During the British rule, Calcutta was the main commercial hub of India and it attracted many trading communities, including the Jews. The history of the Jews in Calcutta dates back to the eighteenth century, most of whom were Bagdadi Jews. Legend goes that, Shalom Cohen, a jeweler from Syria, arrived in Kolkata via Surat in the 1790s, with the intention to trade.
With the increase of the community, the Jews badly needed a place, where the departed souls would be given a decent burial in accordance with Jewish rites. It is said that at this juncture, Shalome Cohen, the first settler, decided to buy a plot of land to be earmarked for the cemetery of his growing community. As he asked one of his business collaborators to help to find such a big plot, he was pleased to take him to an open paddy field on the outskirts of Calcutta and offered him the plot of land, completely free of cost. Shalome was delighted, but told his friend that, he is unable to accept it as a gift, since it is to be used for a religious purpose. As the generous Bengali businessman expressed his willingness to accept any damn price, Shalome took off his gold ring and gave it to him in return. As per the records, the first man to be buried on this big plot bought in 1798 was one Hacham Moses.
Today, the Jewish Cemetery at 45 Narikeldanga Main Road is in a pathetic condition. The weather beaten and neglected cemetery has lots of graves, but the place of burial of Cohen, the man, who built the Jewish burial ground, is not traceable, though his headstone and other related things were recovered.
Near the entrance gate of the cemetery, there is a ‘Star of David’ sign mark on the wall. There is a pavilion on the left side of the entrance, which is supposed to be a prayer hall. A marble plaque on its wall indicates that the pavilion was erected by Mrs. Galla David Gubbay, in memory of her late father Mr. Saul David Lanyado.
Next to the prayer hall, there is a peculiar pentagonal structure with sloping roof and a height of 5 feet. It has a locked metal door and inscriptions in Hebrew and English, indicating that it serves as a vault for donation. During the time of the burial, people drop money in the vault as a donation, which is annually cleared and in turn donated to the poor.
Another structure in the cemetery, which attracts attention, due to its height of about 15 feet, is the ‘Genizah’, erected in honor of Joshep Rahamin Judah Leveroy by his widow and sons. According to Jewish beliefs, any book or any piece of paper written in Hebrew alphabet cannot be simply thrown away. A Genizah is actually, a storing place in a Jewish synagogue or cemetery to hide or to put away worn-out Hebrew books and papers, prior to its proper cemetery burial.
It is considered that the word ‘Genizah’, has come into Hebrew from a Persian root, ‘Ganj, meaning ‘storehouse’. It is interesting to note that some common localities in Calcutta, like Ballygunge and Tollygunge, have also derived their name from the said Genizah, in other words ‘Ganj’.
The graves in the cemetery are scattered asymmetrically all over the yard. Most of them are similar in structure, most of them rising only to a height of about three feet and devoid of any ornamentation. However, on the southwest corner, there is a grave, which is an exception to this. It is the grave of Elias Moses Duek Cohen, with its elaborate epitaph, written in Hebrew and English. The epitaph indicates that as a respected member of the Calcutta Jewish community, he served as a senior minister of the Neveh Shalome and Magen David Synagogue, played an active part in the establishment of the Jewish Boys and Girls School in Calcutta and was the commissioner of Calcutta Corporation.
At the rear end of the cemetery, near the western wall, there is another grave with an epitaph, both in Hebrew and English with the name David Elias Nahoum, a name attached with Nahoum & Sons, the famous bakery at the New Market of Calcutta. As an engineer, David worked for many years for Martin Burn, and then left the job to manage his family’s bakery after the death of his brothers, Norman and Solomon in the early 1990’s. A lifelong bachelor, he died at the age of 86, on Thursday, March 7th, 2013. David’s younger brother Isaac, now 77, manages the store.
It is really unfortunate that, this heritage grave yard, a mute witness of the past years of the city, is now in such a deplorable condition. Many of the epitaphs in the cemetery have long gone missing and most of those that survived are in Hebrew, making it impossible to identify the person. Unless proper steps are taken without any further delay, soon the Jewish Cemetery in Narkeldanga will become a legend of the lost.