The Jews of Eritrea - Halachic Adventures

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The Jews of Eritrea - Halachic Adventures

The British may have succeeded in isolating the prisoners from their Israelicomrades, but they didn’t take into account the local Jewish support. The Jews ofAsmara, Addis Ababa, and Djibouti helped the escapees by providing food and shelterThe doorpost is a witness to once-thriving Jewish lifeAfter years of disuse, the mikveh still functionsThe synagogue compound. “We had schoolsand social programs,” Sami remembersMatzoh oven in the Cohen courtyard: Today it all comes from Israel46 13 Teves 5770 12.30.09building with a typical Sephardic sanctuary and a small balcony forthe women’s gallery. The aron kodesh still holds two sifrei Torahin their traditional Sephardic wooden cases, which are occasionallyused. For example, a minyan happened to be present on ShabbosZachor two years ago, and read from both Torahs. In many NorthAfrican shuls, tzedakah boxes are built into the side of the bimah,designated for various communal needs. Asmara is no exception,and the various slots are still labeled: the poor of Asmara, the poor ofJerusalem, Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes, and, so as not to forget the folksback in the alter heim, “the poor of Aden.”The mikveh in the shul compound still has water in it, althoughit is not very clean and it has probably not been used in years. Thismikveh has two side-by-side pits, an otzar for the rainwater and animmersion basin where the person toivels.The local Jewish school, where all community members senttheir children, had several rooms in the shul compound — sharingspace with chickens that would be slaughtered in the compound.Larger animals were handled in a slaughterhouse around the corner.A large house that was built by the prominent Banin-Mansourfamily and owned by Shoa Menachem Joseph, president of thecommunity from 1916 until his death in 1965, is currently thePension Milano hotel. Sami advised us to visit the building andsee the many obvious indications of its history as a former Jewishresidence; artistically designed plaster Magen Davids in theceilings, and stained-glass Magen Davids on the windows. Fromour perspective, the most significant testimony of a Jewish presencewas the doorways, where the mezuzah marks and nail-holes are stillclearly evident. We could not help but wonder: What happy eventshad occurred within these walls? What songs had echoed in thehallways when the zemiros were sung and the Torah learned? Whatcommunity meetings were held in this house, and what decisionswere made that affected the lives of its members?We have done much research in the history of matzohpreparation in communities around the world, so we werecurious about Eritrea as well. As with most small communitiestoday, for the last several decades all matzos have been imported.Sami Cohen, however, still has a matzoh oven in his backyard.“I remember when my mother would bake matzos here, butsince the 1950s we have imported them from Israel. In recentyears it’s been used for baking challah.”Prison for Jews It’s always fascinating, but never reallysurprising, to find an Israeli connection even in the remotestplaces, and Asmara is no exception. After the British pushedout the Italians in 1941, they found Asmara useful in anotherway. At the height of anti-British Irgun activity in Palestine, theBritish were becoming increasingly frustrated in their attemptsto guard difficult prisoners on Israeli soil. The British decidedto utilize Asmara as a penal colony, following the models of thenineteenth-century British prisons in the Australian wilds, andFrance’s notorious Devil’s Island in French Guiana.In the dead of night in October 1944, in a swift, surprisemove known as Operation Snowball, 251 of the toughest Irgunand Lechi fighters were taken from Latrun Prison and whiskedaway by plane to Asmara. In those days, with limited air travel,the town was truly isolated, much like today’s American campin Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The “Jewish terrorists,” of whomthe British were terrified, were taken without notice and sent todesolate Africa to be held without a trial or time limit in SambalPrison in Eritrea; to Carthage, Sudan; and to Gilgil, Kenya.Later other prisoners were added to the original group, bringingthe total to over 400.During the twenty months that the Eritrean camp was inexistence, a dozen prison breaks occurred. Among thoseshipped to Sambal Prison in Eritrea was former Prime MinisterYitzchak Shamir, the commander of the Lechi. Shamir leftbehind his wife and one-year-old son, whom he didn’t see againuntil 1948, following a dangerous and successful escape. Thepowerful and compelling story of these men is recounted in thebook, Long is the Road to Freedom, by another former prisoner,Yaakov Meridor, Menachem Begin’s number-two man.The British may have succeeded in isolating the prisonersfrom their Israeli comrades, but they didn’t take into accountthe local Jewish support. The Jews of Asmara, Addis Ababa,and Djibouti helped the escapees by providing food and shelter.The building in which they were incarcerated is still used as ajail, and thus we were only able to see it from a distance. In the1950s, when the State of Israel was trying to cope with wavesof immigrants and food was scarce, Yaacov Meridor openeda kosher meat-canning factory in Asmara, and shochtim fromIsrael worked there, providing meat for the young country andits army.Cemeteries Tell the Story Adjacent to what must beone of the smallest public zoos in the world, containing nothingmore than a few birds, guinea pigs, and — the big attraction— hyenas, we saw the well-manicured British cemetery fromWorld War II. The cemetery contains seven Jewish graves,soldiers who fought with the British against the Italians.As in all Jewish communities, the Eritrean Jewish cemeterytells its own story. This cemetery is a separate section ofthe larger Asmara Christian Cemetery; it was given to thecommunity when it started over a century ago. In 1951 themunicipality wanted to relocate the graves and use the landfor immoral purposes. Wealthy community president ShoaMenachem Joseph purchased the land on behalf of the Jews andto this day it remains in Jewish hands. The non-Jewish caretakerof the entire cemetery also looks after the Jewish section.On January 17, 1946, Sudanese guards in Sambal Prisonkilled two Israeli prisoners, who had broken down a gate in

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