Facts of Jodensavanne
The former settlement of Jodensavanne and the cemetery at Cassipora bear a unique testimony and mark an important stage in the Euro-Sephardic colonization of the Western Hemisphere. Jodensavanne was in the 17th century the largest Jewish settlement in this hemisphere, and its synagogue, of which a ruin remains, is the first of architectural significance in the America and one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. It is as such a reminder of pioneers of American Judaism.
Jodensavanne was the first and only place in the New World where Jews had been granted a semi-autonomous settlement. Jews, fleeing the Spanish inquisition were welcomed in Suriname, first by the British and later by the Dutch, to settle and own the land along the River Suriname. In order to attract Jewish settlers, the colonial government offered Jews special privileges, including freedom of religion, freedom of ownership and the right to their own judicial court. The Jewish merchants were especially desired for their expertise on international trade. In 1665 the Jews achieved a piece of land close to the Cassiporacreek to build a synagogue and to layout a cemetery. Shortly afterwards, the community moved to a hill overlooking the River Suriname where the settlement of Jodensavanne was founded. In 1685 a synagogue, named Beraha VeShalom (Blessing and Peace), was inaugurated. Prior to this consecration, there did not exist in the New World any synagogue of major architectural stature. Beraha VeShalom was made of brick from Europe.
At the end of the 17th century, approximately 575 Jews lived in the flourishing agricultural settlement of Jodensavanne owning more than 40 plantations and roughly 1,300 slaves. Besides her important economic role, the Jewish community also had part in the protection of the colony’s plantations against rebel slaves. In the vicinity of the settlement lay the military supply post ‘Post Gelderland’ of the defense line ‘Cordonpad’. It consisted of a wide bridle path with military posts at regular intervals. By the 19th century, however, most of the Jews living in Jodensavanne had moved to the capital of Paramaribo due to the decline of the sugarcane industry. After a great fire in 1832 the settlement was left desolate.
The cemeteries of Jodensavanne and Cassipora are of exceptional grandeur. The cemetery of Cassipora counts 216 tombstones. The oldest grave dates from 1667. The cemetery of Jodensavanne has approximately 452 graves. A large number of stones are of marble imported from Europe, other graves are made of bricks. Some stones are beautifully ornamented. Inscriptions are in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Hebrew. The third cemetery of Jodensavanne is the so-called African or Creole cemetery, which was originally established at the periphery of the Jodensavanne settlement. This cemetery counts approximately 141 graves, but only 36 were identifiable during the survey of 1998, guided by Rachel Frankel. The synagogue and the three cemeteries are the major monumental spots at Jodensavanne. More remains of the settlement remain to be excavated. The foundation of the synagogue reveals its ground plan. The natural wells are still there and the defense line at Post Gelderland is recognizable.
Jodensavanne is a collective and common heritage with many narratives dealing with its history.