“Is it locked?” We approach the wrought iron gates to Penang’s historic Jewish cemetery – its name clearly lettered in English. We’re in luck – the gate swings open to our touch. As we enter, a Tamil gentleman in shirt and sarong approaches. Turns out he’s Selva, the caretaker, a member of the family in charge of tending the property for three generations.
His small house abuts the cemetery’s wall; his caretaking duties are paid for by the Penang Jewish Cemetery Trust, headquartered in Australia.
Fifteen-odd years ago, a friend and I visited this same plot of land, and we found it distressingly choked with weeds. As we left, my friend, a professor at the local university, handed the elderly caretaker some MR (Malaysian currency), urging her to better care for the grounds.
In recent decades, the large number of NGOs on this island off the Straits of Malacca, have, with the help of history-conscious private citizens, spearheaded a movement to protect and preserve a heritage that mirrors the diverse communities– Jews, Armenians, Chinese, Arabs, Europeans, Indians, Eurasians, Thais, Burmese, Malays – that prospered here after Captain Francis Light founded the East India Company’s Penang outpost in 1786.
One tangible result has been the 2008 UNESCO Cultural City World Heritage designation awarded to Penang (and Melaka, further down the coast), protecting from development the old capital of George Town and its pastel prewar houses, quirky winding streets, shaded “five-foot ways” designed to protect pedestrians from the sun and a plethora of houses of worship and elaborate Chinese clan houses, (khongsis). The island’s only synagogue closed in 1976, although the original building is well-maintained and “listed,” as the British say, by its heritage-conscious owner.
Penangites revere their crazy quilt past. Although the Jewish cemetery does not lie in the protected UNESCO zone, our most recent visit revealed a place that, despite the scorching heat of a March day, was spruce and tidy, its warm walls and tombstones softly shaded with palms and banana trees. We walked among the 100-odd graves, several shaped like ossuaries found in Israel, others square and modern-looking. In this quiet corner of the island, visitors discover evidence of a vanished community, with roots in Baghdad, Persia, India, and Europe.
Never large – Penang’s Jews numbered a dozen families and 172 persons at its height in 1899 – the community’s exodus accelerated on the eve of the Japanese invasion in 1941. Many Penang Jews kept going, often to Australia. Local newspapers sometimes run “Last Jew in Penang” features, notably on the death of Mordecai David Mordecai, beloved general manager of Penang’s glorious old Eastern&Oriental Hotel.
“Mordy” Mordecai has rested here since 2011. “Gone but not Forgotten” reads the inscription on his grave, the cliché belied by the many heartfelt mentions of the hotel manager penned by the nostalgic Australian teachers who were housed in the E&O annex at the height of the Vietnam War.
Other articles focus on visits of elderly Jews, raised in Penang, who return to pay their respects at the cemetery—a gesture that twins culturally with George Town’s Chinese community (the city is 60 per cent ethnic Chinese), where families attend to their ancestors’ graves in the yearly Ching Ming Festival.
Our companion on our cemetery visit was Canadian historian Leslie James, who lives in Penang with his Malaysian-born wife, between trips home to their family in Ontario. Retired from the foreign service, James is a fountain of information about Penang’s diverse heritage. His usual beat is the Protestant cemetery, where Captain Francis Light’s 18th century tomb grandly dominates the scene.
Far humbler there is the small grave of Anna Loenowens’ husband, a British army clerk; his widow went on to teach princely children in Siam’s royal court; her rather fanciful memoirs were eventually transformed into the Broadway hit, The King and I. (The Jody Foster/Chow Yun-Fat film version, Anna, incidentally, was filmed in Penang, the original still being banned in Thailand.)
James explains that the Jewish cemetery is “freehold,” established for Penang’s Jewish community in perpetuity, a point underlined by new signage. The oldest grave, 1835, belongs to Shosha Levi, believed to have donated the cemetery land to her community.
Still, on an island where so much history has been destroyed in the name of development, uncertainty about the cemetery’s future is only natural. On the bright side, there is enthusiasm in heritage quarters for naming the area near the cemetery and the former synagogue at 19 Nagore Rd., after the Jews who lived here, an idea supported by The Penang Heritage Trust.
“They say dead men tell no tales,” says James, resuming his easy familiarity with Penang’s rich history, as we wander among the rows of tombstones, “but in fact they tell many tales.” The tales in the Jewish cemetery are written in stone: heartbreak over the loss of a spouse (“Lizzie Schwarz, beloved wife of Julius Schwarz, born in Rumania, 1871, died in Penang, aged 42 years, 8 months”); the wartime death of a British lieutenant, buried in the section reserved for Cohens and Levis; and an unusual design in stone – two hands arranged in a priestly blessing – symbolizing the burial of a Cohen. Small stones grace many graves.
As we take our leave, Selva gestures us into the shade, proudly showing us the visitor’s book. Impressed, we examine the pages and pages of names, addresses, and messages – from Perak (Malaysia), Singapore, Bristol, Calgary, Sydney – even Finland. Visitors frequently express thanks (“for the upkeep”) and gratitude for their discovery of this evidence of a vanished community. Many, from east and west, have simply written, “Shalom.”
Dignified, smiling, Selva brings water for rinsing our hands. We leave and he closes the gates behind us. Immediately outside, we notice a Hindu shrine, a banyan tree decorated with flowers and garlands—the jumbled proximity of beliefs and cultures are very typically Penang.
To learn more, visit the Penang Jewish Cemetery here.