DAKAR, Senegal — I was meant to be here two years ago. Then Ebola happened in West Africa, but not in Senegal. Then Cape Verde authorities imposed a travel restriction on anyone coming from the hot zone within 30 days. I had planned on flying there from Dakar. In the end, I went to Cape Verde from Portugal in August 2015 and slipped Senegal into my 8th and final Jewish Africa journey. But what’s two years when you’re thinking back to biblical times?
In the east of Senegal, not far from the Mali border, there’s a village called Bani Israel. Some of the residents apparently claim to be of Jewish descent. They believe their forefathers came via the Horn of Africa from Egypt. But that’s pretty much as far as the story goes because today they are, in fact, Muslims.
Others believe a Jewish presence in Senegal came as a result of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and the movements of Jewish Berber groups. Many of them were probably traders and craftsmen. There is a documented Jewish presence in this region from here to…wait for it…Timbuktu. That’s no exaggeration. In recent years, however, the political mess in Mali has made it far too dangerous to even consider traveling there. So I didn’t.
In more recent times, Dr. Alioune Dème, an anthropologist and archeologist at Cheikh Anta Diop University (better-known as University of Dakar), has been researching evidence of the Holocaust in Senegal and teaches a course called, “Blacks, the Holocaust, and Archaeology.” In 2013, his investigations took him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and he has subsequently discovered the names of at least 75 victims of the Holocaust born in Senegal.
I was connected to Alioune by Tali Nates, the Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in South Africa. “The Holocaust is not really discussed in the schools. This is one reason genocide happens,” Alioune says.
I took a drive with him and car full of other interesting people to Sebikotane (30 kilometers/18 miles) from downtown Dakar (including an American expat involved with Helen Keller International and the wife of the Ambassador of Israel to Senegal). I wanted to photograph the remains of an alleged WWII French Vichy prison where at least several Jews were incarcerated.
“I don’t know,” he says flatly when pressed for details. It was not a fruitless excursion, but it opened more questions than it gave answers…and few photographs, which is to say, about as many as I had anticipated.
He showed us three buildings, but his incomplete research meant he is not sure which was the actual prison. I photographed all three in the hopes that one day sooner than later he’ll make a confirmation.
But not so fast. “I will have to wait a few years more,” Alioune lamented. “The National Archives is closed while a new building is completed.”
That sounded funny, but it hardly surprised any of us in that car. Dakar itself seems only partly completed despite fresh architectural sparks here and there. And on a continent where everything takes only “five minutes,” it’s anyone’s guess when those files will actually be publicly available.
The day before that jaunt, I journeyed to Rufisque, a dusty, fly-infested, fish-stinking town about 25 kilometers (15 miles) east of Dakar with Aicha Gadiaga, an M.A. candidate at the University of Dakar. She’s been researching the Sephardic history in Senegal.
As with Alioune, I’d had contact with her via email for two years. When we finally met at Alioune’s home, she showed me a photo of a grave with Hebrew on it. I was excited because I was really uncertain about what I’d be finding and photographing in Senegal. I threw caution to the itinerary winds as I’d arrived with only a vague general overview.
“There’s a Jewish cemetery there,” she told me, “and also a synagogue.”
But that’s not exactly what I found at the end of the traffic slalom. There was exactly one Jewish grave. It’s in perfect condition, clearly etched with Hebrew, but alone midst a sea of crosses.
“This was originally a Jewish cemetery,” Aicha assured me.
“Then why is there only a single grave?”
“Because here was a cemetery in the 15th century or as late as the 17th century,” I was told.
But this didn’t add up in my mind because the date on that sole grave is 1919. That’s hardly the same time frame.
And what of that synagogue? “We think it is under the sea.” When I inquired if a diver has been in the water to investigate, she shook her head from side to side.
While the cemetery has a few other graves with possible Jewish names such as Layousse, Gaffari, and Jozen, they are all adorned with crosses.
“Are you satisfied with what you have photographed?” Aicha asked me as we got back in the car.
I assured her I was, but I was left underwhelmed by the certainty of these Jewish Senegalese connections. History tells us it is a virtual certainty about a long-lost Jewish presence in the region. But we need those archives opened and a diver to look under the waves of time.
The next day, I met with five Ambassadors of Israel — well, sort of. Ambassador of Israel to Senegal Paul Hirschson is also the Ambassador to Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde. My aim in meeting him was merely to add a bit of color to the Israel-Senegal connection.
In a very remote sense, I felt as if I’d already met him because his wife had accompanied me to Sebikotane two days earlier. But it was after our meet-and-greet that I discovered he is actually friends with someone who grew up on my street. It is a small world after all.
The Ambassador graciously recorded a two-minute video commentary for me on the “three Jewish foundation stones of Africa.” Namely, he pointed out: “We were slaves in Egypt. We were refugees in exile in Ethiopia. And we left Europe and North Africa looking for a better life.”
It took me a while to get to Senegal, and I’m pleased I made the effort. But from my point of view — and I leave history to the historians — there are too many open questions here.
It’s never too late to find the answers, however.
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