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Trinidad and Tobago

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO - THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

 

The Jewish presence in Trinidad has been several waves. This southern-most island of the Caribbean archipelago saw the first major Jewish immigration in the late 1700's. However, none of the descendants of these early immigrants are Jewish. The vast majority are unaware of their Jewish heritage. In the late 1800's, another group of mostly Portuguese Jews and some from Curacao arrived. Many of these also assimilated or intermarried. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 31 Jews of English origin lived on the island, working generally as civil servants and merchants. 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 saw a rapid rise and rapid decline in Jewish population in Trinidad. Thousands of Jews fleeing Hitler, found haven in 1936 to 1939 in Trinidad. New arrivals settled in houses rented by a Jewish aid society in Port of Spain. They established small businesses in the island's two main towns, Port of Spain and San Fernando. By 1939, the Jewish community numbered 600. Ambivalence about the new immigrants resulted from intense economic competition. Calling themselves "Calypso Shtetl" and "The Calypso Jews", they created a cultural and religious life for themselves on the island. A synagogue and community center and its attendant cultural activities began in a rented house on Duke Street in Port of Spain. Bet Olam Section of Mucurapo Cemetery: Rfused a license for kosher slaughter, they were granted a separate section of Port of Spain's main cemetery. Today the cemetery is maintained by the island's only remaining member of this 1930's influx, Hans Stecher, who hopes to establish a fund to relieve him of this responsibility and to ensure the section's perpetual upkeep.

With the outbreak of war, all refugees deemed to be "enemy aliens" were interned in camps throughout The Caribbean. 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 shore 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 neighborhoods 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 permissions 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. They had to report daily to the nearest police station, were banned from driving cars or riding bicycles, and were under curfew from 8:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M.. In disgust, some families left. Others stayed and brought back to light the community life they had started before internment. A soccer team was established, the drama club performed plays in Hebrew and Yiddish, they held fund-raisers for Israel, and a schochet was even brought in from The United States. The community was, in a word, vibrant. As the children grew however, the viability of the community was undermined since there was no local university at the time. Once the children went overseas to study few returned to live. Of those who did, many intermarried or assimilated and the community gradually began to dissolve after it reached its peak of 700 people by The Mid 1900's.

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 they were sometimes hosted at The Trinidad Hilton.

Religious artifacts were moved to Barbados in The 1970's to ensure their safety. Currently the Torah scroll resides at Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal.

Still, if one looks around, one can find evidence of this brief renaissance of Jewish life in Trinidad. Most notably on every police car, policeman, and police station on the island, is the insignia of the police force which is a hummingbird within a Magen David. A British commander who came to Trinidad from Palestine put a white star against a blue background for the local army symbol, switching the colors of what was to become The Israeli Flag. The hummingbird was later added for local flavor. This makes Trinidad 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.

Today the community numbers 25-67, depending on who you talk to and who is on the island at any one point, and holds occasional communal observances. Projects are in the works to revitalise the community including the formation of an organizational body.

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