*Cochin’s Jews: History’s Last Gasp

Samuel Hallegua, 79 years old, has died at his home in Fort Kochi. The Hindu, which reported his death yesterday, described Mr Hallegua as a ‘community leader’ and, more poignantly, as someone who resented, not without reason, the transformation of Cochin’s once flourishing Jewish community into a tourist relic. Mr Hallegua’s family is said to have been present in Cochin since 1592, and it is his family members who, in the mid-eighteenth century, helped to reconstruct the famous synagogue in Mattancherry that Mr Hallegua had, not without considerable misgivings, been showing, as the Warden of the Cochin Jewish Synagogue, to the tourists who flock to Cochin.

A number of scholars, among them Nathan Katz and Joan Roland, have done much justice to the extraordinary history of the Jewish presence in India. The story of Jews being sheltered in Shanghai – which I have described in a previous blog — while they were being butchered wholesale in the home of what is charmingly described as the Enlightenment is remarkable enough, considering that their protector was the Japanese commander of the ghetto who refused to implement orders for their final extermination, but still more remarkable is their centuries-old sojourn in India. India is one country where they did not only not face persecution, but where, much as adherents of many other religions have found, they could openly practice their faith and signal their own distinct contributions to the making of Indian civilization. India remains singular in the worldwide Jewish experience, and Professor Katz justly wrote some years ago, in his book Who Are the Jews of India?, that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well. They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.” He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world: “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

Among the three distinct Jewish communities that have been present in India, the Cochin Jews numbered about 2,500 shortly before the independence of India in 1947. Only a dozen Jews remain in Cochin today, none of them under the age of 50. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the creation of the state of Israel, the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel. But surely the matter cannot be allowed to rest there, unless one is prepared to concede that the modern nation-state is the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs. This part of the story, it appears to me, has been inadequately understood. Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home? In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition. But, equally, it should also be understood that they may have lost much, just as India lost much from their departure. With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state has triumphed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ has triumphed yet again. How are those who are in the majority ever to learn about the traditions, norms, civilities, and graces of hospitality?

The Hindu has reported Mr Hallegua as recently saying of India, “It has been more than tolerant. The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests. My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns. But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism. The country accepted us as we have been. I am a proud Indian. I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.” Mr Hallegua resisted the arithmetic of modern politics to the last. That, among many other reasons, is why he should be honored as he now become among those who are departed.

*Extermination and the Museum Complex: Jews in Wartime Shanghai

I have just returned from visiting Shanghai’s Jewish Refugees Museum, located in the city’s Hongkou District. The museum, a modest affair, is located on the site of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, and it bears witness to the unusual and inspiring history of Shanghai’s Jews. From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai accepted 30,000 Jews while much of Europe quietly went about the business of massacring them and planning for the ‘Final Solution’. Shanghai accepted more Jews in this period than Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and British India put together. (Let me underscore the fact that India was under colonial occupation; pre-colonial India was wonderfully hospitable to the Jews.) As Germany went down to defeat, and, in the years ahead, the state of Israel was born, the Jews who had found shelter in Shanghai left China. Nothing is left of Shanghai’s wartime Jewish community, and in the hour or two I was at the museum there were only three other visitors.

The history of Jews in China does not commence in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II. A Jewish community flourished in Kaifeng during the Song dynasty (908-1279 CE), and its presence over the next several centuries is attested to in various documents. In the nineteenth century, the Sassoon family, originating in Baghdad, relocated to India and in the decades ahead created a worldwide financial empire. Hong Kong and Shanghai were among the principal outposts of that empire. The backbone of the Sephardic Jewish community’s wealth was the hugely exploitive opium trade, but nevertheless the Jewish community appears not to have suffered any distress under the Chinese. The most interesting segment of the history of Jews in China perhaps dates to the 1930s, when Shanghai became a haven for them as they faced persecution and death in Europe. An area surrounding what is now the museum was set up as the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”, and a plaque in the nearby Huo Shan Park now marks the wartime Jewish presence in Shanghai. For the ten years during which European Jews sought shelter in Shanghai, they ran schools, synagogues, businesses, and newspapers in English, German, and Yiddish, among them the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle.

Under relentless pressure from the Nazis, the Japanese military commander forced the stateless refugees from Europe into a ghetto, but he resisted calls to the very end to impose the ‘Final Solution’. In nearby Nanking, by contrast, the Japanese had displayed a ravenous appetite for death and destruction. Whatever the reasons that impelled the Japanese commander, who styled himself “King of the Jews”, to disregard the wishes of the Nazi leadership, there is in these circumstances more than a mere hint that even the most autocratic or totalitarian systems are not as closed as one might imagine. Perhaps the Japanese were not moved by considerations of anti-Semitism; perhaps, notwithstanding the alliance with Nazi Germany, they understood that in the Nazi order of things, the Japanese were not unlike the Jews in being far removed from the ideal Teutonic type. Perhaps, too, they were simply moved by the plight of the Jews. However much the inclination to stress the barbarousness of killers, it is their ordinariness that equally compels attention.

Moving as is the museum, it is at the same time a troubling tribute to Jewish history and the resilience of the Jews. In the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the permanent exhibition on the Holocaust ends with a little exhibit on the Nazi plan to build, after the Final Solution had been implemented, a comprehensive museum of Jewish history and culture. Though the Nazis could not countenance the idea of leaving alive any Jews, they nonetheless had an ardent desire to create a complete archive of Jewish history. The Nazis cannot be described as being alone in displaying this tendency: to match the enormous holocaust perpetrated against the native American population, the United States has now built a gigantic and loving tribute to the native Americans in the shape of the “National Museum of the American Indian” in the nation’s capital. The culture of the other is always a difficult affair, but it can always be celebrated through the museum complex. That has been, to a great extent, the history of the museum in the modern West, and the museum complex’s deep and hidden links to extermination and the annihilationist tendency should not be underestimated.

Designated Areas for Stateless Refugees, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

Designated Areas for Stateless Refugees, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.