The Last Jews of Rangoon

The cemetery lies in the midst of a run-down, working-class neighborhood in the center of Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma).  To its west, gray concrete apartment buildings, their sides streaked black by mold and rot, rise high above the tombs.  Behind masses of electrical wires and hung clothing, the residents are visible slowly shuffling back and forth in dark rooms.  To the south, on a hill overlooking the rows of dead, stands a Buddhist monastery.  As the hot tropical sun sets in a blaze of orange, the monks leave the shade of their rooms to sit quietly on a long veranda, hoping to catch a cool evening breeze.  North of the graveyard is a thatch and wood squatter’s hut.  Barren earth, devoid of any vegetation, surrounds the simple house.  Two rough-looking dogs and a scrappy rooster run across the dirt yard with no apparent direction at all.

On the east side of the cemetery is the shack of the groundskeeper.  He’s a young, dark, handsome man in his twenties, almost certainly of Tamil descent.  He lives with his elderly mother, wife, and young daughter in a small hut constructed from tin and wood.  He does not speak English and I do not speak his language; so we stare at each other with expressions of mutual frustration, all-too-frequently nod and smile at one another, and gesticulate with our arms and hands in odd ways to communicate meaning.  As a groundskeeper, he has succeeded in keeping the tombs from being desecrated by vandals, but he has not been able to prevent the Buddhist monks from throwing their discarded rust-colored robes and garbage into a couple of unsightly piles located on the edge of the cemetery.  He’s also failed to keep the weeds down.  Thorn bushes and tall grass grows in the tight gaps between the tombs, while trees have taken root atop a few of the stone crypts.  The old tombs are showing the effects of weather and time.  Decades of sun, heat, and monsoonal rains have peeled away their coating of paint, exposing the underlying cement, and leaving them a dull, moldy gray, like the apartment buildings nearby.

The majority of names inscribed on the crypts are in Aramaic, with some inscribed in both Aramaic and English.  A wide variety of family names are visible in the cemetery, including Solomon, Jacobs, Moses, and Emphraim.  They were Sephardic Jews who had migrated to Burma in the latter half of the nineteenth century, or early twentieth century, to work as merchants and traders – and to take advantage of Great Britain’s market access across Asia. Most of them traveled south to Rangoon from China or eastward from India.  In Rangoon, they produced ice, sold soda water, and traded spices. Some of them made their fortunes in the opium trade.  But life in Burma was anything but easy; it often ended unceremoniously in premature death.  Malaria, typhoid, cholera, and strange tropical diseases took a toll on newcomers.  Many died during the period known as “seasoning,” which occurred in the months and years immediately after arriving in the tropics. An individual either made the physical adjustment to the new environment or did not.  If a colonist could not adjust, he or she either departed the tropics for a temperate clime or died. Untold numbers of colonists did not make it out of the tropics in time to avoid death.

By today’s standards, the Jews of Burma died young.  A significant number buried in the cemetery died in their 30s, 40s, and early 50s.  Only a handful of name plates indicated the deceased had lived into his/her 80s.  Internments in the cemetery appear to have peaked in the 1930s.  After 1937, the number of burials tapered off to nearly zero.  The Japanese invasion of China likely explains the drop-off in burials after 1937.  Once the Japanese moved against China, they cut off the markets there to the Jewish merchants of British Burma.

The Japanese invasion of mainland China also increased the likelihood of a larger, deadlier war throughout Asia.  Recognizing that a major war loomed in the near future, and no longer able to trade with China, the Jews of Rangoon began to depart for India, a British colony considered more secure from the Japanese.  As the Jews fled Rangoon, they left their dead behind.

During the Japanese occupation of Burma from 1942 to 1945, the Jewish community in the Burmese capital shrank to only a handful of families.  The Japanese made life too difficult for the Jews, whom they considered to be pro-British.  In leaving Burma, the Sephardic Jews of Burma took part in another Jewish diaspora.

Today, an estimated 20 Jews reside in Myanmar.  There is a synagogue in the center of Yangon, but regular services are not held there.  As for the cemetery, the government wants to move the Jewish tombs to another location so the site can be developed for a more profitable purpose.  According to Sammy Samuels, whose father Moses cares for the synagogue, the government project is temporarily on hold.  However, the government might still get its way.  If it does, the last Jews of Rangoon, who found a resting place in one corner of Asia, will be forced to partake in yet one more diaspora.

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