Ex Libris in Yangon by Melissa Hacker

I am in Yangon, Myanmar, in an apartment carved out of an early 19th century teak house, shutters open on the veranda, catching a slight, slow, afternoon breeze, ipad in hand, looking at images of 1920’s woodcuts.

For the past few years I have been dreaming up Ex LibrisA Life in Bookplates, a film about my Austrian Jewish grandfather and his collection of ex libris, small works of graphic art designed to be glued into books. In the early 20th century, members of the middle class who were interested in art but could not afford paintings would collect ex libris, or bookplates. My grandfather commissioned over 200, and collected many more, trading with fellow collectors. I wasn’t a productive pandemic person, and took time away from this film. I am now back to it, and am a very grateful recipient of a 2022 LABA fellowship, to move this project from dream to reality. I also have a work commitment in Yangon, so here I am, in my grandfather’s world and in Myanmar.

In recent years I’ve wandered, often a stranger in a strange land, spending time in places with interesting Jewish histories. I visit synagogues and cemeteries, I listen and learn. In 2015, I lived in Havana, Cuba. There are 3 synagogues in Havana; Conservative, Orthodox, and Sephardic. One of my students wanted to do a photo essay on the only Kosher butcher in Cuba, who once a month leaves Havana early in the morning to slaughter 60 cows, but, after much negotiating, he left town without her. She made a beautiful project on ceramic tiles instead.

Belfast, Northern Ireland had a booming Jewish Community from the mid 19th century until the 1970’s. The last Bar Mitzvah was in 2013. The synagogue is Orthodox although few members of the community are, and those who keep Kosher are leaving as it is too difficult to get supplies.

My grandfather kept diaries, and I read them, month by month, as the translations come in. My mother was a child refugee who did not want German spoken in her new home, new life, new country, where I grew up, and I cannot read German. I carry texts with me doubly translated from his archaic handwriting to typed German, then to English, scanned from a series of small notebooks, filed on hard drives. I travel through layers of memory and place.

The first time I was in Yangon, in 2016, I emailed the Israeli Embassy to ask if there was anything happening for Purim. Days later I received an invitation to a Purim party at the Vice Counsel’s apartment. There was an impressive array of homemade hamantaschen and costumes. Everyone admired a US Air Force costume replete with medals, which, it was explained, was not a costume, but the wearer had met with the American Ambassador earlier in the day and had no time to change. I learned later that there were no party plans until the Vice Counsel read my email. “That’s Myanmar” as a colleague often says. You ask a question and often receive a very generous answer.

Wherever I travel, I bring my grandfather with me, tracing his history, learning his life. In Vienna, he was a member of the Austrian Ex Libris Society until 1938, when he was expelled as the Society Aryanized. One of many escalating losses as his quiet life as a neighborhood pharmacist, family man, and dreamer, creator of the vivid imaginary of his collection was ripped away when Austria united with Germany under Hitler.

In spring 2022 I arrived in Yangon during a heat wave and early rainy season. I met with the leader of the Yangon Jewish community. Like his father and grandfather before him, he is the caretaker of the synagogue in downtown Yangon (formerly Rangoon, Burma). A Jewish community thrived in Burma from the early 19th century until World War II. They fled ahead of the Japanese occupation, and some returned. In 1961, David Ben Gurion visited and invited the Jews of Burma to move to Israel. Many did. It has been reported for the past ten years “there are 20 Jews in Myanmar today.” In 2019 a Hanukkah event brought over 200 people to the synagogue, but with covid-19 and the military coup of February 2021, it has been closed for more than two years.

Yangon is complicated and beautiful. On the surface, it can seem as if everything is normal. People are working and shopping, chatting in tea shops, but you catch a feeling that there is much going on beneath the surface. Walking back to work after buying a birthday present, there were suddenly armed soldiers at a street corner. I learned that evening, as we drove past more soldiers, that there had been a bombing nearby that morning. Walking home from dinner on a Friday night I passed a venue that in the morning seemed empty, almost abandoned, and there was live music, crowds, and a traffic jam of parking. It would likely close by 8pm, as people feel safest being home by 9pm, although curfew isn’t until midnight.

As I wake to the sounds of the crows of Yangon, I read my grandfather’s diary of May 31, 1918, from a prisoner of war camp in Siberia “Woke very early with the sun laughing in my window. I stayed in bed with open window and enjoyed the nightingale’s song, starling’s calls and the twitter of countless birds, which sound up to me from our garden. I got up and was so happy, so overflowing with enthusiasm for the wonders of the rejuvenating nature. I do hope that a new life, a free life, will soon begin for me!”

-Melissa Hacker is a 2022 LABA Fellow