Bahrain's Jews to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day at revamped synagogue

Commemoration comes after the signing of the historic Abraham Accords with Israel in September 2020

Bahrain's Jewish community will come together on Friday to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“It is a day to remember the six million Jews and millions of other people who perished during the Holocaust,” the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) told The National. "It's also a day to show appreciation to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust."

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked every year on January 27. The Nazis and their allies murdered around six million Jews, as well as others, in German-occupied Europe.

Bahrain will mark the event a day later over a zoom call to connect the Jewish community in the island kingdom with friends across the world.

Amb Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, will speak at the gathering.

Elena Gaon, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, will light the Shabbat candles and Rosalyn Ben Guigui, the granddaughter of survivors, will read the English translation of the Torah portion, the organisers said.

More than a million people, most of them Jews, were killed at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied southern Poland, which was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945. The vast majority were gassed to death.

‘Coming back home’

For Bahraini Jews, this year’s commemoration holds special significance nearly two years since their island kingdom, alongside the UAE, signed the historic Abraham Accords with Israel to establish diplomatic ties.

Last year, Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo, president of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, said they marked Kristallanacht (Night of Broken Glass), a state-sponsored spree of looting and destruction of Jewish property across Germany and Austria that marked a turning point in Nazi policy, in an empty synagogue that had yet to be refurbished.

Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo, president of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, marks Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of remembrance for Holocaust victims, in Bahrain's House of 10 Commandments synagogue.

“We lit candles in the synagogue and the synagogue at that time didn't have anything inside it, so it was like an empty shell. But we lit candles in there just for Yom Hashoah,” Mr Nonoo told The National.

This year will be markedly different as the synagogue in Bahrain’s capital Manama, rebuilt in the 1980s by Mr Nonoo’s father, has been refurbished and is regularly filled with both the Jewish community of Bahrain and visitors of different faiths.

The Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020, paved the way for the descendants of Bahrain's former Jewish community to visit. Their parents and grandparents had fled to Israel following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, including the descendants of an Iranian immigrant named Shimon Cohen who established the House of Ten Commandments synagogue in 1935.

Ebrahim Nonoo, centre, head of the Jewish community in Bahrain, plants a tree as Rabbi Yaacov Phia, right, looks on at the Jewish cemetery in Bahrain's capital Manama, on January 23, 2022.  AFP

“One of the groups that we had was actually Shimon Cohen's descendants. There were 50 of them, they came over to Bahrain, they went to the cemetery, they came to the synagogue, and we managed to use the Torah at that time. So that was a wonderful occasion. But we have had hundreds of visitors come over from Israel. So that's been a really good sign,” said Mr Nonoo.

During the 1920s a Jewish-French pearl trader constructed a synagogue for the Jewish people of Bahrain and put the deed in the name of the “followers of Moses”. Restoring this synagogue has become Mr Nonoo's passion.

A rich, but interrupted, history

Historical records indicate that the earliest recorded person of Jewish faith living in Bahrain was in 1873. Most of the country's Jewish population are descendants of those who arrived in Bahrain from Basra, Iraq, during the late 1880s. Mr Nonoo's grandfather was among this number, eventually becoming a naturalised citizen.

Native Bahraini Jews trace their ancestry to Iraqi and Iranian immigrants during the 1880s who thrived on the island kingdom, working in economic and political sectors. Various statistics put the community at around 2,500 at the time, which dropped to the hundreds, which in turn dwindled over the years to just a few well-known resident families.

Houda Nonoo, the first female Bahraini ambassador to the US (2008-2013) and the first Jewish ambassador from the Arab region, pictured inside the House of 10 Commandments synagogue.

Today, Bahrain's tiny Jewish community numbers around 50 people but their synagogue, which once laid dormant for nearly seven decades, thrives. The small, white-painted synagogue with wood-framed windows in the heart of the capital Manama was recently renovated at a cost of 60,000 Bahraini dinars ($159,000).

Inside are wooden benches with navy blue cushions, a big screen to broadcast prayers, and a wooden podium, or bimah, holding religious books in Arabic, English and Hebrew.

Rabbi Elie Abadie, head of the association of Gulf Jewish communities, said the return of public prayer was “renewing our history in the region".

“Jewish public prayers were heard in this region for over 2,000 years and unfortunately were stopped in 1947,” Rabbi Abadie told AFP last year. “Resuming them is like coming back home.”

Updated: January 27, 2022, 4:57 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS