Suriname: A Dwindling Community
The tiny country of Suriname, which gained its independence from the Netherlands in the 1970’s is the least populous yet one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South America. Amerindians, Creoles, Maroons (descendants of African slaves who escaped), Hindus, Javanese, Chinese, Dutch and other Europeans are part of the mix. While Dutch is still the official language you also hear Hindi, Chinese, Javanese, Portuguese, English and many Creole languages. The lingua franca is Sranan Tongo derived from African slaves in the 17th century and remains the country’s most widely spoken language.
When slavery was abolished in 1863, indentured workers from India, China and Indonesia were brought in to replace the newly freed African slaves. As you walk the streets of Paramaribo, the capital and only city in Suriname with its mixture of minarets, Hindu temples, churches and one synagogue, this history is revealed in the faces of the Surinamese.
The dwindling Jewish community of Suriname was founded by Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition by way of Brazil during the 17th century. Deep in the jungle, on the banks of the Suriname River, they built one of the first permanent Jewish settlements in the Americas known as Jodensavanne. Now all that remains of these once flourishing plantations and synagogue are ruins and gravestones.
Today the tiny Jewish community of perhaps 100 members is struggling to survive without its own spiritual leader. With scant resources, they are caught between the need to retain their members and the desire to preserve their synagogue and cemeteries.