Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Merchants and entrepreneurs

Published: Nov 23, 2021
Jews in Sumatra in the colonial period

Budiman Minasny & Josh Stenberg

Jewish communities in Indonesia have always been tiny, though their history is long. Jewish merchants are recorded in Sumatra in the tenth century, and diasporic and Israeli newspapers regularly report on the very small groups of Jews now living in Indonesia. (A 2019 article in Ha’aretz estimated 140 Indonesian Jews in six different locations, including Medan). However, the period when the Jewish community reached its highest numbers and the most substantial traces involve a late colonial presence in Batavia, Surabaya, and Manado.

The digitisation of Dutch archives, both from European publications and the colonial newspapers, has made it easier to learn more about the history of Jewish groups in the archipelago. In this article, we offer some notes towards a history of some Jewish merchants in Medan between the 1870s and 1940s, as tobacco plantation on Sumatra’s east coast developed.

The Deli region on the east coast of Sumatra was not developed until the mid-1860s, when a few Dutchmen accepted an invitation from the Sultan of Deli to establish tobacco plantations in the area. By the late 1890s it was one of the most profitable parts of the Dutch empire.

Deli tobacco leaves were ‘thinner than cigarette paper, and softer than silk’, and quickly the plantation zone’s tobacco became highly valued as a cigar wrapper. The result was a brown ‘gold rush’ of Deli tobacco in the late 1870s, attracting German, Swiss, English, and Polish planters as well as Dutch to the new ‘dollar land.’ Planters, tolerated and sometimes abetted by colonial authorities, instituted a brutal and often murderous system of exploitation of imported Chinese and Javanese labour.

Before long, merchants established themselves to serve the European population’s taste for European goods and technology. Among these new arrivals were several Jews, including Ashkenazi Jews from the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany as well as others who relocated from existing Baghdadi Jewish communities in Penang and Singapore. There is also scattered evidence of Jews in the Dutch army serving in Sumatra. 

Mercantile opportunities

We know very little about how many Jews tried their luck in the eastern coast of Sumatra, but we have not yet found any evidence of a synagogue (as in Surabaya) or a dedicated cemetery (as in Aceh). The most consistent record of the community is through Amsterdam’s Nieuw Israëlietisch Weekblad (New Jewish Weekly). The first mention we have found in that newspaper was a report of an August 1879 anonymous donation of 60 guilders originating in the Sumatra’s east coast and destined for the Dutch branch of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, an international Jewish educational charity.

Between 1899-1901 the NIW published letters from N. Hirsch, a non-commissioned officer initially writing from the fortress of Fort de Kock (now Bukit Tinggi). In his letters, Hirsch is troubled by the challenges of Jewish life in the Indies (when not speculating that some Indonesians might be descendants of the lost tribes), without religious or community institutions. Months after his first letter, Hirsch joyfully reported the arrival of a kosher butcher and in 1901, having since moved to Padang, on the first religious services in his home.

Advertisements from S. Katz, Goldenberg & Zeitlin, and Hüttenbach (Deli Courant, 1899). Katz Brothers was a well-known company in Singapore, and S.Katz is a company in Medan not related to the Katz in Singapore.

However, the bulk of sources concerns a few European Jewish merchants who became prominent in Medan. Among the first Europeans to come to Deli were members of the Hüttenbach family, an established and assimilated merchant family from the German Rhineland city of Worms. The eldest son, August Hüttenbach, began working for the German-Jewish Katz Brothers in Penang in 1872 at the age of 22. The Katz Brothers, who had arrived in Penang in 1864 at the height of the tin rush, invested in all kinds of business, including supplying ships for freight. When the Dutch-Aceh war broke out in 1873, they provided logistics and supplies to the Dutch military, and the Hüttenbach family’s shipping business ran a regular service to the Aceh ports.

While August became a prominent merchant in Penang, his younger brothers Jacob and Ludwig Hüttenbach settled in Deli. In 1875 they opened the first European store in the harbour settlement of Labuhan Deli to cater to all the needs and requirements of the Dutch government, plantations, and industrial groups. Gradually, the family firm developed into a general merchandise company supplying all sorts of goods from Europe, and even establishing its headquarters in Amsterdam and another office in London. With their own shipping lines at their disposal, they were for a time the only importer in Deli. When Hüttenbach moved its Sumatran operations to Medan in the 1880s, the street on which they established their business was named Hüttenbach Street (today Jalan Ahmad Yani VII).

Hüttenbach enterprises supplied all manner of goods and services, ranging from live water buffalos and Brazil nuts to Bordeaux wines. It furnished machinery, tools, motors, electrical goods, harnesses, saddles, guns, ammunition, watches, and clothing, and served as an agent for brands including Ford, Cadbury, Heineken, and Guinness Stout, as well as other European trading, insurance, and manufacturing companies. In the 1910s, its annual imports totalled 1,200,000 guilders and it supplied the whole of Sumatra. 

At the turn of the 20th century, Jacob and Ludwig retired to Europe and left Heinrich Hüttenbach (1859-1922), the youngest of the brothers, in charge of the company. Heinrich, who had been a well-known planter in Malaya, moved to Medan to run the company. One glimpse of the brutality of plantation life is visible in the German primer Heinrich wrote to provide instruction for Europeans learning plantation Malay (Anleitung zur Erlernung der Malayischen Sprache), including instructions such as:

Lu orang bôhong. Lu bukan sakit. Lu malas sadja. Saja mau kassi pukul sama lu.

(You lied. You are not sick. You are just lazy. I will hit you).

Selling to the sultans

Medan’s growth attracted other Jewish merchants, who also opened stores selling European consumer items such as clothes and luxury items. Two German Jews, Louis Kellermann of Leipzig and Max Goldenberg of Hamburg opened the S. Katz & Co. shop in the Kesawan shopping street. It may be that Kellermann and Goldenberg used the familiar Katz name to capitalise their business. The Katz brothers, prominent in London and Singapore, in any event did not appreciate what appeared to be an appropriation of their name., and put a notice in the local newspaper, the Deli Courant making clear that no such connection existed.

The majestic Goldenberg & Zeitlin building at Kesawan around 1890 (Stafhell & Kleingrothe, KITLV 154472). The company later became M. Goldenberg & Co. and was acquired by a German company. Ironically, it was seized by the Dutch when German invaded Holland in 1940. The building has been demolished and turned into shop houses.

One of S. Katz’s employees was Russian-born Alfred Aron Arnold Zeitlin (1863–1938). Partnering with Goldenberg, Zeitlin opened a new store called Goldenberg & Zeitlin in November 1898, which by all accounts, was a majestic shop on the main shopping street Kesawan. They specialised in the importation on luxury items such as jewellery, music boxes, typewriters, hunting rifles, glassware, curtains, suitcases, cigars and so on. 

Other competitors were not far behind. An English-language travel guide to Sumatra in 1912 wrote:

A visit should also be paid to the establishment of Messrs. Cornfield. The firm are the official suppliers to the various sultans, and make a specialty of superior diamond jewellery of every description, although their stock includes well selected continental fancy goods, pictures and also the latest modes.

Wilhelm Cornfield (1862–1908), an Austrian Jew, came to Deli in the 1880s, first working as a ‘cutter’ at the S. Katz shop. In 1893, Cornfield started his own business as a tailor, offering European clothing with imported fabrics. Cornfield soon carried a complete range of clothes and luxury items from London and Paris.

The first generations of merchants eventually left or passed away and were replaced by their children. When Wilhelm Cornfield passed away in 1908, his children expanded their father’s business. In particular, his son Isidore (1885-1923) was an investor in many luxury stores in North Sumatra. He also owned tea and coconut plantations on the east coast of Sumatra.

Heated competition

Jewish merchants competed to import European consumer goods, merging, dividing, and often clashing with each other. In 1915, the Hüttenbach company split into a wholesaler business and the retail business. The retail business was managed by Isidore Cornfield while Heinrich Hüttenbach maintained its import business. This split, however, caused a legal dispute between Heinrich Hüttenbach and Isidore Cornfield about who should manage the new department store. In the end, Isidore Cornfield won the case and opened Medan’s Warenhuis (‘Warehouse’) in 1920, the first department store in Sumatra. The remains of the building still exist today. The Hüttenbach firm, on the other hand, was declared bankrupt in December 1921, after 46 years of business, due to mismanagement.

The bankruptcy resulted in Heinrich Hüttenbach’s departure and he returned to Amsterdam. A few months later, he went missing on a passage from Amsterdam to London, and was declared dead five years later. Nor did things end well for the Cornfields. Isidore and his wife, opera singer Henriette Zerkowitz, returned to Vienna, and he died in October 1923 at the age of 38, due to heart disease. By 1939, now run by his brother Adolf, the Cornfield fashion store was in financial trouble and was liquidated. The shop closed its doors in July 1939 after trading for more than 50 years. Most likely, as the Depression caused a decline in demand for Sumatra tobacco and the demand for consumer luxury goods plummeted.

Cornfield advertisement in Isles of the East : an illustrated guide by Lorck, W. Royal Packet Steam Navigation Co. (K.P.M.), 1912.

Like many German and Dutch Jews, many of these merchants were assimilated and identified nationally. They belonged to Dutch and German clubs and contributed to patriotic celebrations. Indeed, Hirsch complained of the European Jewish merchants that they represented themselves as Christians, were lost in bitter competition with one another, and were utterly lacking in piety. If the majority were secular and/or assimilated Jews, there may have been little impetus to form Jewish institutions.

Dutch Jews and war

At the end of World War I, there was a high demand for expatriates to come to the Deli region to manage plantations and serve the colony. Many Dutch Jews responded and went to work for plantations, Dutch companies or the government. There are also a few examples of Jewish doctors. But newspaper archives suggest that numbers remained tiny, and only from the mid-1920s is it possible to speak of community activities.

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the Jewish community raised funds to support relief efforts, but by March 1942 Sumatra too had fallen to the Japanese. Some Jewish families found themselves under threat at both ends of the world: persecuted in Europe on the basis of their Jewish identity, and in the Indies as Dutch enemies of the Japanese. Adolf Cornfield died in a Japanese internment camp. A Dutch Jewish physician who worked on the east coast of Sumatra, Dr. Hans Koperberg, was also captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. In a book of poetry titled Bittere pillen en scherpe pijlen (Bitter Pills and Sharp Arrows) he wrote about his experiences of being moved from one camp to another and dedicated the book ‘to my two Sisters murdered by the Huns, Uncle Dr. Felix Catz and Aunt Brama and to all the friends murdered by the Japs.’

Our investigations have so far found little record of Jews in Sumatra after the Second World War. Survivors left for the Netherlands or perhaps Australia, and by 1958 Sukarno had expelled all Dutch citizens from Indonesia.

Budiman Minasny is a Professor of Soil Landscape Modelling at the University of Sydney with an interest in Indonesia colonial history. Josh Stenberg is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney.

Inside Indonesia 146: Oct-Dec 2021

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