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Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers

by Ruby Daniel

Bibliographic information

TitleRuby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers
AuthorRuby Daniel
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectBiography/Memoirs
Pages237


Description 

This book is a Cochin cake, full of secret goodies and unexpected surprises and mysterious tastes, exotic and familiar. Each story told by Ruby Daniel, one of the Jews of Cochin, remains the same in its essential ingredients, like a Cochin cake, but the shape of the pan may vary, or one time it may be a bit crisper around the edges, and one time the mixture of spices may be just perfect. And each story gets better with age: the spices bring each other out, the ghee preserves it. Sometimes it’s meant to be eaten right away, tasted warm from the oven and then savored over days and days of teatime snacks. Or it can be carried anywhere, even to America, to share with friends and family on a camping trip.



About the Author 

Ruby Daniel ---





Contents 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

TRANSLITERATION AND NOTES

RUBY DANIEL’S INTRODUCTION

BARBARA JOHNSON’S INTRODUCTION

PART I. THE LIFE STORY OF RUBY DANIEL

Chapter 1. Stories from the Past, Told to Me by My Elders

Chapter 2. A Childhood in Jew Town

Chapter 3. Eager for Education

Chapter 4. Mysteries of Life and Death: A World of Dreams

Chapter 5. The Situation of Women in Cochin

Chapter 6. My Tears in the Government Service

Chapter 7. The Time of World War II

Chapter 8. Farewell to Cochin

Chapter 9. Life in the Kibbutz

PART II. THE PAMPERED JEWS OF MALABAR

Chapter 10. More Tales from Cochin Jewish History

PART III. OUR TUNES ARE VERY SACRED TO US: SONGS AND CELEBRATIONS OF THE COCHIN JEWS

Chapter 11. Jewish Festivals in Cochin

Chapter 12. Births and Weddings

CHRONOLOGY OF IMPORTANT EVENTS AND PERIODS

SUPPLEMENT TO FAMILY TREE

GLOSSARY

A NOTE ON CASTE IN KERALA

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: THE JEWS OF INDIA

INDEX



Excerpt 

A few years before World War II broke out, a German cruiser named Emden came to our shore for a friendly visit. The sailors went on shore for excursions into every nook and corner. At the time my uncle Daniel was getting married in Rangoon. As Grandmother (his mother) was living with us, we made a dinner party in Cochin on the night of his wedding. It is the custom for the bridegroom’s family to make a party, even without the bridegroom. If you put a few lights in the house, everyone in Jew Town became curious, because the houses were facing the public road. So many people who passed came up on the veranda and looked inside through the doors and windows. Two of these German sailors also came to look.

One of our relations, an old woman with poor eyesight, thought they were the sons of Mr. Koder, who were also very tall and fair skinned. So she went out and caught hold of their hands and said, “Son, come in! Why do you stand outside?” So of course they came in. All our community of white Jews were sitting at the table, so they were also asked to sit at the same time. Only when they came in, she found out her mistake. She went to my grandmother and said, “Ahi, Docho! What did I do? I made a mistake!” Grandmother said, “So what? We have food enough for two more.”

But what those white Jewish men did! They removed all the cutlery and threw them under the table, so the Germans had to eat with their hands. The Jews always hated the Germans, but that was the only punishment they could give them. Afterwards the sailors congratulated my grandmother and went away.

A few days later the ship left. At that time they played their military band. The German band was very famous, and to my ears it was fantastic. Many people went to the beach in Fort Cochin to see the flags and the sailors standing at attention—fair and pink faced in their smart white uniforms—as the ship sailed through the channel and out to sea. Such a thing very seldom happens in our part of India. I was so thrilled, I ran from one end of the beach to the other till I no longer could hear the music. Then I told my mother, “You know, if I were a boy I would have been with them now.” At that time, long before the war, I didn’t think about if they were Germans; I only thought about the uniforms and the band.

After some time we heard a rumor that these sailors, when they visited the interior villages, were given coconut water from the tender coconuts and other nice things to eat, as the people of Malabar always do to strangers. Then the soldiers gave the villagers small flags, and they told them that someday the Germans will come back and capture this place, but they will do no harm to you if you show them these flags.

It was about eight or nine years later that the World War broke out. The British were involved in the war, so we knew there would be war in India too. Of course in the meantime we learned about what was going on in Europe, with the rise of Nazism and what the Germans were doing there to the Jews. We always read the papers in our family. Grandfather used to get Hebrew magazines from America and other places, and he would tell us what he read. Then my mother always bought the newspaper too, every day. She was so interested in the news, she would take an atlas, and whenever there were some places bombed she looked in the atlas to see where it was, and she would explain it all to us and to the other women in the neighborhood too. Even when she came to Israel and lived on the kibbutz, she used to read the English paper every day.

WARTIME IN COCHIN

During the wartime there was a scarcity of everything. One thing we could not get was pencils. My sister Royal saw that a classmate of hers had a nice pencil with different colors on the wood, so she asked her where she bought it from. She said her father bought it for her, so Royal requested her to ask her father to get one for her and she will pay for it. It was rather expensive. Her classmate brought her the pencil but she wouldn’t take any money from her. Her father told her not to take the money from Royal. It seems he was an advocate and knew my father very well when he was alive, and he told his daughter what a nice man he was and all the good deeds he had done during his lifetime. It was another example of how the people of Cochin are friendly and grateful for even a small good deed done to them. This man was a highcaste Hindu, a Brahmin.

Sometimes people made jokes at my mother during the war, saying that Hitler is coming to kill the Jews. Once this Brahmin gentleman happened to be there. He said to them, “Don’t make fun. Salvation is coming for the Jews. It is time for them to get their country back. If there is any nation to be called innocent it is the Jewish nation. Any country coming to their ruination, they always fall upon the Jews. Then that nation will disappear and the Jews will be present at their funeral.”

At one point during the war, the Japanese bombed Chittagong in the northeast of India. The first time this happened, our government of Cochin told the people that it was expedient for those living in the port cities to evacuate and go inland. But they did not help the people to do this, just put the fear into all the people by making the announcement. After all Chittagong was five days away from Cochin by train—as if the Japanese had no other big ports to bomb, so that they have to come all the way down to the remotest part of India. I wonder if the Japanese knew there was such a place as Cochin!

There were many poor people who were affected by this advice of the government. Some who had only a cow for a living sold their cow, and some sold their crockery and whatever they could dispose of, and they escaped as if the Japanese were at their doorsteps. There was a blackout from sunset to sunrise. All these people stayed away as long as the money lasted. When they came back they were worse than paupers. The scare just ruined these people.

Well! The white Jews ran away to Alwaye, where the rich people had two or three houses, and they all stayed there. The other Jews went inland to villages such as Parur and Chendamangalam, where they had relatives. My mother took Grandmother and the rest of the family to Chendamangalam. There she rented a small house in Paliath, the property of the rich and famous Paliam tarwad. My sister Royal still talks about that house, because the countryside all around it was peaceful as well as green and beautiful. They became friendly with the people in the neighboring house, who were from the royal Paliam family, and there they heard many of the stories I have told about Paliath Achan, etc. My mother herself had to stay back in Cochin because of her job at the Ferry and Transport office, and my brother stayed with her because she was alone. I was not working in Cochin at the time, I was working in Trichur. When I came back home, Jew Town itself was empty. It was Pesah time, so even my mother and my brother were gone away on leave for Passover, so I had to stay with my aunt Dolly in Fort Cochin.

The Jewish men who had to stay back in Jew Town because of their work stayed together in one house. One of them cooked for the whole group. Once it happened he had no oil for cooking so he looked here and there and found a bottle of oil, which he cooked with till it was finished. When the family who lived in that house came back, the lady of the house was looking for that bottle of oil, which she had put somewhere, but the boy who was cooking had used it all up. It seems it was a special oil prepared from frogs and earthworms, which she used for massaging her child because he was very thin and weak.

RELATIVES IN BURMA

We were very worried when we learned that the Japanese had invaded Burma, because there were many Jews from Cochin living there. Of course there was my uncle Daniel, who went to Burma looking for work when he was eighteen and got married there. His wife’s family was from Calcutta. By this time he and his wife had two children and another one on the way. There were many men from the Kadavumbagam community who went to Rangoon because they could earn money there and send it to their families. My cousin Ezzie had an uncle named David, who had lived in Burma so many years, so that if anyone went from Cochin, they would go to his house and he helped them to get work. David had ten children, and many of them died in the Japanese bombing. We didn’t hear from them afterwards. The situation in Burma was very dangerous. One Jew who spoke against the Japanese was taken away from the synagogue; they killed him and cut him into pieces and put him in the coffin and threw it at the synagogue door.

When the Japanese were invading Burma in 1942, all the people from India tried to go back, to escape to safety. Those who left early had ships and planes to take them, but those who came later had to walk through forests and jungles which human beings have never penetrated. There were thousands of people trying to escape. In some places there were no footpaths, and people had to cross rivers infested with crocodiles. They tied ropes across and people had to wade through. Many died on the way of cholera. Every drop of drinking water had to be boiled. Hundreds fell on the way and there was no one to bury them.

My uncle Daniel and his family had moved from Rangoon to Mandalay, where he worked with a British jewelry firm, Coombes and Company. He left Mandalay when the first bomb fell, only ten days after his third child, Molly, was born. The family couldn’t leave earlier because his wife was about to give birth. So he had to take his wife and three small children by foot, along with his mother-in-law and four other sisters and brothers of his wife. The children were too small to walk, so he had to hire palanquins to carry them, paying a lot of money. The jewelry firm had given him a certificate and some money when he left.

After walking twelve miles, the people came to a place where they were given a little rice and some cooked dal and salt. After eating it they had to walk another twelve miles to come to a stop to get the next ration. Sometimes there will be only dal and sometimes only salt left. After walking for 32 days like this through the jungle they finally arrived in Calcutta. The whole family were taken to the hospital with acute malaria, with blood coming out of the pores in their skin.

By this time my uncle had no money, only the certificate from his company. Anyway he found a jewellers, Hamilton and Company. At once he was hired and given five hundred rupees in advance, and they said come on Monday to start work.

After a little while my uncle’s wife and children came to Cochin to stay with us for a few months. Once when we went to the beach, I remember there were a few small ships called LCTs sailing, which made a great noise. Those children started screaming in fright, because it sounded like the noise they heard when the bombers came in their homeland. The family stayed in Fort Cochin in a house which Gladys’s father gave them, because our house was too small to accommodate them.

I went there sometimes to stay with them in Fort Cochin, before they returned to Calcutta. I was the only person the mother, Seema, could talk to. We used to sit up in the night. She said she can’t sleep because she is thinking about all the things that happened. And she was all the time smoking, smoking. Then she used to give me a cigarette now and then, and little by little I started smoking too. My mother said, “You are going to spoil her with this bad habit.” But my aunt said, “She should have at least one bad habit.” I didn’t smoke very much. When you are going to work you can’t smoke. I stopped for a while, but afterwards people came asking for cigarettes and I would give them, and then I started up again. People thought it was such a disgrace for a young woman to smoke. I remember one day I was standing on the veranda smoking and my brother came and said to me, “You are going to spoil all the girls in the Town!” I didn’t say a word: I just went inside.




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