Asmara’s last Jew recalls ‘good old days’
When Sami Cohen, 58, grew up in Asmara, he lived among a buzzing Jewish community, which peaked at about 500 people in the 19
But emigration, death and revolution have changed all of that.
Now Mr Cohen is the last Jew native to Asmara still in the city. He looks after both the synagogue and the cemetery because there is no-one else to do it.
The first Jews in Eritrea came from Yemen in the late 19th Century, hard on the heels of Italian colonial expansion and new commercial opportunities.
They were later joined in the 1930s by those fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe.
Some left when Israel gained its independence, but most departed when the violence of Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia came to Asmara in the mid-1970s.
Mr Cohen’s wife also stayed, but left with their daughters when Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war again in 1998.
Now he is on his own.
“You know, having a lot of people, a lot of friends, a lot of parents, a lot of families and now they are all gone. Ah, you can imagine how I feel,” he said.
But Mr Cohen remains in Asmara, where although Judaism is not one of the officially authorised religions, he is left alone.
“Everybody sees me, everybody knows me,” he said.
A short walk away from the synagogue, old men sit on the steps of the mosque reading their newspapers or dozing in the sun.
And nostalgia is also a reason to stay.
Tucked back from Asmara’s main Harnet Avenue, the synagogue is kept locked for most of the day, but is full of childhood memories.
“I can almost remember where each person was sitting,” he said.
“My father was in that corner, my uncle, brother of my father was here near the Chief Rabbi… there was the slaughter man Aaron Daoud,” he added, standing in the synagogue.
Getting enough people together for a service is difficult now, though visitors, Israeli diplomats and UN officials sometimes make up the numbers.
Last year the synagogue’s 100th birthday also brought many back to Asmara, Mr Cohen said.
Sami Cohen in the cemetery
Sami’s grandfather is one of the 150 people buried in Asmara’s Jewish cemetery
But now his voice echoes off the walls as he talks.
The synagogue is a simple building – bare walls with marble surrounds, wooden benches and the occasional furnishing from eastern Europe.
In the small schoolhouse next door, where Mr Cohen once learnt his Hebrew, a display of old photographs and postcards show fishing trips to the sea, festival celebrations, jokes on the beach, old friends and the racing car of a Jewish trader.
Many of Asmara’s Jews used to live in the streets just outside. Now the private houses have become small hotels, shoe shops and coffee bars.
But Mr Cohen also remembers the restaurants, tailors, barbers and billiard halls – with their clientele from the Italian, British and Ethiopian administrations – and number 90 on Harnet Avenue, where his parents once celebrated their wedding.
Up on top of a dry hill overlooking Asmara, where bright sun forces the visitor to squint and the dry grass crunches underfoot, Mr Cohen wanders around the Jewish cemetery.
Roughly 150 people – including his grandfather – have been buried in the Jewish cemetery, and the last grave was dug 10 years ago.
One grave even contains a British commando, who died helping to chase the Italians from Eritrea in World War II.
Several years later, the British – who briefly administered both Eritrea and Palestine – imprisoned Jewish guerrillas on the outskirts of Asmara.
“History starts in the cemetery, because it’s where we all end up,” Mr Cohen said.