Lives and Letters in a Time of Transition: The Legal Papers of Baghdadi-Jewish Migrants in Surabaya, Rangoon, and Singapore, 1948-1950

Genie Yoo, Princeton University

In the years following the end of WWII, the President of the Jewish Community in Baghdad began to receive letters and legal documents from Surabaya, Singapore, and Rangoon, port cities that had formed the administrative and commercial hubs of the British and Dutch Indies in a region just then starting to be called Southeast Asia. Some of these letters concerned the wills of Jewish individuals who had died in these port cities during the brutal years of Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. Most of these Jewish migrants were merchants who had departed from Basra around the turn of the century, making their way across the Indian Ocean to its eastern-most rim, thriving economically through the commercial network of industrial colonies in Asia. Some directly identified their place of origin as Iraq and, through the legal documents they left behind, wished to perform their last deed of charity to Jewish organizations in Baghdad. This paper contextualizes these letters and asks how the finances of individuals were untangled during a time of transition as old empires were dying and nation-states emerging, particularly in Southeast Asia. How were their legal documents sorted at a time when colonial state bureaucracy was in disarray, national governments being formed, and identities, whether legal, religious, or cultural, were being renegotiated through a prism of internal and external state politics? Conversely, how did people on the receiving end of these letters in Baghdad handle legal and pecuniary matters reaching them from across the Indian Ocean? These correspondences make visible that while new legal and geopolitical barriers were being erected at the level of empires and states, other channels continued to remain open and older connections reestablished, particularly during times of difficult transition.