Jews who left their footprint in Island Lanka

Tissa Devendra,  in The Island, 29 November 2016

The only footprint, if any, left behind by the Jews of ancient times, is in the 11th century chronicle of the Arab geographer Idris. He writes that the king [probably Kasyapa IV] was advised by a Council of sixteen including four Jews – the rest being Buddhists, Muslims and Brahmins. A fascinating story from a compatriot of Sinbad the Sailor – but with no supporting evidence at all in our own chronicles.

  Plesner & Bawa

The Portuguese: Assorted Jews came to Ceylon in the wake of the Portuguese invaders of the Maritime Provinces. In that era of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews from Spain and Portugal camouflaged their ethnic origins by adopting pseudo-Portuguese names such as Silva, Perera, Mendis [to name but a few] The plentiful harvest of such names, yet flaunted by Sinhalese families in our Maritime Provinces , establishes the depth of the footprint left behind by Portuguese “Jews”.**

The Dutch; Their successors the Dutch avoided marriage with the natives and scrupulously prohibited their use of Dutch names, even if converted. Assimilated Jews from the Netherlands came to Ceylon as merchants or employees of the V.O.C [Dutch East Indies Company]. Among the most prominent were the Van Dorts, a name yet found in the D.B.U records. The 19th century Kandy boasted of the lawyer-cartoonist J. L. K Van Dort. Apart from this faint example, my reading [desultory] has not uncovered any significant footprint left behind by Jews from the Netherlands.

The Rothschild Link (1841-1865): The British Period, during which the Jewish D’Israeli was Prime Minister, saw many British Jews[i] seeking their fortunes in the new colony. Among these were the De Worms brothers, related to the aristocratic European bankers the Rothschild family. The brothers cleared a huge stretch of jungle in Nuwara Eliya district to plant coffee, and named it Rothschild Estate. The estate they founded yet flourishes, proudly flaunting its aristocratic Jewish name – though no longer owned by the pioneering de Worms. The brothers pioneered planting coffee on their estate. Later, when coffee failed, they became the first in Ceylon to replant their estate with the new crop – tea. The brothers were well regarded in the colonial establishment and even contemplated a career in politics. Gabriel de Worms now contested the elections, under a limited franchise, to the Legislative Council in 1847 – and won a seat. He then went on to make history. Being a non-Christian Jew he declined to take the Oath of Allegiance on the Holy Bible. He thus forfeited his seat- failing to be the only Jew to be elected to the legislature. The de Worms left Ceylon, and their estate, in 1865. Rothschild Estate yet flourishes under the same name – though no longer under its Jewish founders.

 Ship s in Colombo harbour in the mid 19th century from the Worms Collection with Ismeth Raheem

Marie Musaeus Higgins:(1855- 1926): Mrs. Musaeus, as she is generally referred to, is the Jewish person who made the greatest contribution to Ceylon. She was the highly educated daughter of the Chief Justice in the German State of Mecklenburg. She settled down in America where she married Mr.Higgins who had fought in the Civil War. After his death her interests turned to the newly popular doctrine of Theosophy and Asian religions. In Theosophist circles she was greatly impressed with the charismatic duo of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. She followed in their footsteps to the British Colony of Ceylon. When Olcott pioneered the establishment of modern schools for boys of Buddhist families Marie realized that girls of these families, though keen for a modern education, had recourse only to Convents or Missionary Schools. An ardent Buddhist by now, Marie took over the faltering school for Buddhist girls already established in Colombo by a few well intentioned, but sadly inexperienced, Buddhists. With her background of American business skills and German education she steadily transformed this school into an institution that proved promising enough for the newly Buddhist conscious Sinhalese merchants of Colombo to send their daughters. This school’s rise in status and achievement was such that the Colonial Governor himself accepted the invitation to preside at a prize-giving.

Mrs. Musaeus was a scholar who also immersed herself in Buddhist literature, mainly the great chronicle , the Mahavansa. This led to her taking the revolutionary step of teaching her students the history of their homeland, Ceylon. This was a bold and radical step as the existing Euro-centric syllabus in Ceylon’s schools taught only British and European history and geography. Her students responded to the ‘new’ subject with enthusiasm and thus absorbed the patriotism they learnt from their own country’s history.

Her interest in our history led Mrs.Musaeus to embark on a unique and imaginative literary journey. She rewrote for children, in simple English, many fascinating stories extracted from the Mahavansa . When published, these stories, of great heroes and brave princesses, became a huge success. They are yet republished even a century after they were first published. These Tales from the Mahavansa were a welcome alternative to the fairy tales from Europe which were the only children’s stories then available for young readers. All that was now changed in all the new Buddhist schools for boys as well. Looking back today, it is well nigh impossible to imagine the national fervour that this German Jewish teacher’s revolution in education roused among Ceylon’s educated young of that era. We are all her beneficiaries.

Mrs .Musaeus; passing away was considered a great calamity by the Buddhists of Ceylon who accorded her a magnificent and solemn funeral. The school she founded was renamed Musaeus College in her honour and, to this day, stands tall as the oldest and best school for Buddhist girls in Sri Lanka. No Jew has left a deeper footprint on the soil of Sri Lanka.

Leonard Woolf (1880-1969):  Leonard Woolf was the Cambridge educated son of a prominent Jewish family in London. He became an English political theorist, author, publisher, civil servant (in Ceylon) and husband of the writer Virginia Woolf. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service in London and served in Ceylon from1904 to 1911. He was appointed the administrative head [Assistant Government Agent] of the Hambantota District in the Southern Province from 1908 to 1911 when he resigned and returned to England and marriage to Virginia Stephen. His claim to fame in Sri Lanka, rests on his fine [and only] novel ‘ Village in the Jungle’ based on his experiences in Hambantota District. It is a sensitive work which shows a great understanding of the sorrows and tribulations of the impoverished Sinhala villager scraping a living in the Dry Zone. Interestingly, the novel is devoid of the ‘white supremacy’ all too common in writings of other Colonial civil servants.

Woolf’s ‘Village in the Jungle’ is undeniably the best English novel ever written about Ceylon – and, as such, places him among those Jews whose work has left a significant footprint in our country.

Sidney Abraham was born to a prominent Jewish family in Birmingham and educated at Cambridge University where he excelled in athletics and was a member of the British Olympic team in 1906. On graduation and qualifying as a lawyer, he joined the Colonial legal service and served in several British possessions in the Middle East and Africa. He was appointed Chief Justice of Ceylon in 1936, was knighted the same year and presided over the Supreme Court till 1939.

Sidney Abraham created legal history in Ceylon when he passed judgment against a ruling of the Governor, the King’s representative in Ceylon. This was in the now famous ‘Bracegirdle Case’. Bracegirdle was a young Australian who began work as a planter in an up country tea estate. He seems to have been a ‘closet Marxist’ and, as such, grew indignant at the management’s treatment of its Tamil ‘coolies’ [labourers]. His pro-coolie attitude lost him his job, and he began agitation, with the local Leftists, on the side of the ‘coolies’. The British management soon appealed to the Governor who ordered the deportation of Bracegirdle the Marxist agitator. Ceylon’s fledgling Leftist parties rallied round Bracegirdle who defied the deportation order by going underground. Subsequently he was arrested and remanded pending his deportation. This was a ‘cause celebre’. The State Council, with a Ceylonese majority, protested vigorously. Eminent lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court to repeal the order. After due deliberation, Chief Justice Sidney Abraham now delivered his historic judgment. The Governor’s order was overruled and Bracegirdle was immediately released. The entire Colonial establishment was thunderstruck by this judgment by “one of their own”. Bracegirdle, after a hero’s welcome by the Leftists and ‘coolies’,, soon left for England on his own. Chief Justice Sidney Abraham continued unperturbed to preside over the Supreme Court for three more years. This judgment by Jewish Chief Justice Sidney Abraham has earned him an honourable place in Ceylon’s legal and political history.

A surprising footnote to this story took place in 1953 when Sir Sidney was Chief Justice of Guyana. He ordered the suspension of the Constitution and banned the People’s Progressive Party of the Leftist Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan !

Heidi Keuneman (1916- 2004): Heidii Keuneman is, perhaps, the most exotic of the Jews who made a great impression in Ceylon. She was born Heidi Simon to a family of non-observant Jewish intellectuals in Austria . With Hitler’s rise to power she was sent to England where she excelled in Cambridge University – which, perversely, denied her a degree as she was a woman. She was active in leftist politics even as an undergraduate. In Cambridge her beauty won her many suitors but she fell in love , and married, a fellow Communist from Ceylon – the dashingly handsome Burgher , Pieter Keuneman, President of the Cambridge Union. On their return to Ceylon they continued their Communist politics. She also taught at the University College. The Colonial Government viewed all Leftists with suspicion. However, this attitude changed when in 1940 Hitler invaded Soviet Russia – the Mecca of Communism – which, thus, became an ally of Britain. As such, local Communists were no longer hunted as subversives.

  Heidi Stadlen nee Simon –previously Heidi Keuneman …

Now comes a mysterious development. The barefoot Heidi in a red cotton saree was given a government appointment by the Civil Defence Department, which was responsible for ensuring food supplies to the civilian population, now deprived of rice shipped from Burma. Her responsibility was to monitor food stocks island-wide, organize People’s Depots and retail Cooperatives for distribution of essential food rations and popularize alternative cereals [‘bajiri’] as rice substitutes. She was fondly called ‘Bajiri Nona’. She travelled far and wide by bus and train on her mission. It remains a great mystery how this young European philosophy graduate, and Red, came to be selected for such a responsible assignment. Was there a ‘closet Red’ in the Establishment?

Heidi’s legacy is the network of retail Co-ops that came to dot the country to distribute rice and other rationed commodities for many decades. The War ended. Heidi went back to England. An amicable divorce ended the Keuneman marriage.

A few years later she married an old friend Peter [Stadlen], a distinguished concert pianist, and pursued a career in teaching and radical politics. A fascinating postscript is that in 2002 Cambridge University relented and awarded her the degree she had earned five decades earlier. Her pride was that, at the same Convocation her son got a Master’s Degree and her grandson a Bachelor’s!

Venerable Nyanaponika (1901-1994): The learned Buddhist scholar monk Venerable Nyanaponika was named Siegmund Feniger when he was born, as the only child of a Jewish family in Hanau,Germany. The family later moved to Berlin. The spiritually inclined young Feniger began reading books on Buddhism, on which many German scholars had written. Gradually he became convinced that he should travel to Ceylon and study at the feet of the German Buddhist Bhikku Venerable Nyanatiloka. He achieved his ambition becoming a fully ordained Bhikkuin 1936 at the Polgasduwa Island Hermitage of Ven. Nyanatiloka. In the sylvan surroundings of the Island Hermitage he studied the Buddha Dhamma, meditated and translated Buddhist teachings into German.

The outbreak of WW II ended this phase. Ceylon was a British Colony and, as such, all Germans in the country were suspect. Both Bhikkus, Nyanatiloka and Nyanaponika, were consigned to internment camps – first in Diyatalawa and, later, in Dehra Dun in India. Undeterred Nyanaponika continued wit his translations. When the War ended they were released and returned to the Island Hermitage.

Meanwhile, loyal lay disciples in Kandy built a hermitage in the sylvan forest of Udawattekelle and invited the German monks to reside there. His mentor released Nyanaponika to live and work in the Forest Hermitage, where he lived the rest of his life in meditation, study and writing. His many books interpreting the Dhamma gained world fame.

In 1957 Nyanaponika’s lay disciples established the Buddhist Publications Society [BPS] which he headed till his passing away. The BPS quietly became an outstanding publisher of the Theravada School.. Its publication had a worldwide readership and, in addition to Nyanaponika’s own perceptive writings, it published the work of many other Buddhist scholars – both clergy and lay.

The great institution of the Buddhist Publication Society, and the corpus of his writings, is Venerable Nyanaponika’s outstanding contribution to Sri Lanka.

Edith Gyomroi Ludowyk (1896 – 1987}: Edith Gyomroi was a Hungarian Jewish psychoanalyst, poet and communist. Her youth in Hungary was spent in intellectual and communist activities. When the Fascist Admiral Horthy captured power in Hungary she left her homeland and travelled to the British colony of Ceylon. She soon got involved in Leftist politics and joined the local Trotskyist party, the Lanka Samasamaja Party [LSSP]. In 1940 she married the Burgher Professor of English at University College, E. F. C. Ludowyk.

Edith continued her association with Leftist politics, especially with radical women. However, her great contribution to University life was her work with her husband on the theatrical productions of the University Dramatic Society [DramSoc]. She designed the sets and the colourful costumes that amazed Colombo’s theatre-goers. Old stagers yet recall the twinkling lights of Peking’s skyline in “the Good Woman of Setzuam” and the delicate Mogul pavilions of “The Little Clay Cart” – and the wonderful costumes of the actors who trod the boards. Edith now introduced to the University two of her protégés. The first was the Austrian Jewish academic Dr. Vally Reich, who became the University’s first Professor of Modern European Languages. The other was the very colourful Hungarian Jewish theatre producer Neumann Jubal. He directed an outstanding production of Ferenc Molnar’s “Liliom” with a huge cast. Interestingly he, also, boldly ventured into producing, in Sinhala, Gorky’s “Lower Depths” -incidentally, Irangani Serasinghe’s first venture on to the Sinhala stage.

After Professor Ludowyk’s retirement from University, Edith and a group of women activists established, in the Kandyan village of Menikdiwela, a women weavers’ cooperative. Here, for a few years, these women, the Menikdiwela Weavers, produced textiles [sarees, sarongs, bedspreads etc] in the most imaginative and colourful designs of Edith.

Edith Ludowyk’s contributions to Ceylon’s cultural life earn her a honoured place among the Jews who lived here.

Rhoda Miller de Silva (1910 – 1980): Rhoda Miller was an American Jew from New York who became a Communist and a committed activist in her youth. After WW II ended she travelled to war-torn Europe where she married a fellow Communist from Ceylon Joe de Siva. After a few years of writing and Party activity in Eastern Europe, Rhoda accompanied her husband back to Ceylon. She immersed herself in Communist activity and leftist journalism.

The Cold War was at its height and America was now in the McCarthy era. The right-wing Prime Minister of Ceylon, John Kotelawela, considered himself a staunch ally of America. Therefore, as soon as he heard from the U.S Embassy that an American woman was spreading Communist propaganda in Ceylon – he decided to deport her. This was done in great haste and the Police arrested Rhoda and bundled her, under protest, into a TWA plane headed via London to New York.

Rhoda’s fellow ‘progressives’ kept up a relentless campaign in the U.S for her return to Ceylon. They succeeded at last and Rhoda came back to Ceylon and made a name for herself as staunchly left-wing columnist to the Ceylon Daily News. She died ” in harness”.

Also deported from Colombo, on the same flight as Rhoda, was one of the most intriguing Claudine Liebovitsz who glittered briefly in the city’s cocktail circuit. She was a statuesque blonde Jewish millionaire from Britain and a sensation in Colombo’s party circles and diplomatic receptions.. She was the live-in-lover of the Estonian artist Karl Kasmann, whom the government suspected [or was tipped off by the CIA] as a KGB agent – and targeted for expulsion. By the time the local Police got on his track, the KGB had been faster and, Kasmann had fled. They then went on to arrest Claudine, in spite of her ‘marriage of convenience’ to a local Communist Municipal Councillor .The two deportees are reported to have studiously ignored each other during their enforced flight. Claudine was never heard of after this.

Ulrik Plesner (1930 – 2016): Plesner was a Danish Jewish architect who spent many years in Ceylon. He first worked with Minette de Silva the renowned woman architect who pioneered in the use of local material and an indigenous tradition. He next worked closely with Geoffrey Bawa, Ceylon’s greatest modern architect, on several ground-breaking projects, Ulrik also worked with two other women outstanding in the field of art and entrepreneurship – Ena de Silva and Barbara Sansoni [ born Daniel – a Jewish name]. He collaborated with Barbara in a fine book of drawings Sri Lanka’s of old buildings -“Viharas and Verandahs”. He returned via a stay in Israel to his native Denmark where he passed away recently.

Visit to Polontalawa House with Ulrik Plesner, Ismeth Raheem, Anura Ratnavibushana and Jehan Raheem
Ulrik is accompanied by his daughter Maya.
June 1998

Anne Ranasinghe (b.1925): Anneliese Katz was the daughter of a Jewish family in Germany. She left for England soon after the Nazi anti-Jewish pogroms began. After schooling she trained in midwifery and later, married the Sinhalese Buddhist Dr. D. A. Ranasinghe from Ceylon. The Ranasinghes came back to Ceylon where her husband became a University Professor and they led a successful life, raising their seven children. Sometime after her husband’s death, Anne began writing poetry. Most of her poems have been on the Jewish experience and the Holocaust. Her poetry has won many accolades and awards in Ceylon and Germany. She has been a live wire of the English Writers’ Cooperative and associates closely with writers of all ages and persuasions.

***  ****


  • Gomini Akmeemana: Anne Ranasinghe.…,Daily Mirror,  16 Novmber 2016,
  • R Stephen Prins: “Birthday soirée for poet Anne Ranasinghe,Sunday Times,
  • Prabath de Silva: “Leonard Woolf as a Judge in Ceylon,” 20 November 2016,
  • Leelananda de Silva: “Leonard Woolf’s Judicial Eyes,” January 2017,
  • Michael Roberts: Potency, Power & People in Groups, Colombo, Marga Institute, 2011.


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3 responses to “Jews who left their footprint in Island Lanka

  1. Thank you very much for the effort.
    it’s very impressive.

  2. Ranil Perera

    Excellent article. Thank you. Ann Ranasinghe’s son Ananda and I were classmates. Heidi Stadlen’s grandson Matthew Stadlen is a well known U.K. journalist.

  3. Rex Olegasegarem

    Thanks Michael . Very interesting stuff.

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