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May 29, 2009

Ashkenazi childhood in Uganda


Perhaps by now everyone has heard of the Abayudaya communities in Uganda. It is a rarity, it seems, to find people who know of the now-defunct Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala, Uganda.

Sources suggest that this tiny European community had between 35 and 60 Jews in the 1950s, but this statistic is rarely publicized. This community – and its contributions to the economic fabric of the British Empire – has all but disappeared from our idea of world Jewry. In fact, a letter written by Paul Secher, executive director of the Commonwealth Jewish Council in February 1987, stated, "To the best of our knowledge and belief, there is no Jewish community in Uganda," thus denying even the existence of the Abayudaya.

But this forgotten community in Kampala was my home from 1949-1961. Although it has been nearly 50 years since then, I think it is important to raise awareness about my childhood community of European Ashkenazi Jews.

We were a mixture of German, Polish, Egyptian, Romania and British Jews and one Cochin Jewish family who lived in Kampala and its environs. Jews in Uganda usually thought of themselves as sojourners who, unlike the Jews in Kenya, for example, did not usually invest in farmland or set up artisan businesses. Rather, those who arrived were employed in the private sector and included two commercial painters, two copper and silver miner owners, a farmer, two shopkeepers, two car salespeople, a factory manager and a driving instructor.

Others arrived in Kampala to secure white-collar jobs as secretaries, academics, physicians, a nurse, an artist, two engineers and government officers. The British governor of Uganda, Sir Andrew Cohen, was also there and I was often invited to play with his twin daughters in Government House.

My recollections of this period are many. I remember seaplanes splashing down on Lake Victoria and the Entebbe Airport, the site of the brave rescue of Jews in 1976. The airport has unique, little-known ties to Israel and Canada: an Israeli company contracted the construction of the runway to a Nairobi-based Jewish subcontractor whose son now lives in Vancouver.

Mixing with people "of color" other than at work was frowned upon under British rule in the Protectorate of Uganda during the mid-20th century when Victor Franco, an electrical engineer, took it upon himself to act as a clandestine intermediary. Letters and documents passed between Franco, the Abayudaya, Jewish trader Maurice Levitan and Israeli organizations to discuss the Abayudayans' authenticity as Jews. Thus, the tribe began to establish its Jewish identity so that, today, these black Jews are recognized by North American Reform and Conservative congregations. In fact, these two men were the only Jewish contacts and advocates for the Abayudaya from the 1920s to the late 1950s.

Franco was also a covert Israeli agent who smuggled Ashkenazi Jews out of Uganda and back into Palestine during the Second World War and, later, he also smuggled back into the area those Jews sent out of Palestine by the British during the Irgun and Stern Gang activities.

Growing up, I had always wondered why there were toilets at my Girl Guide camp, not realizing that this wonderful bush camp had previously been the Koja war prisoner camp.

The British had prisoner of war camps in both Eritrea and Uganda. Its Ugandan camp, Koja, located on the shores of Lake Victoria, was there to ensure that aliens were not nuisances during the Second World War. Today, there is still some historical discussion as to the exact number of Ashkenazi Jews among mainly non-British prisoners in the Koja camp. But Koja became home to remarkable people, including one young Polish Jewish woman who, at 16, walked alone from Poland, having lost most of her family members, and trained as a nurse during her internment at the camp.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish women in Nairobi would come to the railway station to try and entice Jews to disembark from the train to stay in Kenya. Only those who could pay a head tax, had training as agricultural workers or relatives to vouch for them stayed in Kenya. The others continued on the train to Kampala, as did my German Jewish father, who remained stateless until 1961.

During the 1950s, my parents were very involved in this small community of about 20 families. In 1957, they imported 60 pounds of matzah from Nairobi for our Jewish community and the occasional salami to be shared by several families. The only local Jewish newspaper also arrived from Nairobi, a two-day trip by train. High Holiday services took place in my parents' house. Even a rabbi was imported for Yom Kippur in 1953 and there was an attempt to start a Jewish Sunday school.

Our community managed to exist without a synagogue, a rabbi or a Jewish mayor and received no Jewish philanthropic funding as benefited the Nairobi Jewish community, but Golda Meir did make a goodwill visit to Kampala in 1975 because Israel was involved with education and economy in Uganda.

Contrary to the Nairobi rabbi's omission to acknowledge births in Uganda from 1944-1958, there were at least 15 children born into my tiny Jewish community and several deaths. In 1952, Ruth Levitan and I were bridesmaids at the only Jewish wedding in Kampala.

On account of the climate being considered unhealthy for growing white adolescents, there were no European secondary schools in Kampala so I travelled 350 miles away from home by overnight train to my public boarding school in Kenya. I distinctly remember gathering under a mango tree each Sunday, together with four other Jewish girls, to talk about homesickness and boys, as we were exempt from church services on the Ushin Guishue Plateau.

In 1903, this plateau was presented to Theodor Herzl as part of a British resettlement scheme under Lord Delamere's British rule as a possible Jewish homeland, and also to help pay off the enormous building costs of the Ugandan railway. It was the temperate White Highlands, i.e. Ushin Guishue Plateau, in Kenya that was offered as a stepping stone to Palestine and not tropical equatorial Uganda. This is a common misconception on account of the boundary lines of the time, which later moved west to place the land in Kenya, not Uganda, as originally considered.

For centuries, Jews have travelled to and traded on the Africa continent. The earliest mention of Jewish traders is found in the fifth century BCE, when ivory from the elephant-rich savannah lands went to Cairo via Elephantine Island in the Nile River. Later, European Jews came to escape the pogroms, especially after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and then, of course, the Holocaust and the rest is history. I do not want this history – my story about my Ashkenazi Jewish community – to be forgotten.

Janice Masur is happy to provide talks about her story to groups and would enjoy receiving any questions about her project. Contact [email protected].