It was when I sat rottenly waiting for my delayed flight at Penang International Airport that I had the chance to peruse Free Penang Traveller’s Map that reads “My Penang Unforgettable” on its front cover. The traveller’s map has listed 70 must visit places for its “cultural heritage of Penang’s various ethnicities: Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Malays, Achehnese, Siamese, Burmese and Europeans”. It dawns on me that none was mentioned on the Jewish settlements or the historic Jewish cemetery situated alongside Jalan Zainal Abidin, formerly known as Jalan Jahudi.
Many Malaysians are not aware of the existence of the Jews Settlement in Malaysia. History revisited and a quick search on Wikipedia reveal that Malaysian Jews consists mainly of Sephardic and Marrano Jewish descendents amongst the Kristag people, Oriental Jews from Baghdadi Jews, India’s Cochin Jews, Ashkenazi Jews and possibly Chinese Jews.
The first contact between Jews and inhabitants of Malaya dated back to 9th century AD on the riverbanks of Bujang Valley and 18th century AD in the bazaars of Malacca. British colonialism attracted Jewish trading families like the Sassoons and Meyers from India. During the Japanese invasion of Malaya, Penang Jewish community was evacuated to Singapore and a majority had emigrated to Singapore, Australia, Israel and USA. By 1963, only 20 Penang Jewish families remained in the country.
Penang’s only synagogue located at 28, Jalan Nagore, closed down in 1976 as the community could no longer fulfil the minyan, a quorum of ten or more adult Jews assembled for purposes of fulfilling a public religious obligation. The original Penang Jewish community has ceased to exist with the death of Mordecai (Mordy) David Mordecai, the former general manager for E&O Hotel on 15/07/2011.
Ever since I am keen with unrecorded histories of the nation, I am drawn to visit the forgotten places which should be made known as part of the cultures that Malaysia is made of. Recently, I visited the forgotten Jewish realm with the help of a Penangite, whom I affectionately called Mamu (a nickname for a hybrid of people whose family originated from India marrying the locals).
On a peaceful Saturday afternoon, we searched for Jalan Zainal Abidin where the cemetery is located. It is the only evidence to Jewish settlement in Penang in the present day. We found it after few missed turns. Even Mamu was confused with the recent development of the area. I parked my car at a little play field overlooking a row of buildings; shophouses and residential buildings. The first thought that crossed my mind was: This is the most unlikely place to find a cemetery in Penang, what more a Jewish cemetery.
As we crossed the road, I could see a gate neatly closed with the word “Jewish Cemetery” and a partly damaged red post box just above the sign “Jewish”. Mamu confidently opened the gate and an Indian young boy looked at us ever so confusingly. There are two small houses; too small to accommodate a family of five inside the jewish cemetery compound. I noticed a queen size mattress leaning across the wooden pillar of the small house on my left hand side. Could it be that the family of the caretaker sleep on the mattress at the cemetery compound? A question I dare not ask the caretaker.
While I consumed myself with the nitty gritty of the cemetery, an older Indian man in blue sarong quickly grabbed a shirt and wore it. We told him the purpose of visit and he introduced himself as Mr. Raju, the caretaker of the cemetery. He brought us around the cemetery and answered to my questions.
First of all, as an introduction to the Jewish Cemetery, stand a memorial stone that reads:
“This land of which the cemetery stands is the perpetual resting place of Jewish men, women and children who are interred here for all time. May their souls rest in peace. Amen!”
The Jews were laid in different sizes and shapes. According to the caretaker, triangle or not, different shapes do not indicate the gender of the occupier. The caretaker brought us to the oldest tomb inscribed with the date of death being 9th July 1835, the same year in which Jewish cemetery was established. Most of tombs were inscribed in Hebrew languages. Among the readable ones are: “In Loving Memory of Mrs. Annete Kofman Died 23rd February 1938. May Her Soul Rest in Peace, Amen” and “In Loving Memory of Regina Valeria Eisenberg, the beloved wife of Isidore Eisenberg, born 25th February 1885, died 13th August 1915 – Thou Art Gone, But Not Forgotten”. The cemetery was severely damaged during the world war but it was restored and rebuilt.
From the inside, it was weird and creepy to be in a forgotten cemetery (forgotten by choice or compulsion?). It is as if anywhere else but the cemetery is developing in line with the nation’s development. Ok fine, cemetery should be confined to the dead, but what about its historical value? The values of cemetery and if I may say, the Jewish settlement in Penang are depreciative in nature and soon be gone by the lack of awareness of such existence.
Many years ago, Jews, Muslims and Christians used to live in harmony in Penang, many years ago before Zionist and Israel have been our concerns! Regardless of the reasons of our disassociation with Jews, aren’t we supposed to preserve the history as it is? There is a deafening silence in this Jewish realm, a history long forgotten. Is it an attempt to wipe out the last standing evidence of the Jewish settlement in Penang? Why is it not regarded as a historic area protected like other historic buildings in Georgetown? Why the lack of publicity and awareness? Why oh why.
One day, if the land that is now the resting place of the Jews were to be acquired by the state government, I wonder who will stand up and fight for the rights of the Jews who took part to mould the diversity of Penang cultures.
I handed over a tip of MYR10 for the caretaker. As I walked out the cemetery, my heart wept for the history long forgotten.
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair,
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Tears, Idle tears by Alfred, Lord Tennyson