According to estimates, there were about 2,500 Jews living in Karachi before 1947. Most of their ancestors had migrated to Karachi from Persia (Iran) in the 19th century, and lived here as tradesmen, artisans, poets, philosophers, and civil servants. The native language of this group of people, known as Bene Israel, was Judeo-Marathi.
According to one account, the Magain Shalome Synagogue on Lawrence Road (now Nishter Road) in Karachi was built in 1893, by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon.
Other accounts suggest that it was built by Solomon David, a surveyor for the Karachi Municipality and his wife Sheeoolabai, although these may be different names for the same people. The synagogue soon became the centre of activity for the small Jewish community. Abraham Reuben, who became a city councillor in 1936, was one of the leaders of this community.
A number of associations existed to serve the Jewish community, among them the Young Men’s Jewish Association founded in 1903. Its aim was to encourage sports, and to promote religious and social activities among the Bene Israel in Karachi.
In addition, the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund was established to support poor Jews in Karachi. The Karachi Jewish Syndicate, formed in 1918, continued to provide homes for poor Jews at reasonable rents.
Relations between the Jewish community and others in Karachi continued to be harmonious immediately after the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. However, incidents involving violence against Jews began to occur some time after the creation of Israel, leading to feelings of insecurity within the Jewish community.
The synagogue in Karachi was set on fire, and several Jews were attacked. The frequency of attacks increased after each of the Arab-Israeli wars, i.e. 1948, 1956 and 1967.
The decade-long period under President Ayub Khan saw the gradual disappearance of Jews from Pakistan. They migrated to India, Israel, or the United Kingdom. The Jews also had a small community in the northern city of Peshawar that was served by two synagogues. By the 1960s, this community too had ceased to exist, and both the synagogues were closed.
Reportedly, several Jewish families remained in Karachi beyond this period, but out of concern for their own safety, and as a reaction to increasing religious intolerance, many of them concealed their Jewish identity, sometimes passing themselves off as Parsis or Christians.
The synagogue in Karachi became dormant in the 1960s and was demolished by property developers in 1988 to make way for a commercial building.
Reportedly, the last custodian of the synagogue, Rachel Joseph, lived in Karachi in a state of destitution. She also acted as the caretaker of the Jewish graveyard in Mewa Shah, an old locality of Karachi.
Parts of this graveyard have now been absorbed by another graveyard. Rachel Joseph, until her death, claimed that the property developers had promised her and her brother Ifraheem Joseph an apartment in the new building, and also space for a small synagogue. Unfortunately, both Ifraheem and Rachel Joseph passed away before they received any compensation.
Many of the Jews who left Karachi now live in Ramale in Israel and, in remembrance of times past, have built a synagogue there called Magain Shalome, Karachi, their former home, seems to have conveniently forgotten all about them and their contribution to the history and architecture of this city.
My family has a strong connection with Karachi, and probably accounted for most of the very small community of European Jews there. My great-grandfather, Simon Wyse, ran the Great Western Hotel, and my grandparents ran the Killarney Hotel there. The Killarney was first housed in a building that later served as the Russian Consulate which, I believe, has been restored as part of the Bay View School.
In the early 1930’s the hotel moved to a ‘palace’ built by a Parsi entrepreneur and was renamed the ‘Killarney Hotel, Marder’s Palace’. The building was, unfortunately, demolished in the 1970s. In its place stands the modern Sheraton Hotel.
My father grew up in Karachi before going to school in England, and went back in 1939 to serve in the Indian Army during the War. He now lives in the UK. One of his aunts married Moses Somake, an Iraqi Jew who, I have learnt, was one of Karachi’s leading architects. One of his buildings is the Flagstaff House that later became the home of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit Karachi, but have heard many of my father’s and grandparents’ stories. I am in touch with many of our relatives, including Somake’s descendants.