Recalling Jewish Calcutta

Yael Silliman

The Baghdadi Jewish community came to Calcutta during the early days of the British Raj. When India gained its independence, many in the community, unsure of their position in society, and worried about their economic future as India talked about socialism and nationalization of many enterprises, responded to the increased possibilities for emigration. Many left for Israel, England, Australia and other Commonwealth countries through the 1940s and ’50s.

Considering the modest size of the community, the Calcutta Jews left a sizeable footprint. There are three impressive and large synagogues, two schools, and a cemetery. Ezra Mansions and the Ezra hospital, the iconic Nahoum’s Confectionary, and two buildings in the zoo that were endowed by Jews still bear Jewish names. There is the Belilios Street, Ezra Street and Synagogue Street. Many other mansions, residences and office buildings still stand though they no longer bear their Jewish names and few know they were once Jewish owned. Today, there are barely thirty Jews left in the community, most being very elderly. The day is coming when those who knew Jewish Calcutta in its heyday will no longer be with us.

The connections between Calcutta and Hong Kong may not appear obvious at first but they exist. Many of the Jewish families of Calcutta had offices in Hong Kong, and most dispatched relatives to run them. Best known is the Belilios family, who emigrated from Venice to Calcutta and then to Hong Kong. E.R. Belilios was very active in Hong Kong society during its early years under British rule. A director of The HK & Shanghai Bank and a Legislative Councillor, he funded The Belilios Public School, donating HK$25,000 in 1893 (a very generous sum of money at the time) to enable the school to have a new building on Hollywood Road.

As for Jewish life, both the Calcutta and Hong Kong Jewish communities were founded by Baghdadi Jews and therefore have much in common. Many of the original families had a foot in both cities, so the names that appear in the early community registers are the same. The synagogues are similar and the beautiful, ornate Torah (the Five Books of Moses) scrolls, encased in silver and velvet, share wonderful similarities.

Exhibit curator Jael Silliman was born into the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta. She was educated at Loreto House, a Catholic school in Calcutta, and later at a boarding school in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. A scholarship took her to Wellesley College. She continued her graduate studies at Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin, and received her doctoral degree in International Education at Columbia University. She is currently an assistant professor in the Women’s Studies department at the University of Iowa. A published author, she has also contributed to numerous articles in the area of gender and economic development, and third world women’s movements.