Rendezvous with a Bangladeshi Jew

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Back in 2006 when I first wrote about the existence of Bangladeshi Jewish population and a Jewish synagogue in Dhaka, unfortunately a reporter from the Jewish Telegraph Agency made outrageous attempt of proving me wrong. He even went further by terming me as a liar. Later it was revealed, that reporter was hired by Iran and sent to Dhaka to meet me – interview me, with the ulterior agenda of defaming me and ridiculing my years long struggle for normalization of relations between Bangladesh and Israel.

In June 25, 2021, I wrote an article titled ‘The silent Jewish population in Bangladesh’, which drew attention of thousands of people, including Jews throughout the world, including Joseph Edward, a Bangladeshi Jew. Earlier on June 22, 2021, Vijaya Laxmi Tripura, a research scholar and senior reporter of Blitz in her article titled ‘The forgotten Jewish population in Bangladesh’ wrote:

Several years ago, when internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist and editor of Weekly Blitz, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury first told the international community about existence of Jews and Jewish synagogue in Bangladesh, agents of radical Islam as well as Iran, Hamas and anti-Semitic evil forces turned angry at him. They took decision of either silencing or even eliminating this voice of conscience. But they did not succeed, despite the fact of getting some paid propaganda against Mr. Choudhury in several websites and news portals.

Now after many years, even Bangladeshi newspapers have started acknowledging the fact about the existence of Jewish community in the country, including their own “prayer halls”.

After almost one and half years of publication of my article, Joseph Edward, a Bangladeshi Jew contacted me and finally agreed to give an exclusive interview to Blitz.

Joseph Edward of Ontario, Canada was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh and moved to Canada in 1986. In Chittagong, there is a Second World War British and Commonwealth cemetery, the War Cemetery. There one can find the grave of an RAF sergeant from England with the Star of David on it.

Joseph Edward’s father, Rahamim David Barook and his older brother Ezra Barook, were born in Calcutta, and moved to what was then East Pakistan [now Bangladesh].

Raymond David Barook and members of his family

They adopted the surname Edward; his brother Ezra was known as Eddy Edward. Rahamim David Edward (formerly Barook), Joseph’s father, worked in the shipping industry, and married a Catholic of Portuguese descent, who was a school teacher. His uncle married a tribal Chakma king’s daughter from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. She died during childbirth and Joseph Edward’s uncle gave his son up to a Muslim family for adoption.

Joseph Edward’s great-grandfather, Ezra Barook or Hacham Reuben came from a distinguished Rabbinic family from Baghdad; he was buried in the cemetery in Calcutta in 1900. In recent years, Joseph Edward has been in contact with Jewish cousins living in Arad and Beersheba, Israel. Other members of the family live in Sydney, Australia, in the UK and in Toronto, Canada.

Not all the Jews in Bangladesh were of “Baghdadi” origin. Members of the Bene Israel community from Bombay (today Mumbai) also resided there in the 1960s. One of these was Mr. George Reuben, who lived in Dhaka with his wife, Dina, and three children, when he worked as sales manager with Pakistan Oxygen Limited.

Here are the excerpts from the interview of Joseph Edward:

Shoaib Choudhury: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. As we know, you were born in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and left Bangladesh in 1986. Meaning, you were born in this country and until you left Bangladesh in 1986, you have been a citizen of this country. Will you please share memories of your childhood and early days in Bangladesh?

Joseph Edward: It’s a long story but I’ll try my best to make it brief.  I was born in Chittagong and lived 30 years of my life since birth before immigrating to Canada in 1986.  My maternal grand-parents owned a large piece property that had two old British colonial style houses on it.  Both houses were right beside each other and their address of both homes were 68 and 69 High Level Road, Dampara, Chittagong (just below Chittagong Police Lines).

In describing my family, I also have to touch upon my mother’s side of the family.  My maternal ancestors were Portuguese Catholics.  My maternal grandmother’s ancestors (the Rozario family) were Portuguese traders – they had over 40 sail boats that traveled from Portugal to South India, Calcutta, Chittagong, Burma and South East Asia trading in spices, fabric and other commodities since the early 1600’s.  They had the biggest Portuguese fleet (about 40 sail boats) that were used in trading various commodities to and from India and one of their port of call was Calcutta – on the Hooghly river.  The other port of call was Xetigam (Now known as Chittagong) through the Xetigam River (now known as Karnaphuli river). The family owned land in Bandel and in Calcutta.  There are two roads in Calcutta Dixon & Gomes Lanes named after my ancestors, one is still remaining. Unfortunately, the vast lands that was owned by the family, the deeds were held by the Monsignor at the Bandel Church and was destroyed after his death.  The Bishop who took over after the first Bishop’s death made a deal with the Bengal Govt whereby the Govt. took possession of the Calcutta properties and the Bandel Church was given ownership of the Bandel properties that the family owned.  The family lost most of its wealth almost overnight.

Jewish birth certificate and educational certificate of Raymond David Barook

There is no clarity in regards to the background of my grandfather “Sylvester Aloysius Gonsalves”.  As told by my parents, my grandfather Sylvester Aloysius Gonsalves (fondly known as “dada”) was born in Dhaka (then British-India) and was orphaned at a very young age.  He ended up in a Catholic convent in Dhaka.

Sylvester grew up and studied in the convent in Dhaka. His education level is also not known but we know he was a wise and learned man.  He was extremely strict and well disciplined.  He was well respected and was also known as a “no nonsense” type of person.  He commanded authority in the family and as a Zamindar (feudal lord) in Chittagong.

How Sylvester met his wife Elizabeth Rozario (my grandmother) is also not known but together they fostered a large and wonderful family.  Sylvester served in the British Assam-Bengal Railways as a railway engineer (known as locomotive driver back in the days) and he was stationed in Badarpore, Assam where he raised his children and subsequently settled in Chittagong during the Indo-Pak partition in August 14, 1947 by swapping property and house with a Hindu family who opted to move to the new India.  That property is at 68 and 68 High Level Road, Dampara, Chittagong.

This is all that’s known about the historical background of Sylvester Aloysius Gonsalves.

My childhood is the most memorable part of my early life.  I am the first born in the family and spend the first few years after my birth in Khulna )district in Bangladesh), where my father was transferred to manage a large shipping and stevedore branch company – “Yakub Ali and Sons” – that was owned by the Dubashi family of Chittagong.  So, we were there from 1957 (I was born in 1956) till 1968.  In Khulna I attended a Catholic school called Fatima High School that was operated and run by Italian Catholic nuns. In 1968, my father got transferred back to Chittagong and I continued my schooling in St. Placid’s High School (a well-known school in Chittagong).  I completed my SSC (Secondary School Certificate exam) and then did my HSC (Higher Secondary Certificate exam) at Haji Mohsen College and the completed my studies in Architectural Science and Design.

My closest childhood friend lived in Dampara (in Chittagong) and he still lives there.  His name is Mirza Mohammed Monsurul Hoque.  His family were very close friends with my family. I could visit Monsur’s house at any time and would just walk in unrestricted even though he had a younger sister.

During Eid, I was there at his house and at Christmas, Monsur was at my house.  He was like a brother to me and my brother and sister and my cousin sisters who lived next door.  Monsur knows more about our childhood and could shed a lot of light on us growing up.

Shoaib Choudhury: As Jews first arrived in Chittagong city during 18th or 19th century, and your family has lived in Chittagong for a very long time, can you please tell us if there is any Jewish synagogue or prayer house in Chittagong?

Joseph Edward: There is no synagogue or Jewish prayer house in Chittagong. There was only one Jewish temple/synagogue in Dhaka that the then Pakistan government seized and converted it into a government building.

Shoaib Choudhury: That is exactly what I have been saying since 2003 but unfortunately one reporter from the Jewish Telegraph Agency visited Bangladesh in 2011 and he made notorious bids in proving me wrong.

Anyways, in 1990, you had embarked on a genealogical journey to learn about your Jewish background and within 10 years of research you discovered that your family is very ancient going all the way back to biblical times.  Your grandmother was a Turkish Jew and grandfather was a Baghdadi Jew.  Your father’s Jewish family like many Iraqi Jews traveled from the Middle East to India and settled in Calcutta.  That’s where your father was born. Will you please tell us, when you family had shifted from Calcutta (India) to then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)?

Joseph Edward: My father Raymond David Barook was born in Calcutta during the British rule and completed his education in there. He worked for a trading company (cotton and jute business) in Calcutta… they had a branch office in Chittagong and my father was transferred to Chittagong as the General Manager of that company.  That branch office was located on Station Road in Chittagong. (By the way Edward is not my real last name. That I will describe later).  When the British partitioned India and Pakistan (East and West) in 1947, my father opted to stay in Chittagong.  My father’s older brother Ezra David Barook (known as Eddie Edward) had a sungrass business in Chandraghona and during the partition, he too decided to stay back in East Pakistan.

I believe my father was the only Jewish person working at the Chittagong Port. He worked for Yakub Ali and Sons, Dubashi & Sons and National Shipping Lines.

Shoaib Choudhury: Based on your research, would you please tell us the history of Jews in Bangladesh?

Joseph Edward: As far as I can recollect, there were very few Jewish people that I can recall, which you may already know of and some of them I mentioned during my interview with Dr. Shalva Weil.

You know of Mordecai Cohen from Rajshahi.  The Daniel and Jacob families.

I heard there was another Cohen family who lived near Cox’s Bazar.  They owned a cotton or jute company and soon after partition, they sold their business and left and settled in the UK

Shoaib Choudhury: Veteran war hero General Jack Raphael Farj Jacob, who fought against the Pakistani occupation forces and had been instrumental in the defeat and surrender of General Niazi of the Pakistan Army in 1971, resulting in the liberation of Bangladesh; is your father’s cousin. While everyone in Bangladesh know General Jacob and admire him as a hero, most of the people do not know, he was a Jew. During our war of independence, while Palestinians vehemently opposed to our war of independence and even Yasser Arafat branded our freedom fighters as “terrorists”, Israel and our Jewish brothers and sisters had not only extended support towards the independence of Bangladesh, several Jews had actively participated in our liberation war. Lieutenant General J F R Jacob is one of them. Will you share the memories of war of independence of Bangladesh?

Joseph Edward: During the Liberation War, we stayed in our house.  The Pakistani army did not harass us because they thought my father was Arab as he was fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu.

I was 15 years old at the time and I can still remember how we had to hunker down below the windows as bullets were flying from both sides.  The outside walls were peppered with bullet holes…. there was barely any plaster left.  During that time, my parents allowed a few Hindu families with minor children into our home for protection. We had very short supply of food and water if you can imagine, but we all survived.  My father made sure no one stepped outside.  We also saved one Muslim student from Chittagong University who was my tutor before the war broke out.  His name is Mohammed Ruhul Amin Majumder and he has nowhere to go and ended up at our doorstep.  My father let him in and instructed him to only speak in English… just in case.  My father also told him that if asked, he must say that he’s my father’s youngest brother.

We witnessed the male members of our neighbors shot and killed before our very eyes. There were bodies lying around and after a week they were bloated and rotting and the smell was unbearable to a point where my father went up to the Police Lines and explained the situation to a Pakistani military officer and requested that the bodies be buried. At first the officer refused. But my father insisted and the officer finally agreed to allow the bodies to be buried. My father came and immediately got the male members of our family gather a few corrugated sheet and bamboos and he made a makeshift gurney/stretcher.  My mom got her handkerchiefs and she emptied her bottles of perfume on them and got us to wear them over our faces.  With our stretcher and shovels, bamboos and whatever tools, we dug huge mass grave along the high-level road section that ran by our house and buried the bodies in that grave.

There is one instant I still remember to this very day like it was yesterday…… it was a day I was walking to one of our family friends house (they lived near Asker Dighi) and as I was walking past the WASA water works building (known as Dampara Pani Kol), a Pakistani soldier stepped out and called out to me to come over and he asked me where I was going.  I told him my destination and he grabbed me and pushed me against the wall and pointed his stengun at me. His comrade was hunkered down stirring a kettle of tea. He never looked up to see who I was. A man or a boy. Looked like he didn’t care. I told the soldier pointing the gun at me that I was Christian and he refused to believe me.  He then looked at his comrade who had still not lifted his head to see me and asked him in Urdu “what should I do?”  His comrade replied in Urdu “Goli chalao” meaning shoot him. The soldier cocked his gun and at that very moment his officer with a few soldiers walked into the facility grounds and saw me.  The officer asked me what was going on. I told the officer “ask your man here”.   The officer advised me to go back home and as I walked away; I could hear him kind of scolding the soldier. He told the soldier that he had just visited my house and asked for a couple of green coconuts and my father had our servant climb the coconut tree and give the officer over a dozen green coconuts.

This event is still very fresh in my mind like it was just yesterday and I am very sorry to say here that I harbor the highest level of hatred toward all Pakistanis regardless for what they did in Bangladesh. When I was working in the UN in Kabul, Afghanistan, my next mission was supposed to be in Pakistan. I flatly refused the UN and when asked to give a reason – I told them the honest to God’s truth.

Just so you know when it comes to expressing the truth and nothing but the truth, I do not hold anything back. I tell it like it is regardless of whether it offends or angers the person.

As I mentioned at the beginning, my mother’s family owned property (land and house) in 68 and 69 High Level Road, Dampara, Chittagong just below Chittagong Police Lines.  After Liberation, we lost many of our land to the local Muslim people who harassed us almost every day. Finally, in 1990 my mother and her sister sold the house and the remaining land we had and came and settled in Canada. I was already living in Canada since 1986.

Shoaib Choudhury: Your father was very well known in the shipping industry in Chittagong in Bangladesh. Majority of the Jews in Bangladesh had contributed immensely to economic growth of this country. Still, why the Jewish population in Bangladesh has been declining?

Joseph Edward: Because of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic feelings towards the Jewish people.  There are a few un-named Jews still living in Bangladesh. I know one young man and he begged and requested me not to disclose his existence in Bangladesh because he fears persecution from the Bengali Muslims. Sorry to say that but it’s the truth.

My father’s last name Barook is very Hebrew and it can never ever pass off as a Christian name like the Daniels and Jacobs etc.  So, he adopted the last name Edward and the Catholic Bishop of Chittagong at the time – Bishop Raymond Laroque who by the way was French-Canadian who became very good friends with my father issued my father a Catholic baptism certificate with the name Edward. He advised my father to keep it as proof should anyone challenge him.

When I and my siblings were born, my father asked my mom to get his children baptized as Catholics since there were no Jewish Temples or Synagogues in Chittagong. However, at home, my father taught Judaism to me and my siblings.

I must also mention here that my father comes from a very Orthodox Jewish and Rabbinic family whose ancestors go way back to biblical times.

Shoaib Choudhury: In Bangladesh, religious minorities such as Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and even a tiny Sikh population enjoy religious freedom, while neither any Jew openly proclaim their religious identity nor there is any Jewish synagogue openly operating in this country. Do you think, it is because of decades of anti-Semite propaganda mainly run by Iran and several Arab nations branding Israel as the “enemy of Allah” or Jews as the descendant of “pigs and apes”?

Joseph Edward: Yes.  I could go in-depth and in great details on this subject and I’d tell you the honest to God’s truth… but as a Muslim you may not like it and may turn to hate me.

Let me tell you this…. I have a copy of the Quran in English authored by N.J. Dawood that I managed by luck to purchase in Chittagong in 1977. I’ve read all 114 suras several times and have made some very significant observational notes which would make a normal human being’s skin crawl.

I’ve also read the two most important hadiths – Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari numerous times as well and have electronic copies of both books.

I think in my humble mind I know more about Islam than most Muslims.  This is me looking deep into Islam from the outside with an open and unbiased mind.

Shoaib Choudhury: As you know, I have served seven-years rigorous imprisonment just for the “crimes” of confronting radical Islam and jihad; for denouncing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial; for promoting interfaith harmony; and for advocating normalization of relations between Bangladesh and Israel. In my opinion, the landscape of world diplomacy is changing, and soon the entire world will normalize its relations with Israel, as is evident from the recent wave of new ties established between Israel and many Middle Eastern nations. Bangladesh, too, will follow suit. However, the years of ordeals and suffering from my side may eventually be forgotten, as people will forget, and even consider it funny, that there existed a time when someone in a Muslim-majority country had to spend years in prison trying to convince his countrymen of a basic fact: “Jews are humans, and Israel is NOT a monster”.

As a Jew and a Bangladeshi, how do you feel when you know a Muslim in Bangladesh and endured so much of pains and agonies, simply for the reason of confronting anti-Semitism and defending Israel?

Joseph Edward: Looking at us in a humanitarian way, if we take away religion, ethnicity and all other social and ethical barriers – who and what are we.  One simple answer – human beings – members of the same specie regardless of color or creed or ethnicity.

Jews have been the most persecuted people (I’m not saying other people in other regions are not persecuted).  The two most-holiest books – the Torah and the Bible – describes it but – the Jewish people are strong and resilient people. The Jewish people have made huge and significant contributions to science, medicine, modern technology and every other field that comes to mind.

Let’s look at what the so called ‘Palestinians’ have contributed toward humanity – murder, kidnapping, torture etc. What have the Arabs constructively contributed? How much have the Arabs stepped forward to help any third world country in distress?  Yet, look at Israel and the Jewish people…. they have always stepped forward in some manner, shape and form to help and assist. I could go on and on and it would be endless.

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