Jewish Cemetery, Narkeldanga Main Road, an article by Deepanjan Ghosh
Jewish Cemetery, Narkeldanga Main Road
by Deepanjan Ghosh
“…Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long: and there shall be no might in thine hand.
The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed…”
Such were the terrible curses that would befall the Jews if they ever strayed from the path of the Almighty. In reality, first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and finally the Romans forced the Jews from their lands, and they wandered the earth, for many years a stateless people. With their pragmatic and business oriented approach to life, they prospered wherever they went, but I wonder how many of the Jews who came to India from Aleppo in Syria, Isfahan in Iran and of course, Baghdad in Iraq, ever imagined that their mortal remains would be interred in a place called Narkeldanga.
The community was led by Calcutta’s first Jewish settler, Shalom Aharon Obadiah ha-Cohen who arrived in 1798. Legend has it that he asked a Bengali friend (in some accounts a local prince) for a plot of land that he could use as a cemetery for his community. The friend offered him a plot of land in Narkeldanga, but refused to accept payment. Cohen insisted that since the site would be used for religious purposes, he must pay. His friend replied, “pay whatever you wish”, and in response, the magnanimous Cohen took off the gold ring from his finger and offered it as token payment for a plot of land that is still today, Calcutta’s Jewish Cemetery. The first burial was of Hacham Moses de Pas Shaliah of Safad, on the 1st of January, 1812. Neither his, nor Shalom Cohen’s graves can be traced today. But many of the other graves have blue and white metal plates on them with letters and numbers. Around 1999, the handwritten cemetery registers were computerised by Aline "Jo" Cohen, a member of Calcutta's Jewish community, and President of Jewish affairs in the city. Jadavpur University scholars have since put up that list on Jael Silliman’s most excellent website www.jewishcalcutta.in, which is also an invaluable resource for anyone researching Calcutta Jewry.
There was also a second, much smaller, private Jewish cemetery, located at 24, U.C. Banerjee Road, North West from the main Jewish Cemetery. It opened in the 1870’s and shut around 20 years later. It contained 7 graves, of which 2 were of infants. 4 of those graves were identified by Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah in the 1950's. The present condition of this private cemetery is unknown.
We walk in on an overcast morning, a tropical cyclone threatening to make short work of our outing. Immediately past the gate, on the right are the living quarters of the Cemetery’s caretakers. Most of them are Hindu, with the only exception being Shalome Israel, who was destined to be Calcutta’s last Jew. On the Friday before we visited, Shalome left for Israel. Straight ahead is Shalome’s father’s grave, obviously much newer than the ones that surround it and hence easy to spot. On the left of the gate is a large prayer hall. A marble plaque on its walls says that it was erected by Mrs. Gala David Gubbay, at her sole cost, in memory of her late father, Mr. Saul David Lanyado, who died in Muzaffarpur on the 17th of December, 1917, and was buried here on the 19th. How was the body brought here so fast? River transport perhaps. The prayer hall was completed in 1921. The iron beams on its ceiling still bear the legible mark “David Colville & Sons Ltd., Glengarnock, Scotland”.
Infront of the Prayer Hall is a curious little structure. About 4 feet tall, a pentagon in shape, with a sloping roof, and slits near the top of the wall. There is a solid metal door, near the ground on one side. Marble plaques on its walls contain text in Hebrew and English. The plaque with English writing said the following…
“WITH GENUINE DEVOTION AND THE SINGULAR LABOUR OF LOVE MR. MOSES MICHAEL WOLFF RECLAIMED AND ADDED TO THIS CEMETERY ABOUT 3 ½ BIGHAS OF LAND. ALSO DESIGNED AND ERECTED THIS THIEF PROOF AUTOMATIC IRON SAFE WITH THE TABLET OF GRACE AT HIS OWN COST, EXPENSES, AND CONSECRATED THEM IN THE GRATEFUL MEMORY OF HIS BELOVED PARENTS. FOR THE LORD REDEEMETH THE SOULS OF HIS SERVANTS & NONE OF THEM THAT TRUST IN HIM SHALL BE DESOLATE. CALCUTTA THURSDAY 30TH MARCH, 1922”.
This is indeed a vault, meant to store cash. At the time of a burial, between the burial and the prayers, cash is dropped into this vault, meant as alms for the poor or for the maintenance of the cemetery. The money collected throughout the year is removed annually.
The other structure, visible from the moment you enter the cemetery due to its relatively large height, and the low height of the surrounding graves, is the Genizah. The Hebrew word Genizah (plural Genizot) is probably closest in meaning to “storage”. Unique to Jewish cemeteries around the world, the Genizah is used for “paper burial”. According to Jewish beliefs, any piece of paper with the name of God on it, or any paper with writing in the Hebrew alphabet, cannot simply be thrown away. Such papers are dropped inside a Genizah. In case of Genizot that are located in the basement of Synagogues, the papers are periodically removed and buried in a solemn ceremony. But in case of the one here, it is never cleared. The earlier Genizah, which now looks like a large round tomb, was sealed once it had become full, and this new one was erected in honour of Joseph Rahamim Judah Leveroy (who died in Bombay), by his widow and sons. The famous Cairo Genizah, when discovered, contained thousands of documents which are being studied even today, and are a rich source of information. But in Calcutta’s hot and wet climate, it is unlikely that anything has survived.
As we begin our walk around the cemetery, the thing that strikes us most is the uniformly low height of all the graves. This is in stark contrast to the South Park Street Cemetery, where masses of masonry are piled onto graves to create obelisks that look like a tribute to human vanity. While fear of the spread of disease was also a reason for the over indulgence in masonry, none of that is possible here. The guiding principle behind this is enshrined in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it”. Thus a proper Jewish burial is concerned with returning a body to the earth as soon as possible. Bodies may not be left unburied overnight without good reason. Giant obelisks and the like are prohibited, since they delay the decaying of the body, as do caskets of exceptionally strong material. The body is washed with care and respect and clad in simple grave clothes made of unbleached cotton, covered by a shroud of the same material. But inspite of all the differences in ritual and belief, there is one heartbreaking similarity between the Jewish Cemetery and South Park Street; the large number of children’s graves, some of them just a bit larger than my hand. At a time when there was no penicillin, no understanding of tropical disease, and most of Calcutta was a malarial swamp, child mortality was awfully high, as were instances of death in childbirth.
The humble monuments above the adult graves in Narkeldanga’s Jewish Cemetery are a uniform 2 ½ feet in height and most lack any kind of ornamentation. But there are some graves which stand out nonetheless. At the South Western corner of the cemetery is the grave of Elias Moses Duek Cohen. The nearly six foot tall marble tablet infront of his grave is easy to spot from a distance, and is befitting a man of his stature. As the “Duek” in his name suggests, Elias Cohen is of Spanish extraction. His forefathers had moved to Iraq to escape the Spanish Inquisition. A highly respected member of the Jewish community in Calcutta, like his father and grandfather before him, Elias Cohen served as Senior Minister for the Neveh Shalome Synagogue between 1873 and 1884, and the Maghen David Synagogue between 1884 and 1927. A pioneer in the field of education, he helped in establishing the Jewish Boys and Girls Schools, and edited the weekly Jewish Gazette, Pareah, in Arabic. Between 1897 and 1918 he was also a commissioner of the Calcutta Corporation. When Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale visited Calcutta in 1890, Elias Cohen received him in the Maghen David. During WWI, he was appointed ecclesiastical head of all Jewish troops in India. He died in Calcutta on Friday, 14th January, 1927.
Another unusually elaborate grave is that of Rahma Mitana, numbered W–H 1. The elegant marble tomb has an open book, also carved out of marble, on top and four solid cast iron posts at its four corners. Bits of rusty iron pieces hanging from the posts indicate that there was once a chain linking the four posts. The inscription on the side says she was born on 14th March, 1896 and died on 11th November, 1922. Before I realized that she had died at 26, from her name, I had thought that this was the grave of Rahma Mitana Duek Cohen, grandmother of Sally Solomon, author of Hooghly Tales. But since her book mentions categorically that she died in 1935, at a grand old age, this cannot have been the same person. So who was this person? Why did she die at 26? Was she from a rich family? She must have been to have a grave like that. Was she married? Who did she love? What did she like to eat? How did she die? To all these questions, there are no answers.
Located at the North West corner of the cemetery, near the Western wall, is the Nahoum family grave cluster. The most recent among them, under a tree and already covered in moss, is the grave of David Elias Nahoum. To non-Jewish Calcuttans like me, his is the only name that connects this place to our immediate reality. This is not some character out of the yellowing pages of a history book, this is a person who many of us have seen when he was alive, manning the wooden cash till at his family’s bakery in New Market. Founded in 1902, Nahoum & Sons moved to its well-known location in F-20, New Market in 1916. David was the grandson of the founder, Baghdadi Jewish immigrant Nahoum Israel Mordecai. An engineer by training, David worked for many years for Martin Burn, but quit to manage his family’s bakery after the death of his brothers, Norman and Solomon in the early 1990’s. A lifelong bachelor, he died at the age of 86, on Thursday, March 7th, 2013. David’s younger brother Isaac, now 77, manages the store.
The author Nabarun Bhattacharya had once advised his son to go to crematoriums if he wished to study raw human emotion. Encounters with death, while frightening for some and depressing for many, can also cause deep reflection. All of us take life for granted. We have plans of doing great things, which we keep pushing back, and then one day we find that it is too late. The two most terrible words that can haunt a human being are “what if”, and that is the message that is conveyed by a beautiful piece of poetry found on a marble plaque on the wall of the prayer hall in Calcutta’s Jewish Cemetery, credited to a Mrs. I.M. Solomon…
TOMORROW NEVER COMES
IF YOU HAVE A KIND WORD, SAY IT –
THROBBING HEARTS SOON SINK TO REST.
IF YOU OWE A KINDNESS – PAY IT,
LIFE’S SUN HURRIES TO THE WEST.
CAN YOU DO A KIND DEED – DO IT,
FROM DESPAIR SOME SOUL TO SAVE,
BLESS EACH DAY AS YOU PASS THROUGH IT,
MARCHING ONWARD TO THE GRAVE.
DAYS FOR DEEDS ARE FEW MY BROTHER,
THEN TODAY FULFILL YOUR VOW:
IF YOU MEAN TO HELP ANOTHER,
DO NOT DREAM IT – DO IT NOW.