Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Research in Joensavanne, Suriname
by Rachel Frankel
Bereche ve Shalom, Jodensavanne (1685), Suriname. Eastern wall and gate posts. Photo: Rachel Frankel.
Rachel Frankel, an architect in New York City, has been researching the synagogues of Suriname for the past several years. In November 1997, ISJM awarded her a $500 research grant. This seed funding has leveraged $7,000 in grants from two other foundations. These funds will enable Ms. Frankel to return to Surinam with a photogrpaher and an Hebraicist Aviva Ben-Ur, and to visit Holland to consult archival material. Ms. Frankel has submitted the following report of her work to date.
On October 12, 1785, the synagogue of Bereche ve Shalom on the Jodensavanne (the Jews' Savannah) in the Dutch colony of Suriname* celebrated its 100th anniversary. Governor Wichers, the Councils of Police, notable citizens from the capital city of Paramaribo, and some 1,600 others attended. People ate and drank from tables adorned with over 300 dishes and 1,000 Chinese lanterns. Speeches were made, Hebrew prayers were said, and poems were recited. The finale, a splendid ball at midnight, lasted until dawn.
Today, all that remains of Jodensavanne, the first permanent Jewish plantation settlement in the Americas, is a brick ruin of this formerly grand synagogue, the oldest synagogue of any architectural significance in the New World. In addition, Jodensavanne has three cemeteries. Two boast illustratively engraved stones carved in and imported from Europe. The third cemetery is said to have been for slaves and their descendants.
Jewish settlers came from Amsterdam as well as elsewhere in Europe. Others came indirectly from Portugal, via Brazil, where the Dutch had settlements. In addition, some 200 Jews who resided for less than a decade to the east in neighboring Cayenne (the capital of French Guiana today) had come to Suriname by 1664. Jews might also have come to Suriname from the Pomeroon settlement in what was the Dutch colony of Essequibo (today in Guyana). Some claim that Jews arrived in Suriname in the 1650s, possibly from Barbados, with the English Royalist Willoughby.
I first traveled to Suriname in January 1995, to see the ruins of Jodensavanne. A friend joined me for the trip, which we arranged through STINASU, a quasi-governmental foundation with jurisdiction over the country's nature reserves. At Jodensavanne I saw the remains of the synagogue and two cemeteries -- one adjacent to the synagogue, containing close to 500 imported engraved gravestones and, within walking distance, the more modest one of the Creole population.
Upon returning to New York and beginning research, I learned that there existed no thorough analysis of the synagogue. There was, moreover, no active preservation effort in progress. I realized that the architecture of Bereche ve Shalom was unique in that: (1) it had a typically Dutch style vernacular profile, (2) its women's gallery was oriented opposite to those found elsewhere, and (3) it existed at the center of an unprecedented open-grid town plan which not only configured the synagogue and its courtyard but also the surrounding village of Jodensavanne. It surprised and intrigued me that neither this synagogue, nor those which succeeded it in Paramaribo -- where the population went after Jodensavanne fell into decline -- emulated that of Amsterdam. I began to explore the causes for its difference: architectural precedents, building materials, and construction methodologies brought by Jews and Africans to 17th-century Suriname? the local climate? Patriotism to Holland, the first nation to give New World Jews full religious rights, or simply the work of a Dutch architect, in absentia, back in Amsterdam where Jews were excluded from the building guilds? A Messianic hope?
Between late 1995 and the first half of 1996 I saw the synagogues and cemeteries of Amsterdam, Curacao, and St. Eustatius. Later in the year I met in The Hague with Peter van Dun, an architectural conservator who is working on a preservation plan for Paramaribo's historic buildings. In Israel I spoke with the widow of Robert Cohen, the eminent scholar on Suriname's Jews; and met with Mordechai Arbel, a retired diplomat who has researched and written extensively on Jewish communities throughout the Caribbean.
In May 1997, I returned to Suriname to prepare measured drawings and full photographic documentation of the synagogue. I also wanted to locate the first cemetery, which I had not known about at the time of my first trip. Peter van Dun joined me at Jodensavanne, providing instruction on 17th-century brick building techniques and Dutch vernacular architecture. With the excellent help of volunteers from Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions (CVE), the remains of the synagogue were surveyed and did some documentation of the cemeteries was accomplished.
Next on the agenda is a return trip to Holland to study contract documents for repair work carried out at the synagogue in the early 19th century. These may reveal additional details about its architecture. In the summer of 1998 I will return to Suriname, again with CVE, to perform a full survey of the early cemetery, which will include recording and translating the inscriptions. Grants from ISJM, the Vogelstein Foundation, The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation and the Mitrani Family Foundation are helping to fund these trips.
* Following independence in 1975, an "e" was added to the spelling of Suriname. [Return]