Thinking about Christmas makes one think about the historical figure of Jesus, who was a Jewish king. So what better time to pick than this happy season to describe how Jewish people came to Trinidad?
Unlike Jamaica, where the Jewish presence dates back to the 16th century and to this day is strongly felt in many aspects of that country’s national life, the Jews of Trinidad are only a small thread in our multicultural national fabric.
They arrived here in basically two distinct groups. The first was in the period just after the British conquest, with the arrival in this island of a handful Sephardic, that is Spanish, Jewish families. Amongst these were the Daiz, Herrera, Senior, Perraria and Hart families. IT should be noted that the founder of the Hart family, Daniel Hart, originated in England.
This small nucleus intermarried in the first and second generation mostly amongst themselves. Exceptions were for example the Cadiz’s, who forged links - or should we say, tied the knot? - with the Warners of Belmont. A good match in those days, since the Warners were for many years amongst the foremost families of the English in the colony! Cadiz Road still commemorates this Jewish family, which was where the first bridge over the St. Anns river was erected. The Herreras formed links with another old Spanish family, the Gomez’s, descendants of Don Antonio Gomez.
Also amongst these early arrivals were the Barco family, originally from Corsica, who had migrated to the Rhône valley in France where their name was gallicised into Barcant. The upheavals of the French Revolution of 1789 eventually brought them to Trinidad in 1804. The Barcants too married into the Sephardic extended family network.
The culture of the island in those days was overwhelmingly French. The main economic apparatus, the plantations, were almost entirely in French hands. Increasingly, there was intermarriage between the Jews and the Catholic French people of Trinidad. Over many generations, even the memory of having Jewish antecedents faded in those French families.
There are several reasons for this “forgetting”. One might be that Catholicism is so dominant in this island, and the Jewish community always lacked numbers so as to establish a synagogue, which is really a school. Thus, their cultural practices faded along with their religious ones. The first Jews of Trinidad became French Creoles by assimilation, as have many other Europeans: Irish, German, Corsican and Spanish.
In the period before the 1900s, another group of Jewish people made their way to Trinidad, some from the South Americas, like the de Limas, and a few Portuguese families. Like the Spanish Jews, the ancestors of these Portuguese had been deported from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century, had found homes in Italy and the Mediterranean island of Corsica and Sicily and eventually made their way to South America and the Caribbean. To this group, coming to Trinidad from the continent, were added Jews from the island of Curaçao. Of all these there is now no reliable record.
Records do show, however, that at the turn of the 20th century, there were just 31 Jews in Trinidad, and these were all of English origin. They worked mostly as civil servants and as merchants. One of these was Sir Nathaniel Nathan, an associate justice of the Trinidad Supreme Court from 1893 to 1900, and chief justice from 1900 to 1903.
Other Trinidadian families of Jewish descent are the Ferreira, Siegert and Stollmeyer families, as referred to by Donna Farah in her paper “The Jewish Community in Trinidad 1930s - 1970s”.
By the 1930s, a trickle of Ashkenazi, Eastern European, Jews began to make their way here. Amongst those were the Sturmwassers, Stechers and Yufes.
The rise of National Socialism in Germany had, according to Donna Farah, its origins in the anti-Semitic sentiments expressed by Martin Luther in the 15th century, who is quoted in her paper from his pamphlet “On Jews and their lives”:
“First, set fire to their synagogues or schools; second, I advise that their homes also be razed and destroyed. This will bring home to them the fact that they are not masters in our country; third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings be taken from them, fourth, I advise that their Rabbis be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and lives,; fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews, for they have no business in the countryside; sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasures be taken from them.”
A little under 400 years later, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were formulated along the same lines, basically making Judaism illegal. Those with the means and perhaps a keener sense of survival left Europe for the relative safety of the New World. By far the majority of emigré Jews went to the United States, many to Canada and some to South America. Bearing in mind the small Jewish community in Trinidad - if one can speak of a ‘community’ at all - it is surprising that we were host to so many. Trinidad had a relatively lax immigration law that allowed individuals entry without visa requirements (except some basic health requirements) and a payment of only £50 deposit. After one year, the deposit was returned.
The Jewish immigrants earned their living by peddling house to house, selling haberdashery, dying old clothes and reselling them. In the white French Creole and British-dominated society, they suffered very much the same type of social and racial prejudice as the Portuguese of the previous century, and their fellow Semitic, the Syrians and Lebanese. Looked upon as peasants of inferior status, coloured folks also despised them because they were poor and white. The Indians may not have noticed them, being themselves apportioned their share of racial prejudice in this segmented society.
Notwithstanding, or perhaps even because of all this, the Ashkenazi Jews of the 1930s prospered and formed small businesses. They raised families and put into place the religious apparatus necessary to sustain rabbinical Judaism.
By 1938, 125 Jewish immigrants had arrived. By 1940, inspite of stricter immigration policies, some 585 Jews had entered Trinidad. Some were merely passing through, others would stay and put down roots. But with the outbreak of the Second World War, life for the Jews was not easy in Trinidad as well. As soon as Britain had entered into the war in 1939, all Germans and Austrians residing in the colonies were regarded as having “enemy alien” status. All over the British Empire, they were rounded up and interned.
As Farah notes in her paper:
“The irony of it all was that many of these ‘aliens’ had fled the horror of Nazism to seek haven in lands such as Trinidad, and were now uprooted much in the same manner as if they were still living under the Nazi yoke. To Hans ‘John’ Stecher, it was ‘indeed a deep insult to us, the first and most savaged victims of Nazism’.”
The enemy aliens were put into a camp in what became later Federation Park, and inspite of the fact that their ‘treatment by the Colonial administration left much to be desired’, they were all set free after the war.