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Saturday, June 17, 2006

"How come there are no Jews in Sri Lanka": A Beginning

I am often asked "how come there are no Jews in Sri Lanka, when every other faith tradition is represented"? So began my search into the Jews of Taprobane ..... We know that Ceylon (as the country was called before 1972) has experienced waves of colonial invasions - the Portuguese, Dutch and later the Brits. There must have been Jews on board the imperialist's ships - in the service of the VOC or indeed fleeing persecution in Europe. We may want to consider if there was any contact with Jews in India given that the countries are close by?? Did Jews come to our shores in World War I and II? What do observant ex-pats do - for festivals, shabbat and kosher supplies? What about Jews who came to Sri Lanka - fell in love with the Isle and their prospective marriage partners and stayed. The poet and short story writer Anne Ranasinghe (Anneliese Katz) is one publically known Jew.

One of my descendants - Leopold Immanuel Jacob van Dort was a Jew (he converted to Christianity). He was appointed professor of Hebrew at the Christian Theological Seminary at Colombo in 1758 (he studied at the University of Leipzig in 1744 Hebrew and oriental languages) and although he was converted, he was still interested in his Jewish background. He had contact with the Jewish community of Cochin in India and copied some scrolls from the patriarch there, unknown to European Jews. He translated them and gave them in 1757 to Marcellus Bless who worked as a clerk for the VOC in Sri Lanka. He also translated one of 3 existing Hebrew language editions of the Islamic Koran.

I understand that there was (or is?) a synagogue on Galle Rd, opposite the Cinnamon Gardens Hotel.

In my day job I am an academic based at a university (in Brisbane Australia). I also have identified (but not properly verified) Jewish descendants in my family tree on my mother's side. I identify Jewishly and have started using my research skills and interests to pull together the missing Jews in Sri Lankan history - but this is very hard to do. So in true Jewish style, let's make this task a communal one. At this stage to am hoping to come to Colombo for 7 months as a visiting scholar from January 2007. But let's not wait till then, this is a global project! On the Blog I will post any findings (as I get used to the technology) and 'cut and paste' snippets from web pages etc.



Fazli said...

The Synagogue – The house occupied for many years by Peter de Saram, a Retired Korale Mudaliyar at Galle Road (Sea-Side) Kollupitiya.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fiona,
I am very pleased you started this Project and Wish you a lot of Good Luck & Good hunting.

..New genealogical Data of the Ceylon Dutch burgers (VOC) & Burghers on..Genealogy and its historic value’s will be unveiled.
.This is a Welcome factor as Genealogy aught to stay as it is …Genealogy .Un-bias & UN political
I have in my Ancestry I suspect some Jewish names ,Like Block, Kofferman,Walman, Meier,Pegelotti & Pinjero .unfortunately I do not have proof .

Also I am always told the term Jewish is only a Religion and not a Race, Still I personally like this term as “Jewish “as a Race too. It help’s me to place my ancestors.

Let me explain my reason .In Europe, All the Names above are well for its Jewish origins. In Austria we have a huge Jewish Community; many do not at all practice their Religion. But till consider themselves as Jews, From the Racial point of View.

When some one is referred to as Jewish in Europe, it’s not only his Religion but more his Origin, to be of Jewish Origin. Meaning his placemnet of Race .
In Europe One does not care for some ones Religion any more.. but are curious of Race or Global Origin.This is a positive element .

Hence for my Personal view (Even if we humans have the same genes, )Still a name sake of Origin was Always important ,Even for Jewish comunity .

I am sure we would all profit from your research.
Many I wish us all many new good things to come!
Regards Nina.

Jennifer said...

Fiona you also might be interested in:
Nyanaponika Maha Thera, who was born in Hanau, Germany on July 21, 1901 as Siegmund Feniger, the only child of a Jewish family. He died 19th Oct 1994 in the Udawattekelle Forest Reserve, Kandy.

you have a very informative website and please do continue.

Horus said...

Hey Fiona, very interest exploration. I too have some insights on this matter. However time does not permit me to share them now as I’m rushing in and out meetings. Anyway great posts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Fiona,
Yes, really a good start. You may visit some coastal line from Chilaw to Moratuwa where majority catholics are living. Through the old churches and the records you will beable to find out more.
I am interested the topic and already went thru' some books about Jews and how they had been cornered by the other western powers.
Good luck,

Anonymous said...

Dera Fiona Kumari,

There are Jews Families living in Sri Lanka,today either they are assimilated to other races or religions.Few family names are Marks,Janz.
A famous lady author domiciled else where by the name Roggers is from a Ceylonese famous jewish,family according to my ancestors.
During my school days,a Synagouge was at Kollupitiya,the name clarly caved in the Wall whic I do'nt see now.


Eric said...

01 July 2006

Dear Dr. Campbell,

My name is Eric and I live in Canada. My family came to Canada in 1971 when I was 21. My father is Tamil and my mother is Burgher. We are Catholics. On my mother's side, my great grandmother's brother was the judge (Chief Justice?) Sir Stewart Schneider, the Jewish gentleman referred to elsewhere in the blog. His father, I am told, was the first Surveyor General of Ceylon. Sir Stewart Schneider was a Freemason and lived in Ward Place Colombo 7. I believe the property is now owned by the family of a former Sri Lankan President. Sir Stewart Schneider's wife Rose was my great grandmother. Her maiden name was Misso, probably anglicised by French ancestors named Micheau.She died in the late 1930's of breast cancer. That breast cancer has plagued her descendents. One of her daughters, my grandmother's sister, died of breast cancer. My mother does not have breast cancer, but has a big black birthmark on her breast. My three sisters have had breast tumours removed, and one is recovering from breast cancer. Rose has a tombstone in the family plot at Kanatte cemetery, in Colombo 8. I believe Sir Stewart Schneider lived until around 1950, but I'm not sure. I recently came across a picture of him in a magazine, as one of the directors of the Colombo YMCA in the late 40's or early 50's. That is the only picture I have of him, and I don't know if I still have it. I don't think he had any children. I remember my grandfather complaining that when he died he never left any money to his family. He said he left it all to his alma mater, St. Thomas' College Mt. Lavinia.

It is part of the family lore that when he was jokingly referred to as a "wandering Jew" by a Burgher lawyer,he retorted that the lawyer was a "flying Dutchman!", as accurately reported elsewhwere in the blog by Cecil Wickramanayake. My mother said that as a judge, when Sir Stewart had to sentence a man to death, he would be in a bad mood for days.
Almost all my relatives now live in Australia, Canada, England and the States. One of Rose's daughters settled in Indonesia, maybe in the 1920's or 1930's. Her children emigrated to Holland in the mid 1960's. Rose's other two daughters remained in Sri Lanka, and are my great-aunts. She had only one son, who joined the British Army in World War 1, and settled in England after the war,in 1918. That is about all I know of my Jewish ancestor. My mother who is 90 years old, and one or two older relatives in Australia may know more. All of the above is what I have been told by relatives, so all details may not be hundred percent accurate.

I am also interested in how histories affect identities. I think that comes from having parents of different ethnic backgrounds, and then also being uprooted and living far away from ones homeland. I think Identity is also an anthropological question.

The Jewish author Anne Ranasinghe that you mention had a son called Ananda who was two classes below me in Royal College, Colombo. He was a nice guy and a great swimmer who set several Sri Lankan records. Do you or anyone else know where he and his family are now?

Best wishes on your quest for the elusive Sri Lankan Jew.


Anonymous said...

If I am not mistaken,right Ranasinghe brothers,with their sister were great swimmers at Royal,Their father probarbly was a professor,and mother of German orgin.


Chevaan said...

Dear All,
This makes for fascinating reading. I'm not sure if I have any Jewish blood in me. I do know that I have Dutch blood from my maternal grandmother. I have traced her routes back to a one single person-Captain Jaan Van der Wert, from Nymwegen, Holland. Along the way ofcourse, there are many names that could be Jewish. But thats besides the point. I am in a unique position to pursue this further as I work in the media. TV and Radio. So if anyone would like to talk to me about a programme about Jews in Sri Lanka, please feel free to do so. I'm contactable at chevaan@mtv.maharaja.lk.

Dr. Campbell, excellent work. Keep it up.

Ps- Eric, we recently featured Anne Ranasinghe on one of our TV Shows. She's old, but VERY sharp.

Anonymous said...

Is there any recent info and did you get to SL to do further research?

Anonymous said...

I was just doing some research on my own genealogy and somehow came across the book Twentith Century Impressions of Celyon. I was doing a very unrelated search....but saw Jews mentioned on different pages (so...different periods in Sri Lankan history). This i think would greatly help your research.