History of the Jews in Haiti
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The history of the Jews in Haiti is a rather long and complex one, as it stretches from the very beginning of the European settlement on the new island.
As of 2013, the Jewish population is around 25 predominately in Port-au-Prince.
The first Jewish settlement
In 1492, the first Jew to ever set foot in Haiti was Luis de Torres, an interpreter for Christopher Columbus. After Haiti was taken over and colonized by the French in 1633, many Dutch Jews (whom many were Marrano) emigrated from Brazil in 1634 and became employees of the French sugar plantations and further developed the trade. In 1683, the Jews were expelled from Haiti and all of the other French colonies, due to the Code Noir (Black Code), which not only restricted the activities of free Negroes, but forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism (it included a provision that all slaves must be baptized and instructed in the Roman Catholic religion), and in turn ordered all the Jews out of France's colonies. However, despite the Black Code, a limited number of Jews remained in French trading companies as leading officials, including foreign citizens (Dutch, Danish, or English) or holders of special residence permits (lettres patentes). These Jews specialized in agricultural plantations. Portuguese Jews from Bordeaux and Bayonne settled mainly in the southern part of Haiti (Jacmel, Jérémie, Léogâne, Les Cayes, Petit-Goâve, and Port-au-Prince) and Jews from Curaçao settled in the northern part (Cap-Haitien, and Saint Louis).
However, in the mid-1700s, many Jews returned to Haiti and were later murdered or expelled during the slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture in 1804, as many Jews also arrived from civil strife in Poland (with the invading Russia, Prussia and Austria).
Due to a lack of Sunday school and Jewish community centers, many youth did not grow up with a Jewish education and had to hide their Judaism because only Catholics were permitted to attend public school. Many Jews preferred to settle on the coastline, in port cities as many Jews were involved in commerce and trade establishing communities in major industry centers. Recently, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient synagogue of Crypto-Jews in the city of Jérémie, the only one found on the island. Several Jewish tombstones have also been found in port cities such as Cap-Haïtien and Jacmel. Approximately 30 Jewish families by the end of the 19th century have arrived from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. A law in France was passed during this period that gave French citizenship to minorities in the Americas; thus many Jews from the Middle East felt secure emigrating to Haiti. These Jews in particular, brought with them their many Sephardic customs and traditions.
In 1915, during the United States occupation of Haiti, roughly 200 Jews lived in Haiti at the time. During the 20 years period of occupation, many Jews left Haiti for the United States and South America. In 1937, Haiti was responsible for saving about 70 Jewish families (an estimated total of up to 300 lives) during the Holocaust (according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), by issuing passports and visas to Jews escaping Nazi persecution. Some were Austrian Jews, Polish Jews, German Jews, and a trickle of Romanian Jew and Czech Jewish descent. While these numbers are not as high as the number of Jewish families that Oskar Schindler helped save, a life is a life as Haiti played a small, yet critical role in saving Jewish lives during the darkest chapter in the Jewish story Unfortunately, though, it seems that more Jews were unable to acquire visas to Haiti due to the cost. Professor David Bankier, of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that after 1938, “the cost [of a visa] was outrageous: If you wanted to go to Haiti, you had to pay $5,000.” Haiti at the time, was still unfairly paying reparations on an exorbitant debt with interest fees to France after the Haitian Revolution that could have hindered their efforts to continue issuing these visas for free. There were others apart from this bunch who never came to Haiti at all, but from Germany they were given Haitian passports by the Haitian government that allowed them to flee Germany and into other countries. Grateful to the Haitian government, many of these European Jews stayed in Haiti until the late 1950s in which many Haitian Jews left, so that their children could marry other Jews and not assimilate, while finding better economic opportunities. The mid-20th century was a time where a continued departure of Jews from Haiti for the United States and Panama because of the economic conditions and civil violence in the country.
Today, the Jewish community is led by Gilbert Bigio, a retired billionaire Haitian businessman of Syrian descent Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service is held at his residence. The last Jewish wedding held in Haiti occurred 10 years ago by his daughter, while the last bris was done for his son, more than 30 years ago. The only Torah in all of Haiti is owned by Bigio, which he provides to the community for services.
The 1960s was a time of wealth and high hopes of large future development for Haiti. At the time met many family Jewish names such as: Alvarez, Cardozo, Cohen, Dreyfus, Goldman, Hakim, Hillel, Khan, Monsanto, Pereira, Salzmann, Silveira, and Weiner, which most had forgotten their ethno-religious backgrounds. Today, less than a hundred Jews remain in Haiti on its 9.5 million inhabitants; however, the Weiners (coffee exporters) and the Salzmanns (refugees from Austria) are still today relevant in trade.
Notable Haitian Jews
- Amos Radian – Israel’s Dominican Republic-based ambassador to eastern Caribbean
- David Ades – political writer for Le Nouvelliste
- Daniel Kedar – businessman; co-founder of Prodev
- Elisabeth Silvera – President of the Fondation Haiti Solidarite (FHS)
- Eric André – actor, comedian and television host
- Fritz Mevs – business tycoon; founder of WIN Group
- Gaston Michel – local tourism official
- Gilbert Bigio – businessman billionaire of Syrian descent and Israeli honorary consul in Haiti
- Kenneth Ades – financial service provider
- Luis de Torres – one of the first Jews to settle on Haiti, and also Christopher Columbus's interpreter
- Monique Bigio – shareholder of PromoCapital
- Monique Péan – fine jewelry designer
- Reuven Bigio – founder of FAE (Fondation Appui à l'Education)
- Robin Padberg – CEO of telecommunications company Voila in Haiti
- Rudolph Dana – CEO of Transec SA
- Sol – is a musician of Russian descent
- Storm Portner – one of the first sugar cane producers in Haiti
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