In the heart of Kolkata, Brabourne Road is a busy thoroughfare with rickshaw pullers, automobiles, motorcycles, and pedestrians along the sidewalks. The Magen David Synagogue is peaceful and deserted in the midst of the metropolitan noise. Outside, a Muslim guard keeps vigil. The synagogue is seldom utilized in this 14 million-person metropolis, where there are just 25 estimated Jews left.
On Jewish festivals, Magen David and the other two synagogues in the city used to be crowded. Nearly 3,500 Jews lived in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, throughout the first part of the 20th century. According to Jael Silliman, one of Kolkata's few surviving Jews and the author of a new book about the community, the city's population peaked during World War II when Jews from Burma and Europe flocked there in search of shelter. The population was about 5,000 at the time.
We thrived here, claims Ms. Silliman, 58. We had Jewish schools and our own periodicals. But much of it is now just memories. In a few years, all of us will be dead.
Before that day arrives, Ms. Silliman is attempting to preserve the community's memories. She is creating a digital archive of documents, images, and other artifacts, including a marriage contract written in Hebrew and recipes for delicacies like aloo makallah, a delicious deep-fried potato dish that combines Middle Eastern and Indian flavors. She was a former women's studies professor at the University of Iowa.
Ms. Silliman said, "I feel that it's my civic responsibility to chronicle my town," and she anticipated that the archive will be available online the following year. "Our history is so intriguing, and it's so intertwined with the history of the city."
Ms. Silliman oversees the archiving effort from the bedroom where she and her siblings spent their formative years; the bunk beds have been replaced with works of art from all over the globe. Her desk is crammed with folders of pictures and newspaper clippings. She has collected information for eight months andreceived contributions from Kolkata Jews living abroad in Israel, Australia, Canada, the United States, Britain, and other countries.
Photos of the first Miss India, Esther Victoria Abraham, who used the stage name Pramila but was born to a Jewish family, are included among the entries. The digital archive's section on Kolkata's Jews in cinema will include tales like hers and Rachel Sofaer's, who rose to popularity in Bengali silent films as Arati Debi.
The first Jew to settle in Kolkata was a gem dealer by the name of Shalom Cohen who arrived from Syria in 1798 through Surat, a port on India's west coast. According to Ms. Silliman, the majority of the Jews who came after, often known as Baghdadi Jews, migrated to Baghdad in search of economic opportunity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from modern-day Iraq and Syria.
The neighborhood flourished under the British Raj, selling indigo and silk and being an important player in the opium trade. Most Indians emigrated when their country attained independence in 1947 to Britain, Australia, the United States, or Israel when it was founded the following year.
We never experienced anti-Semitism, according to Ms. Silliman. India may be the only nation in the world where Jews have experienced no discrimination. However, the majority of Jews departed after the British did. People were concerned about their enterprises since there was a discussion of nationalizing the banks.
Other causes that led to the Jews' exodus were the founding of Israel, rioting between Hindus and Muslims during Partition, and liberal British immigration laws for citizens of former colonies.
Ms. Silliman relocated to a college in the United States after graduating in 1972 to attend a boarding school there. She stayed there, got married, and raised two kids there. She visited Kolkata again four years ago to do research for a book that is based in the city's Jewish community. Jewish Kolkata and the generation who knew it was vanishing when she returned. She remarked, "I decided to collect this information from community members all across the globe while they are still alive.
Amlan Das Gupta, an English professor at Jadavpur University and a longtime resident of Kolkata, said that the city's changing demographics are reflected in the reduction of the Jewish population. He said that most of the once-vibrant Jewish, Armenian, and Chinese populations in Kolkata have dispersed. "Kolkata used to be a highly cosmopolitan area, but East India has not developed the way other sections of the nation have," he remarked.
Professor Dasgupta noted that many of the city's iconic buildings, including the Ezra Mansions, were constructed by Jews. "The extent to which Kolkata is a diverse, multiethnic city is not as evident as it once was, but the Jews contributed a great deal to making it the city that it is today," he said.
The tales of Indians who lived with Jews worked with them, and interacted with them will also be gathered by Ms. Silliman. As she put it, "You truly cannot tell the narrative of Jewish Kolkata without them all - the business partners and colleagues, friends and neighbors, pupils they taught, employees they hired for their enterprises, their domestic assistance, and the custodians of our synagogues.
The other groups in the city may provide the greatest chance of preserving the legacy of Kolkata's Jews. Youth in Kolkata are still being educated at two Jewish schools.
According to Flower Silliman, 83, a graduate of the school and the mother of Jael Silliman, who has lived in Kolkata for the last 30 years after spending time in the United States and Israel, "The Jewish Girls School does not have a single Jewish girl, and 80 percent of the pupils are Muslim." "But once we're gone, that school and those girls will be Kolkata's Jews' legacy."
Rabul Khan, a Muslim guard who took over his father's position at the Magen David synagogue, said he would help keep the memory of Kolkata's Jews alive even if the seats may continue to be vacant. He added, using the Urdu term for prayers, "I know the Jewish festivals, and my father taught me all the Jewish namaz." "We will still be here to watch over this spot for Jews whether Jews arrive or not,"