Revealed: how the Caribbean became a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi tyranny

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Thousands of refugees rebuilt their lives on Trinidad and other islands. Their little-known story is now told in a new book.

All cemeteries have stories to tell, and the one on Mucurapo Road in Port of Spain, Trinidad, is no exception. Among the names carved on headstones are Irene and Oscar Huth, Erna Marx, Karl Falkenstein, Willi Schwarz and Otto Gumprich. Hebrew inscriptions are adorned with a Star of David.

Five years ago, Hans Stecher joined his mother, father and aunt in the Jewish section of Mucurapo cemetery. Aged 90 when he died, he was the last of about 600 Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe who ended up in Trinidad as they sought sanctuary from persecution and violence.

Stecher arrived on the island as a 14-year-old in 1938. For him it was an adventure and a “dream come true”, according to his memoir; but for his parents, “everything was strange and somewhat frightening”. The boy went on to enjoy a happy and prosperous life on the island. In reporting his death, the Trinidad Guardian described him as a “giant of a man”.

Several thousand Jewish refugees went by boat to Caribbean islands, including Barbados and Jamaica, in the run-up to and during the second world war. Their almost-forgotten story has now been told in a new book. Most wanted to reach the US or Canada, but could not get entry visas. In their panic to escape the march of fascism, they were forced to take what they could get. “It was a last-chance destination. The majority who ended up in the Caribbean lost members of their families who stayed in the Holocaust,” said Joanna Newman, author of Nearly the New World: The British West Indies and the Flight from Nazism 1933-1945.

At the 1938 Evian conference, 32 countries discussed the growing refugee crisis, but few opened their doors. As refugees crammed on to ships leaving European ports with no clear destination, Jewish organisations engaged in frantic negotiations to find places willing to take refugees. “Some boats went from port to port,” said Newman.

The Jewish section of Mucurapo graveyard in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

British colonies in the Caribbean, such as Trinidad, had no visa requirements, merely charging a landing deposit. The Jews, many of whom had professional qualifications, arrived penniless but willing to adapt to a new life, helped by modest grants from refugee agencies to start new businesses. According to the Trinidad Guardian: “One of the physicians, a lady doctor, is now a midwife, another turned chemist, and a third one is a foreman in a local factory. A famous master-builder of Vienna is now looking for any kind of work. His wife makes a living by tailoring. A lawyer has become a canvasser, another a floor-walker, while a third is going to open a jeweller’s store.”

In Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, the refugees founded a synagogue in a rented house. They opened cafes and started drama and football clubs. The local authorities allotted them a section of the Mucurapo cemetery. Although many intended the Caribbean to be a temporary stopover, “they began putting down roots,” said Newman.

The response of local people was mixed, she said. “There was grumbling about overcrowding and competition, and disquiet about Jewish businesses and peddlers undercutting the locals. But newspapers carried reports of atrocities and persecution in Europe, so people were aware of their plight. Some saw an echo of their own history of slavery in the persecution of Jews.”

Calypsos were a “rich reflection of public opinion”. One by Charlie “Gorrilla” Grant began: “Tell me what you think of a dictator / Trampling the Jews like Adolf Hitler / Tumbling them out of Germany / Some running for refuge in the West Indies.”

King Radio’s The Jews Immigration was less sympathetic, describing Trinidad as a dumping ground. “The place is so congested friends I must say / Yet the Foreigners are pouring in every day.”

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Caribbean authorities followed the British move to intern “enemy aliens”, establishing camps and closing down Jewish businesses. According to Stecher’s memoir, those interned “could not help but feel bitterness and resentment at … being deprived of their newly-found freedom and, having just sent out new roots, being so abruptly and rudely uprooted once more.”

After the war, most Jews in the Caribbean moved on to the US, Canada or Palestine (the state of Israel was declared in 1948), but a handful stayed and assimilated, said Newman. “If you look in the phone book in Trinidad, you will find Jewish names. But there’s little in the way of a Jewish community now.”

The Mucurapo cemetery, with about 60 Jewish graves, was a poignant reminder of this neglected chapter of history, she said. When she last visited several years ago, it was “not in a great state of repair I’m concerned about who has custody of these graves”.

After stumbling across references to the Jewish flight to the Caribbean, Newman spent two decades scouring archives and gathering testimonies and memoirs for her book. “I come from a refugee family on my father’s side, so I grew up with stories of the persecution that my grandparents faced,” she said.

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