Last September, at the Sa Khan Thar hotel and restaurant in Maymyo, an old Burmese hill station on the road to Mandalay, I met local historian U Chit Swe. He is the establishment’s proprietor and headwaiter, so he first took my lunch order, then sat down to try to remember events from his 82 years.
“I knew three or four Jewish families living in Maymyo,” he said in halting English. He then went to the corner of the room, rummaged in a stack of books and papers, and returned with a colonial map of the town and a document with the names and addresses of 158 historic villas, most of them still standing. On a display table nearby stood several of his books in Burmese about Maymyo (pronounced May-miyo, the town was officially renamed Pyin Oo Lwin several years ago—just as Burma became Myanmar and Rangoon Yangon). He said he had also published three biographies about Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most recognizable opposition figure.
Maymyo has mock Tudor cottages, sprawling botanical gardens, a pristine lake surrounded by tall trees and, in the center of town, a quaint clock tower. It’s markedly cooler than the tropical plains of the former royal capital, which is why the Burmese Jews who could afford it vacationed here in colonial times, alongside the British, calling it a “paradise.”
I visited the town, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the airport in Mandalay, to hunt for any vestiges of this former community. I took a taxi, but George Orwell, who served the empire he came to despise as a policeman in colonial Burma, took the train. His description of the journey is still the most famous, even if it makes you cringe at times. “It is rather a queer experience,” he writes.
You start off in the typical atmosphere of an eastern city—the scorching sunlight, the dusty palms, the smells of fish and spices and garlic, the squashy tropical fruits, the swarming dark-faced human beings—and because you are so used to it you carry this atmosphere intact, so to speak, in your railway carriage. Mentally you are still in Mandalay when the train stops at Maymyo, four thousand feet above sea-level. But in stepping out of the carriage, you step into a different hemisphere. Suddenly, you are breathing cool sweet air that might be that of England, and all round you are green grass, bracken, fir trees, and hill-women with pink cheeks selling baskets of strawberries.
I’d seen the villas dotting the countryside like red-brick summer manses in some remote English town. Like many residents, Chit Swe, who was born and raised here, still uses the colonial name, which means “May Town” in honor of a British colonel. When Chit Swe was a young student, he would play cards with some of the Jews at a local social club that was later transformed into the post office. “Every Sunday, I met the family, they came to the old club,” he said. “It was so long ago.” When I asked him how much they resembled the British, he said they wore the same clothes and were “not so different.”
The Jewish presence in Maymyo included a few full-time residents and dozens of vacationers in the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Apart from an even smaller community with roots in India, the majority of Burmese Jews came from Iraq, spoke Arabic at home, were fair-skinned, prized learning English over Burmese, and in public, aspired to suits, not sarongs. When speaking of colonial times, it is more accurate to identify members of the community, whether rich or poor, as Jews who lived in Burma, rather than Burmese Jews. This pattern repeated itself across Southeast Asia, which became home to many Iraqi Jews, who were called the “Baghdadis,” and who left Iraq to escape rising persecution and seek new opportunities. In Burma, most came to Rangoon, establishing a synagogue that is now more than 100 years old. Other arrivals spread out across the country, especially in the north, or Upper Burma. Although Burma’s Jewish community prospered, living in some cases with mansions and retinues of servants, it never numbered more than a few thousand. Most left during World War II. Today, by some estimates there are only about 20 Jews in Yangon.
But in Maymyo, their old villas still stand. This elite colonial destination in the far north of the country also had something to say about the Burmese Jews’ standing in the British Raj, a complicated system of social castes, with the British at the top and the Jews grasping upwards.
Despite their ascendance in the business community and, in a smaller way, political life (Rangoon had a Jewish mayor), the Jews were never truly accepted by the British. History—in the form of advancing Japanese troops during the war—also intervened to prevent them from fully settling. Yet they thrived in a way most non-British subjects of the empire would have envied. When foreigners fled what was then Burma during bombing campaigns, the Jews went with them, some making their way to London. They were, as the late Ruth Fredman Cernea titled her invaluable 2006 book about the community, “Almost Englishmen.”
After the war, some Jews trickled back to Burma, though the community never really recovered. A small number of Jews who had lived full-time in Maymyo also returned to the hill station. That changed too when, according to Chit Swe, an Israeli delegation visited and offered those who remained a chance to move to Israel.
At the time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had warm relations with the country’s Prime Minister U Nu, who was the first Asian foreign leader to visit Israel in 1955. Ben-Gurion traveled to Burma in 1961, spending one of his longest official trips abroad. A record of his visit to Maymyo on Dec. 9, 1961, is preserved on a copy of Ben-Gurion’s schedule, in his archives in Sde Boker. Ben-Gurion arrived at Maymyo in the afternoon, had a “private” tea, went to dinner, and attended a variety show. The next morning, he left for Mandalay, visiting a village “en route.”
Describing Ben-Gurion as “the Jew president,” Chit Swe said that he came to Maymyo as a government guest. “He met the families,” the historian said. “The Jew president asked them, ‘Do you want to live in Israel?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ ” So they left.
Once ruled by the British, Maymyo has different kinds of overseers today. Myanmar’s most connected businessman, Tay Za, who is on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist, owns the sprawling gardens and several of the larger hotels. Maymyo is also home to the Defence Services Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Men in olive-green uniforms with black briefcases march through town, creating an odd contrast with the sagging villas. The entrance to the military compound features three statues of ancient warriors and an enormous sign that says, in Burmese and English, “THE TRIUMPHANT ELITE OF THE FUTURE.”
In 1840, well before these changes, two brothers, Judah and Abraham Raphael Ezekiel, traveled from Baghdad to Yadanabon, the “City of Gems,” better known by its present name, Mandalay. In those days, according to Fredman Cernea, who wrote about the early Jewish settlement in her book, Mandalay was the kind of place where a risk-taking entrepreneur could make a name for himself. The Ezekiel brothers worked for King Mindon as bookkeepers. Like them, Mordecai Saul, who arrived from Iraq around 1878, caught a break with the royal family. Mandalay had a large Muslim population, but it was also teeming with diverse nationalities, including Armenians and Persians. The Jews joined the mix. Saul somehow gained an audience with King Thibaw, Mindon’s son, and presented the royals with bottles of French perfume. The royal family controlled all commerce in the area. Queen Supayalat loved the gift, but not for the expected reasons. As the story goes, she dumped the liquid out and thanked Saul for the lovely vases. The Sauls went back to Baghdad to get more perfume and the business took off on palace grounds. Some years later, after Maymyo was built, it became one of the destinations of choice for the more established Jewish families in Mandalay. It is unlikely they would have gained a foothold without the approval of the royalty.
King Thibaw’s 91-year-old grandson Taw Bhaya has a house on an alley-like side street in Maymyo. A wizened, bald man with a large forehead and wisps of white hair clinging to the side, Taw Bhaya—which he translated as “Royal God”—has the energy of a 60-year-old, something he credits to his regimented upbringing in colonial Burma’s British schools. Maybe that is why he still gets a kick out of asking people to guess his age. His living room is an L-shaped assortment of chairs situated along the walls, which prominently feature a black-and-white photo of Thibaw and Supayalat. A large stack of outdated TIME magazines sits under the central table. To me, he complained about a lack of up to date reading materials.
“Most of the Jews [who came to Maymyo] are rich people … they came out for the summer,” the prince said, punctuating his statements with contagious, high-pitched giggles. He did not put on airs, except for some awkward remarks about how visitors usually kneel on the floor. He spoke with the training of an English boarding school, using words like “chaps.” When I tried to clarify a question and said something incorrectly, he shouted “No!” If I was right, he shouted “Yes!” And when he didn’t understand the question, he belted out “Which one?”
Most visitors come to talk about his odd place in modern Burmese history. The royal power is not what it was. The British took care of that when they overthrew Thibaw in 1885 and sent him to India, where he died. The military junta that took over in 1962 and, through a succession of generals, only recently relaxed its grip in 2011, had no interest in reviving the monarchy. But because Taw Bhaya is still revered, the regime has had to take a somewhat hands-off approach with him, even if they don’t see the royal family as a significant political threat.
Taw Bhaya said there used to be a Jewish cemetery in town, but that it was bulldozed to make way for development. Before the war, he added, there were about 20,000 residents. Now there are more like 100,000.
“There is a house, a one-story building like that in town, where the Jews stayed,” he said. “It was a little red one-story building. Somewhere round the—just off the station road.”
I assumed he meant a large villa, so I asked him if it had a name and if the name was still legible on the property.
“No!” he said. “They might have [had one], but after the British left, all the houses changed their names. All became Burmese names. There was quite a few Jews in this city, in Maymyo, before the war. During the war, when the British evacuated, they took all the foreigners and so on who wanted to come along. They had to trek it from the Burma border to the Indian railhead. And most of them died on the way. I remember schoolmates of my wife … two daughters … they died on the way.”
Were the Jews indistinguishable from the English?
“I mean, they had their own little thing,” he said, describing them at one point as a “distinct group” who openly wore yarmulkes in town, but who otherwise resembled the colonialists. He remembered their connection to the royal palace and said they were known for importing foreign goods to Mandalay. In Maymyo, “they had their own worshiping place and all that. They had their own little community meetings and all that.”
Royal God suggested I go visit the house of an old neighbor of his, a Jewish woman whom he described as “an old spinster.” She had sold the property long ago, but maybe the current residents could talk to us, he suggested.
The small, well-preserved house was a 10-minute drive from the royal residence and looked inhabited. It was made of red brick, with a pathway cutting through a garden and leading to an-iron grille gate, where Chit Swe and his assistant—who were kindly showing me to these spots—peered through the gate. There was no doorbell, so they started shouting inside to see if anyone was home. A middle-aged woman came out and let us in. She said she wasn’t sure if the former owner of the house was Jewish, because she was a young girl when her parents moved here in the 1950s.
“I think they must be Jews, [but] I don’t know,” she said.
Now she lived in the house with her family. She invited us inside to take a look around. An antique piano sat in the corner of the sitting area, which was divided from a TV room. The main area had Christian religious icons. A white Burmese cat popped up on the owner’s knees. The woman’s husband joined us. They made an effort to indulge my curiosity.
“As a Christian, I am interested in Judaism,” the woman’s husband said. “Because of the second coming.”
The woman said the previous owner moved to Yangon after selling off the house. They were retirees, enjoying life in Maymyo, just as the Jews did long ago. After casually chatting for a while, we got up to leave. The owners were more than happy to have us take photos of the property. Like many properties in British times and now, it had a name out front next to the gate, this one in English: “Goodlands.”
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