesia to Iraqi Jews but has lived in Israel most his life.
The Jews of Indonesia did not, however, escape the horrors of WWII. When Japan invaded the Dutch colony in 1942, most Jews were put together with other non-Asians in internment camps where conditions were extremely harsh. Many died of malnutrition, disease and violence inflicted by the Japanese and their allies.
Shoshana Lehrer was separated from her father and put in an internment camp with her mother for three years before the allies liberated them.
“My mother always said it was bad, but it was still better than what would have happened had we stayed in Europe,” she said.
After the war the community found itself in a precarious position, caught between the nationalists, who demanded independence, and the Dutch, who sought a return to the status quo before the war.
When the nationalists finally gained the upper hand in the fighting in 1949 it became increasingly difficult for Jews as well as for other non-Asians to remain. The Lehrers left for the Netherlands in 1952, never to return. Others moved to the UK, US, Israel and Australia. By 1965 there were only a few dozen Jews in Indonesia.
Nowadays an estimated 20 Jews live there. Judaism is not a recognized religion in the country and in 2009 the old synagogue in Surabaya, which seats 200 people, was forced to close under pressure from Islamists because of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Asked if she would like visit her childhood home, Lehrer, who has fond memories of the country, said she had mixed feelings.
“I would like to go back, but it has changed quite a lot so I’m not sure what I’ll see,” Lehrer said. “It is a place of 18,000 islands, a really beautiful place.”
But despite the community’s exodus the story of Jews in Indonesia may not be over yet.
Dr. Giora Eliraz of the Hebrew University referred on Monday to a recent New York Times article on a newly formed Jewish community in Mandao, a city in a largely Christian part of the island of Sulawesi.
According to the article, pro- Jewish sentiment is widespread in the region. A giant menorah was recently erected on a mountain top and several families who claim Jewish ancestry are reconnecting with Judaism and even opened a small synagogue.
"It was reported recently about  two synagogues that were opened during the last years in Manado and Tondano, two cities in the Minahasa region of North Sulawesi , one of the few regions in Indonesia where Christianity is the dominant religion and plays a significant role as identity marker," he said. "These  two synagogues are operated by few people whose ancestors were Dutch Jewish who converted to Christianity or Islam for safety, after  Indonesia gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1949. Now their descendants are alleged to struggling to learn about Judaism and to become Jews after discovering their Jewish roots. It seems that the Jewish nature of this phenomenon is still somewhat ambiguous , let alone that this phenomenon is even argued to have a mix of Evangelical Christian, or Christian Messianic Judaist, and authentic Judaist ideas. Nevertheless, perhaps the curtain rises now again, at least slightly, on a  new scene in the narrative of the Jewish community in Indonesia."