The Jewish Guianas
Situated on the northeast coast of South America, between Venezuela and Brazil, are three remote former colonies of Britain, Holland and France. Even though they are full of natural wonders and the promise of unforgettable adventures, these countries are still undeveloped and consequently rarely visited by tourists. Today, the countries are known respectively as Guyana, Surinam and Cayenne, and each has written a unique chapter in the history of the Jewish people.
Guyana, the westernmost of the three, was formerly known as British Guiana and is the only English-speaking country among them. Its capital, Georgetown, is a vibrant city that reflects much of the country’s history and diversity. Georgetown was originally settled by the Dutch and known as Stabroek. It has wide, tree-lined avenues, lily-covered canals and fine examples of 18th and 19th century colonial buildings. Its cathedral is reputed to be the tallest wooden building in the world.
Among Guyana’s natural wonders are the Kaieteur Falls, located on the Potaro River in the center of the country. Kaieteur Falls is largest single-drop waterfall in the world…five times the drop of Niagara! A more benign experience awaits visitors to Marshall Falls, where one can bathe in a “natural Jacuzzi” created by the tumbling waters, stroll through the surrounding rainforest and strike up a friendship with locals in the nearby bush camp. These are but two examples of literally countless adventures that await the inquisitive visitor.
The population of Guyana is made up principally of East Indians and the descendants of freed African slaves. It has been reported that there was a small Jewish community in Georgetown during World War II, but no Jews live in Guyana today. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that, until just a few years ago, the country had a Jewish president. President Janet Rosenberg Jagan met and married her husband, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, in her native Chicago, where he studied dentistry. They both returned to Guyana where he opened a dental practice and she became his nurse. In due course, both of them entered politics, and he was eventually elected president. After his death, Mrs. Jagan ran for the presidency and was elected in her own right, thereby becoming one of only three Jewish women ever to be the chief executive of a country. She was a dynamic and outspoken leader of her nation from 1997 until her death in March 2008.
Surinam, the former Dutch Guiana, is said to have the oldest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere, established about 1500 by Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. The community grew and generally prospered for the next three centuries, until the mid-19th century, when the country went into economic decline. Surinam’s interior, especially the Brownsberg Nature Park and the Galibi Nature Reserve, offer hundreds of different species of tropical plants and animals.
While in Surinam, my most memorable experience was a cruise into the interior in a small boat with an outboard motor. As we cruised up the Saramacca River, we saw alligators and were warned to keep our hands out of the water so as not to feed the piranha. When we finally arrived at a native village deep in the jungle, the village’s beautiful people captivated me, among them several nubile young ladies clad only in a sarong. I took a number of photos of them and compensated them with a few coins. I then photographed an elderly gentleman, and offered him the same amount of money, but he refused and asked for double. I asked him “Why?” and he pointed to the grey hair on his head and, in a combination of pigeon and sign language, indicated that it took him much longer to grow that head of white hair than it took those young women to fill out so beautifully.
Today, the remaining Jews of Surinam, numbering perhaps 200, live in the capital, Paramaribo, and valiantly support the last remaining synagogue, “Neve Shalom.” Also of interest to Jewish visitors are the ruins of the “Bracha v’Shalom” synagogue built in 1685 in the Jodensavanna, located in the wilderness south of Paramaribo.
Paramaribo itself is a bustling city with a culturally diverse population of Indian, Indonesian, African, Cereole and Dutch origin. As a result there is a rich architectural mix, including the Presidential Palace that is reminiscent of the country’s Dutch heritage and the St Peter & Paul Cathedral ,said to be the largest wooden building in the Americas. Fine examples of Hindu temples and Mosques also abound.
Cayenne, the former French Guiana, has played a pivotal role in Jewish history because it is there, on “Devil’s Island,” where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned after being falsely convicted of being a German spy. It was after he witnessed the infamous Dreyfus trial that Theodor Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaat” which, because it concluded that Jews needed a national homeland, became the philosophical underpinning of modern Zionism.
Devil’s Island is actually one of a group of three small islands off the coast of Cayenne and can be clearly seen across a narrow, shark-infested channel from Royale Island, where the administrative headquarters of the prison community were located. Today, the group is officially known as the “Isles de Salud” (islands of good health). Even though Royale Island has been sanitized and has become a popular tourist resort, one can still see the cells that housed the more fortunate prisoners and cannot help but sympathize with Dreyfus, who spent four years in solitary confinement on the neighboring island.
Cayenne City, the capital, is a pleasant and unremarkable French colonial city with the mandatory Avenue du General de Gaulle as its main thoroughfare and a number of squares filled with public buildings, monuments and gardens. Fort Ceperou and Fort Diamant are both 17th-century military outposts. Other attractions include a museum and the picturesque Remire-Montjoly Beach.
Georgetown, Paramaribo and Cayenne are all relatively easy to reach by air from Miami, as well as from London, Amsterdam and Paris. While accommodations are not up to North American or European luxury standards, each city has “name brand” hotels as well as more modest lodgings. For travelers wishing to explore the interiors of the Guianas, it is important to have all necessary inoculations and is advisable to travel with groups organized by tour operators that specialize in wilderness and adventure travel.