The Jewish presence in Trinidad is at once constant and invisible. There have been several waves of Jewish immigration to this most southern island of the Caribbean archipelago, yet each one has largely been forgotten by the populace and few reminders exist in the society of their past (and continuing) presence.
The First Immigrants
The first major influx of immigrants was in the late 1700′s and today many of the surnames on the island (Herrera, Pereira, Hart, De Silva, De Lime and Nunes, Ferreira, Stollmeyer to name few) are living testaments to their presence. Today, however, none of the descendants of these early immigrants are Jewish. The vast majority are not even aware of their Jewish heritage, a testimony to the high degree of intermarriage between the Jews and the Catholic French of Trinidad in the last two centuries.
In the late 1800′s, another group of Jewish people made their way to Trinidad, mostly Portuguese in origin, although a few from Curacao also came. Many of these also were assimilated and/or intermarried. Official records show that at the turn of the 20th Century the number of Jews on the island numbered just 31 and all were English in origin. They worked mostly as civil servants and as merchants. One of these, Sir Nathaniel Nathan, served as associate justice of the Trinidad Supreme Court from 1893 to 1900 and Chief Justice from 1900 to 1903.
The 20th century however would see a rapid rise (and equally rapid fall) in the numbers of the Jewish population in Trinidad.
World War II
“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
Some land in Demerara and Grenada
They land in Trinidad very regular
The way they are coming all of them
Will make Trinidad a New Jerusalem”
(by Calpysonian Charlie “Gorilla” Grant (1939))
Of the thousands of Jews who fled Nazism, many found a haven in the Caribbean. From 1936-1939, Trinidad was a welcoming beacon as it had no visa requirement – only a 50 pound landing deposit. New arrivals were quickly settled in houses rented by a Jewish aid society in the capital, Port of Spain.
Most of the refugees knew very little about the Caribbean before their arrival, as a result, the adjustment was often quite challenging. It did not take long however for the new arrivals to establish small businesses. In the island’s two main towns, Port of Spain and San Fernando, new cafes, factories and shops started to appear. The sole daily newspaper at the time, the Trinidad Guardian wrote, “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 one is going to open a jeweller’s store…”
By 1939, when the calypso that opened this section was composed, the Jewish community numbered 600 (it would later reach 700 at mid-century). Concerned colonial authorities enacted a temporary ban from “specified” European countries. There also existed a sense of ambivalence about the Jewish presence amongst the local population. These feelings however were more rooted in intense competition for scarce economic resources among the generally impoverished population, rather than in anti-Semitic sentiment, and the new immigrants experienced no real expression of hostility.
As they began to adjust and enjoy Trinidad’s multi-cultural society, the new immigrants found themselves experiencing many forms of “culture shock”. Arthur Siegel, a refugee from Hamburg, who now lives in Canada, recalled his family’s first carnival in a 1999 radio documentary (available for download at http://radio.cbc.ca/programs/Tapestry/archives/1999/091299.html).
“We saw the bands, the jump-ups, people dancing and singing and drinking rum. First my parents thought, ‘These are wild people’, but by the end of the day they really appreciated this wildness and despite the problems on their shoulders, you couldn’t help but feel and appreciate the rhythm of life that is part of the Trinidad Carnival.
As they created new economic niches for themselves in their “Calypso Shtetl”, the “Calypso Jews” (as they now saw themselves) began to turn their attention to creating a cultural and religious life for themselves on the island. A synagogue and community centre was founded in a rented house on Duke Street in Port of Spain. (Today one of its Torah scrolls can be found in the Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal.) There were aid societies for the poor and elderly and even a dramatic and opera society. Although the community was refused a license for kosher slaughter it was granted a separate section (Bet Olam) in Port of Spain’s main cemetery, the Mucurapo Cemetery. Today the cemetery is maintained by the island’s only remaining member of this 1930′s influx – Hans Stecher. Hans Stecher and his family left Vienna for Trinidad shortly after the Anschluß when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. It is my hope to establish a fund to relieve him of this responsibility and to ensure the cemetary’s perpetual upkeep.
Unfortunately, the relative stability and bliss which the refugees had settled into was not to last. With the outbreak of war, all refugees, deemed to be “enemy aliens” were interned in camps throughout the Caribbean and Trinidad was no exception. In addition to captured Italian and German merchant seamen and German U-boat crews, Trinidad’s new “enemy aliens” now included, ironically, those Jewish families who came from Austria or Germany.
While an internment camp was being constructed outside of the capital, the Jewish families were housed in barracks on tiny islands off the mainland (Hans Stecher still has a shark’s fin saved from the shores during his time on the island!). After a few months in the barracks, they were moved back to the mainland. The internment camp (which stood on what are now the residential neighbourhoods of Federation Park and Ellerslie Park) is documented at Trinidad’s Chaguaramas Military Museum and was surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence with sentry towers and search lights. Although children were given special permission to attend school outside the camp, understandably many of the refugees felt deeply insulted by this course of events.
In 1943 they were released with certain wartime restrictions: daily reporting to the nearest police station, a ban on driving cars or riding bicycles, and an 8p.m. to 6a.m. curfew. In disgust, some families left, others stayed and brought back to light the community life they had started pre-internment. A soccer team was established, the drama club performed plays in Hebrew and Yiddish, they held fundraisers for Israel and a schochet was even brought from the United States. The community was, in a word, vibrant. As the children grew however the viability of the community was undermined as there was, at that time, no local university. Once the children went overseas to study, few returned to live. Of those who did, many intermarried, or were otherwise assimilated and the community gradually began to dissolve.
In the 1970′s Trinidad’s political and social stability was threatened by a wave of ‘Black Power’ riots. Fearing for their safety and haunted by bad memories, the majority of the remaining population migrated en masse. Many created new roots in Canada where they remain to this day. Today, pictures and memories are all that remain of the “Calypso Shtetl”. It is hard to believe that at one time Passover Seders were so large that they were sometimes hosted at the Trinidad Hilton!
Still, if one looks around, one can find evidence of this brief interlude of Jewish life in Trinidad. Most notably on every police car, policeman an police station on the island as the insignia of the police force is a hummingbird within a Magen David (Star of David). A British commander who came to Trinidad from Palestine (while it was still under colonial rule) put a white star against a blue background for the local army symbol, switching the colours of what was to become the Israeli flag. The hummingbird was later added for ‘local flavour’. This makes my island unique in that it is the only police service in the world that does not use its country’s Coat of Arms as its official symbol.
Other legacies of the Jewish presence in Trinidad are the Bet Olam section of the Mucurapo Cemetery (a smaller cemetery exists in San Fernando), place names such as Albert Einstein Avenue, Theodore Herzl Drive and Golda Meir Gardens, as well as landmarks such as Stollmeyer’s Castle and the stores that continue to bear the names of their Jewish founders such as Yufe’s and Stechers.
This piece was written for the 2002 Conference of Caribbean and Latin American Jewish Congregations. It has been reprinted online often, without attribution or permission, on various sites. So now you know, this is its origin!