A bit more about Jews in Ceylon


German Jewess Marie Musaeus (Higgins)

by Tissa Devendra

I have read with great interest the redoubtable Anne Ranasinghe’s contribution to the volume "Honouring Martin Quere" where she gives a broad historical overview of our country’s links with Jews from ancient to modern times. With commendable pride she claims that she is the "only Sri Lankan Jew". This note is to cast some doubt on the veracity of this claim.

Going back to history, it is very likely that the first sizable incursion of Jews was during the Portuguese period. Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition escaped to Portugal which was marginally more tolerant - but insisted that these Jews renounce Judaism and Jewish names. As they were prohibited from using existing Portuguese family names, the new names chose were based on natural features such as forest and sea – hence the names of Silva, Caldera etc. popular in Ceylon and the other colony, Brazil. These converts were called ‘marranos’ and readily ventured to the new colonies where the natives had no reason to suspect their inferior status in Portugal. However, they were non-observant, nominally Catholic and/or closet Jews. The proliferation of marrano names yet in this country seems to prove my theory.

The Dutch, marginally more liberal, seem to have brought with them Jewish merchants who had no qualms about retaining their Jewish names. It is from them that our hospitable Burgher community absorbed the families of Abrahams, Daniel, Marks(x), and others who had ‘gone Dutch’ as Van Dort, Siebel etc. Their descendants do have a claim [though somewhat tenuous] to be Sri Lankan Jews.

The British, long post-Enlightenment, had an ambivalent attitude to Jews and even had a D’Israeli as Prime Minister. Apart from the traditional occupations of bankers, goldsmiths, and merchants, a sizable number entered the professions and civil service. The most distinguished of these in Ceylon was Leonard Woolf of the Ceylon Civil Service. I detect a whiff of Jewry in British Govt. Agents Davidson and Moneypenny – but have no proof. Strangely, two of Ceylon’s Chief Justices were Jews –Sir Sidney Abrahams and Sir Alan Rose.

With the growing efflorescence of Buddhism among the Sinhalese in the late 19th century, there was an increased interest in the Orient by ‘European’ scholars and idealists. Soon after the American Col.Olcott’s fillip to Buddhist education, there came to Colombo the German Jewess Marie Musaeus (Higgins) who established the first English school for Buddhist girls in Colombo. There have always been Jews, mainly German, with an affinity towards Buddhism. Quite a few followed the Venerable Nyanatiloka [German, but no Jew] to the Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa. A few were ordained Bhikkus and stayed back here to meditate, write, and preach. The most famous of these was the late scholar Venerable Nanavira at the Forest Hermitage in Kandy.

I will now revisit some old memories of my days in Kandy’s Dharmaraja College in the early 1940s. One day there was a new boy in school –Hans, pink and much heftier than us. We learnt that Hans and his mother were Jewish refugees from Germany who had been given shelter in Ceylon by the millionaire A.E. de Silva and other Buddhist philanthropists. Hans and mother were accommodated in one of the cottages on Lake View Hill where an American Buddhist nun had lived. I am afraid I am not aware of their subsequent fate as our family left Kandy not long after. However, I had another close encounter with another German Jewish refugee who soon became Kandy’s top dental surgeon – Dr.Albersheim. I had bashed my mouth in some boyish escapade and Father feared I’d lose my teeth. Dr.A had a look at my teen-age mouth and assured my father I had nothing to worry other than a chipped tooth. [I yet have my teeth at 84!]

In the late 1940s Vice Chancellor Jennings recruited Dr. Ratnasuriya, from London University, to head the Department of Sinhala. The good doctor was a follower of the Jewish philosopher Gurdjieff. Soon after his arrival he invited his London Group, the Gersons, who were non-observant Jews. They held regular sessions at their home off Queen’s Road. Their daughter Jean attended Visakha from where she entered the Medical Faculty. Oral history has it that she qualified as a doctor and the Gersons left for Australia.

Meanwhile I had entered the University and read English under Professor Ludowyk. His Jewish (we never knew it) wife, Edith Gyomroi, was a clinical psychologist and an artist of repute. She designed the glorious costumes, imaginative stage settings and witty programs for Dr. Ludowyk’s DramSoc plays. After retirement from Peradeniya she established, with kindred souls, the Menikdiwela Weavers – who for a few years produced the most beautiful handloom fabrics. Dr.Ludowyk persuaded the Hungarian (Jew) producer Jubal to put on the K.G.Hall stage the Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnar’s play "Liliom." It had a large cast, music and [as usual] fine actors. It was the last hurrah for the partnership of DramSoc and K.G.Hall - before the exodus to Peradeniya. Our lecturer in French was Dr.Vally Reich, an Austrian Jewish refugee from London. She was an inspirational teacher who even persuaded her students to perform a dramatic sketch in French to the amusement of Colombo’s ,rather minuscule French community.

A not-so-kultur Jew was Meyer, the bespoke tailor patronized by Colombo’s best-dressed men. But he had, literally, another string to his bow. Every evening he donned bow tie and tails and played the cello for Louis Ziegler’s Combo at the Galle Face Hotel.

The Danish Jew Ulrik Plessner spent quite a few years here, and even had a recent exhibition of his work as an architect. He had been associated with Minette de Silva, Geoffrey Bawa and Barbara Sansoni [nee Daniel!]

I have saved for the last [the ‘rasa kata’as we Sinhalese say] story of the two Jewish women who briefly shook Sri Lanka’s establishment as well as the CIA and MI5. These were the American Rhoda Miller and Briton Claudine Libovitsz. Rhoda was a dedicated American Communist journalist married to a Sinhalese Communist, Joe Silva. Claudine was a glamorous Slavic blonde, a British citizen, and mistress of the Estonian artist Karl Kasmann, suspected of being a KGB agent. It was the height of the Cold War and the red hating Prime Minister was John Kotelawela. He enthusiastically acceded to the US ‘request’ to deport these two women. And this was done with lightning speed. A few years later, with a more liberal government in power, Rhoda returned to Ceylon, went back to journalism and died in peace. Claudine was a millionaires and heiress to great wealth . Kasmann, her ‘inamorata’ had escaped one step ahead of Kotelawala’s bloodhounds, so there was no need for her to return to Colombo where she had made such a splash in the social scene.

So, dear Anne, we have had quite a number of other interesting Jews in little Sri Lanka.

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