by Laurel Stickney, TRTN Fellow and Student at Wellesley College
Before becoming involved as a fellow with Together, Restoring their Names, my initial interest in Jewish history, and in particular historical memory, was cultivated through my work over the past summer with the Diarna Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Life. For 9 weeks I had the opportunity to work as an intern with the non-profit, and I was introduced to the incredibly rich and diverse world of Jewish history.
In 2010, Diarna began as a project of Digital Heritage Mapping, a non-profit organization co-founded by Wellesley College professor Fran Malino. Diarna’s mission is to digitally preserve the Jewish history of the MENA region (and beyond) through dedicated research, extensive documentation through photographs and fieldwork, and the collection of oral histories. Diarna’s work is achieved through the efforts of a global team of researchers, archivists, and photographers representing numerous religious and ethnic backgrounds.
A major component of Diarna’s work is to not only document historical sites, but to present them in an engaging way that is accessible to the public. The centerpiece of its website is a powerful interactive map which allows individuals to explore the organization’s vast archive by location. Currently the Diarna site features 8 curated exhibits, including the D'fina Jewish Morocco exhibitwhich explores the heritage of Moroccan Jews and features several French-Vichy labor camps, largely-forgotten remnants of the Holocaust’s reach into North Africa.
The bulk of Diarna’s work has been the identification, to date, of over 2,500 Jewish heritage sites across the MENA region and beyond. Over the course of the summer, I researched 10 cultural and religious sites located across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In collaboration with 3 other interns and Diarna staff members located on both coasts and in Europe, I wrote summaries of the sites’ history and significance for publication on the Diarna website.
I was particularly struck by my findings regarding a small Jewish community in the heart of China, far-removed from any coreligionists. While researching the Kaifeng Synagogue, I uncovered a story representative of the forces that have been active against Jewish histories of all types.
Kaifeng, a city on the Yellow River in China’s Henan province was a bustling commercial center on the Silk Road. The first Jews of Kaifeng are thought to have arrived sometime between 960 and 1127 AD, and the small community existed relatively unhindered until the 1860s when assimilation and the destruction of the synagogue resulted in the demise of the community.
Since the 1990s, however, a few hundred inhabitants of Kaifeng have reclaimed their Jewish heritage and ushered in a quiet revival of the tiny community, holding classes and services and erecting historical exhibits and commemorative markers. In 2016, however, the Chinese government barred the group from promoting Jewish heritage and celebrating Jewish holidays.
Signs of Kaifeng’s Jewish past have been removed, including the commemorative marker at the site of the former synagogue.
The experiences of the Kaifeng Jewish community forced me to consider the erasure of history, the very thing that Diarna and TRTN are working to combat. The process of erasure of Jewish pasts was again evident to me during a recent history class in which we learned of the Kuwaiti brothers, enormously influential Jewish musicians who were active in Iraq in the 1920s and 30s but were forced to flee the country amidst rising persecution. The Iraqi government banned its citizens from referring to the brothers by name, and generations later their music is celebrated while the musicians have been widely forgotten. During the lecture, a classmate commented that she was surprised to learn that there had ever been a significant Jewish population in Iraq or any part of the Middle East. Diarna’s work is imperative because the extreme decline in the population of Jews in the Arab world, combined with the active erasure of their histories, greatly increase the possibility that these communities and lives will be forgotten.
My work with Diarna has allowed me to appreciate the importance of preserving the history of these sites and these peoples and empowered me with the knowledge that with the aid of technology and dedicated research, we can combat the forces of historical erasure. My experience with Diarna inspired me to join the team at Together, Restoring their Names not only to preserve the memory of the atrocities of the Holocaust but to honor the individuals and communities whose stories of suffering and endurance hold immeasurable value for the generations that have come after them. In an era when fascism and anti-semitism have dishearteningly found a foothold, and misinformation and disregard for the truth abound, the work of organizations like Diarna and TRTN is more important than ever.
Learn more about Diarna: