The Arrival of Jewish Settlers
Our history begins in the 1630's with the arrival in Suriname of the first group of Jews. They were of Portuguese Jewish descent, originally from Holland, Portugal, and Italy. They arrived via Recife in Northern Brazil. The group settled near Thorarica, the old capital of Suriname, on the left bank of the Suriname River approximately 50 kilometers south of present day capital city Paramaribo. Almost immediately, these new immigrants started to establish a number of sugar plantations.
In 1652, a second group of Jews arrived in Suriname along with Lord Francis Willoughby, the English Governor-General for the West Indies, who colonized the country for England. This group settled on the savannah near the Cassipora creek.
In 1664, a third group of about 200 Jews arrived from Cayenne (today's French Guyana), after the French occupied the area previously under the Dutch crown. This group, under the leadership of David Nassy, fled to Suriname and also settled on Cassipora creek.
In recognition of the importance of the Jewish population in the colony, the British colonial government granted several special privileges to the community on August 17 1665. These included: freedom of religion, permission to build synagogues and Jewish schools, the right to have their own court of justice and private civic guard (army). These rights made the Jews in Suriname the only Diaspora community to achieve complete political autonomy before the founding of the State of Israel.
The first synagogue, a wooden one, and some schools were built thereafter (1671) at Cassipora.
When Abraham Crijnssen captured Suriname for the Dutch province of Zeeland in 1667, the Dutch commander left the privileges granted to Jews by the English untouched.
In addition to local political realities, international political events also had a significant impact on the community. In order to expand their plantations, the Dutch swapped New Amsterdam (present day New York City) for the English territory Suriname in 1667 as part of the Breda treaty to end the war between England and Holland.
The Growth of the Jodensavanne
In 1669, the Dutch granted David Nassy the right to establish a colony to become known as Jodensavanne, (the Jewish Savannah).
The Jews from Thorarica and Cassipora moved and joined the Jodensavanne, also called The Portuguese Jewish Nation, or Jerusalem on the River.
The Jodensavanne developed rapidly due in large part to the Portuguese Jews’ knowledge of planting which turned the area into a flourishing agricultural community. The Jodensavanne became the pillar of the entire colony of Suriname.
In 1685, a second synagogue was built. This time of bricks. It was located in the Jodensavanne and called Beracha v' Shalom (Blessing and Peace in Hebrew).
By 1694, the Jewish community had grown to approximately 570 people. The wealthier among them owned about 40 sugar plantations and employed sizeable number of slaves. The community continued to flourish, and in 1760, historic references suggest Jews plantations numbered 115 out of a total of 400 plantations in the country.
The Jodensavanne graveyard with its marble grave stones imported from Europe attests to the wealth of the community and was considered to be one of the most beautiful in South America.
The Decline of the Jodensavanne
Various events in the 18th century had a profoundly negative impact on our community in the Jodensavanne:
• In 1712, the French Admiral Cassard and his pirates invaded Suriname, demanding a sizable tribute from the population. The prosperous Jews had to pay the greater part of it in sugar, hard cash, sugar mills and slaves. The country never recovered completely from this event
• The decrease in value of sugar cane as a result of the introduction of beet sugar in Europe
• The collapse of Dietz, the Amsterdam sugar cane trading house in 1773
• Real estate loans that went unpaid
• Worsening security conditions as a result of the continuous conflict with the Maroons (escaped slaves)
• The depletion of the agricultural soils
• The development of the new capital, Paramaribo
With all these dramatic events and challenges, the collapse of Suriname's plantation-based economy was inevitable.
As a result of these changes, many inhabitants of the Jodensavanne left to settle in the new capital of Paramaribo. They traded their agriculture roots and became merchants, storekeepers, artisans, peddlers and professionals.
The Paramaribo Jews continued to return to celebrate the holidays in the Synagogue in the Jodensavanne until 1832. That year, on September 10, a fire raged through the village, reducing all the houses to ashes, including the 147-year-old synagogue. Within a few years the dense jungle overgrew the remains of the Jodensavanne.
On April 2, 1825, the special privileges granted to the Portuguese Jewish citizens of Suriname were terminated by order of the Dutch crown. Thenceforth, Jews in the Dutch colonies were accorded the same rights as the other inhabitants, and all privileges, concessions and exceptions of whatever nature were abolished.