21 January 2010

Haiti: The Jewish remnant

In the midst of the Haiti's great tragedy, there is also a long Jewish history.

A branch of our Talalay family escaped Berlin before the Holocaust with Haitian identity documents. According to their descendants, the documents were provided in exchange for the purchase of land. No one seems to know where that plot was located, and there is no evidence that any member of the family actually visited Haiti.

Resources Online: There is some information on this historical episode here, which mentions the immigration of European Jews, and here on the Jewish Virtual Library site, which mentions an ancient Jewish synagogue discovered by archeologists in the city of Jérémie, where mulatto families of Jewish origin lived. A 2004 JTA article by Larry Luxner is here.

Here is information on the Jewish community of Haiti from the
Encyclopedia Judaica. Other articles mention that Jewish tombstones were discovered in port cities such as Cap Haaitien and Jacmel. Read more here (Jewish Social Studies, 1983). "The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, experiences, and culture" by Ehrlich, speaks of Haiti's Jewish history on page 660 (check Google Books).
Before the earthquake on January 12, there were an estimated 25 Jews among 9 million residents. Many lived in Pétionville, a community in the hills above Port-au-Prince. There is no rabbi or synagogue, but one resident, Gilbert Bigio (whose father came from Aleppo, Syria), keeps a Torah in his home.

Many of the country's Jews are among the wealthiest residents, with interests in many sectors.

For an excellent article on the Jews of Haiti - before the earthquake - read The Forward's interesting article, by Gabrielle Birkner, here ("Haiti's Jewish Remnant Keeps the Faith and Lends a Hand").

Back in 1492, Luis de Torres, Christopher Columbus’s interpreter, was the first known Jew to step foot on what is now Haiti. Brazilian immigrants of Jewish ancestry settled in what is now Haiti in the 17th century, though many perished in the slave revolts at the turn of the 19th century that ultimately established Haiti’s independence from France.

Then came a small wave of Jewish immigration to Haiti from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt — the influx that brought Dana’s grandparents — during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Many of these Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants made a living importing and selling textiles, and they sent their children to the local Catholic schools. The island’s Jews were joined during the 1930s by about 100 European Jews who came to Haiti fleeing the Nazis. The Haitian Jewish community peaked mid-century at about 300 members, many of whom left for larger, more established Jewish communities in the United States, Argentina and Panama.

Archaeologists have also found evidence of a Crypto-Jewish, or Marrano, community that once existed in the western Haitian city of Jérémie.
The Forward story focuses on Rudolph Dana, 61, who owns a propane-distribution company, and his efforts to locate his friends and 500 employees. He says hundreds of his friends and acquaintances died in the disaster. Those who survived are homeless. His own home suffered major structural damage.

He has deep Haitian roots, as his grandparents settled there in the early 20th century.

He has been in touch, via an Internet-enabled satellite phone that he kept in his Port-au-Prince office, with many of his employees, who have managed to set up a makeshift office, outside of the badly damaged building that housed his company. These days, they’re not dealing in propane, but in rice, beans and cooking oil. Dana said he managed, through his business connections, to get a shipment of food staples, and that his company has been distributing meals — cooked with firewood — to some 300 people camped out near the office park.
Read the complete story at The Forward link, as well as the additional links under "Resources Online."

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