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The Caribbean: a forgotten refuge from the Shoah

Some put down roots, some moved on and many were interned. The story of Jews' flights to the Caribbean is still echoed in the tales told by today's migrants

    Maracas Beach on Trinidad
    Maracas Beach on Trinidad (Photo: Getty Images)

    When Su Goldfish first made the journey from Sydney, Australia, to meet her half-brother and half-sister in Canada, they had a gift for her: a fish knife and fork from Hotel Löwenstein.

    There were things Ms Goldfish did not know: that her father had been married before, that she even had half siblings — and that her grandparents, Lina and Eugen Goldfish, had run that hotel in Bad Ems, Germany.

    Ms Goldfish’s father, Manfred, had waved goodbye to them for the last time when he and his wife Malka used the last of their savings to buy him passage out of Germany after Kristallnacht. He never saw them again: they were deported to Theresienstadt, and died within a year of each other.

    I met Ms Goldfish through writing my new book, Nearly The New World: The British West Indies and the Escape from Nazism, and was able to help her find out more about what had happened to her father.

    Manfred himself did not like to talk about his earlier life. He did not tell his daughter about the hotel, or how his parents had given him the cutlery as a way to remember it when he was forced to flee — not to America or to Britain, but to Trinidad.

    The knife and fork given to Su Goldfish by her sister
    The knife and fork given to Su Goldfish by her sister

    Ms Goldfish was in the process of making what would become the award-winning 2017 documentary, The Last Goldfish. During filming, she went back to the old hotel; at the time of her visit, it had become an apartment block inhabited by Turkish and Iraqi immigrants. One of them, a Turkish Kurd who had lived in Germany for 22 years, told her that the story of her family reminded him of his: a story of the struggle to find sanctuary in a world that seems unable to find room for them.

    Ms Goldfish’s father was one of the lucky ones to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, but what he lost echoed down the generations.

    The Caribbean was not the first choice for those fleeing the Nazis. As I discovered during my research, the leading Jewish American charity, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), called the ships carrying dispossessed Jews ‘Floating No Man’s Lands’: ships refused entry in port after port while Jewish refugee organizations negotiated with governments, trying to find places to take them in.

    It would be hard to blame aid organisations for feeling discouraged, for the politicians from across the world often spoke in terms that suggested they saw the refugees as barely human. This is a problem that has not left us: in 2015, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, compared British politicians’ use of terms like “swarms of refugees” to the language used at the 1938 Evian conference, in which the US, the UK and Australia refused to take in significant numbers of Jewish refugees — at the cost of millions of lives.

    So why was the Caribbean different? This unlikely destination had one great advantage: it was among a number of places within the British Empire one could enter without a visa.

    As the Jewish refugee crisis heightened, families from chilly Eastern Europe landed in the sunshine of Port of Spain in Trinidad. The younger refugees were excited at the adventure, and the older ones were eager to begin new lives, supporting themselves by peddling trades they had practised back home.

    German and Austrian refugees, often with professional qualifications, arrived penniless, but began to adapt their occupations or establish themselves, bringing Mittel Europe to the Caribbean, founding businesses as diverse as clothing manufacture, a hat factor y, cafes and a photography studio.

    Refugees were hopeful of putting down roots, although their position within the local culture could be precariously caught between social classes. They brought Viennese coffee-house culture with them, not to mention fashion. Dress designer Helen Hammerman, for instance, was announced in Trinidad’s Sunday Guardian as a style guru ready to “tell the Trinidad girl what the best-dressed women should wear in the tropics”, but while her fashions were geared more to the professional classes than the average Trinidadian, she and her family encountered much snobbery from the local gentry, keeping their spirits up with mocking imitations of the exclamations of “Rawtha!” and “Smashing!” in private.

    With Jewish refugees finding themselves outsiders to every local community, how did the ordinary British West Indian view matters? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the locals’ responses to the new arrivals varied.

    Contemporary calypso songs express a mixture of sentiments, some objecting to “white” settlers arriving in nations already struggling with overcrowding and shortages of housing and jobs, while others, identifying with the history of slavery in their own culture and families, expressed a great deal of empathy. Jews in the West Indies by Charlie “Gorilla” Grant, for instance, began by asking, “‘Tell me what you think of a dictator / Trampling the Jews like Adolf Hitler?”

    Once in the Caribbean, however, the refugees’ trials were by no means at an end, and when war began, nascent Jewish enterprises were broken up and new refugees arrived “just in time to be interned.”

    Caribbean authorities followed the British rule of interning “enemy aliens”, in one case in Jamaica actually putting Nazis and Jews into a camp together.

    Hans Stecher, who arrived in Trinidad in 1938 at 14, came with dreams of a tropical paradise; he was young enough to enjoy the beautiful countryside in which he and his family were interned, but observed that older internees “could not help but feel bitterness and resentment at ... being deprived of their newly found freedom and, having just sent out new roots, [of] being so abruptly and rudely uprooted once more.”

    Von der Porten (left) with the blanket made in the Jamaica Camp
    Von der Porten (left) with the blanket made in the Jamaica Camp

    Authorities ran camps as humanely as they could but resources were scarce and conditions could be difficult. In Jamaica, internee Arnold von der Porten collaborated with fellow inmates to build a loom out of fence posts and barbed wire and, using wool salvaged from butchers’ yards and carding equipment provided by local Quakers, made several blankets. (Eighty years on, Arnold is alive and well, and was proud to show me his blanket, which he has kept all these years, cherished as a token of the invention of those hard times.)

    The greatest scandal, though, was the fact that the British government’s willingness to help refugees depended more on convenience than humanitarian concerns. Gibraltar, for instance, was strategically vital to Britain, and hence was assumed likely to be the location of intense fighting. An agreement was made in April 1940 to evacuate civilians, but having moved them to French Morocco only to see France fall to German invasion, the British authorities became desperate to transfer the evacuees anywhere but Britain. Gibraltar Camp was hastily constructed in Jamaica, intended to house 9,000 — and yet by October, construction was halted at a capacity of 7,000, and the camp was never filled even to that capacity.

    With the space available, the Polish government-in-exile approached the British High Commissioner for refugees in early 1941, negotiating for the camp to accept Polish refugees; by May 1942, the first boat carrying them, the SS Serpa Pinto, arrived at Camp Gibraltar.

    Refugees from other Allied countries continued to arrive throughout the war, but the plight of Polish evacuees was particularly acute: they depended on JDC funding, and were not able to re-migrate to fight for the Allied forces as the Dutch and other nationalities were. In 1942, a Colonial Office memo remarked, “If these people really think that conditions in Jamaica are no better than in concentration camps in Germany, it is a pity they didn’t remain there.”

    Jewish flight into the Caribbean has long been a neglected part of our history. It is a story of official neglect and resilience, of dispossession and memories lost. Most relocated Jews always regarded their settlement in the Caribbean as temporary, and when they were able to, moved on.

    For most refugees, the ‘New World’ they wanted to reach was the Americas; the British West Indian islands were a stop-over. Yet some stayed. Hans Stecher became a stalwart of Trinidadian Jewry, dying in his adopted country at the age of 90 and described in his Trinidad Guardian obituary as a “giant of a man”. He and his family rebuilt their lost business after the war, establishing a successful chain. He took me to visit the Jewish section of the cemetery: all the gravestones are from the 20th century, among them his father and his aunt. Hans made a happy life for himself in Trinidad, but never judged those who could not; for too many, the dislocation was too great, and, as he put it, “a plant transplanted from its accustomed soil cannot bud again”.

    After many years of searching, Ms Goldfish found the family history that had been lost to her.

    Manfred Goldfish’s story, along with the many others told in the book, is of refugee survival and adaptation, of the impact of bureaucracy and the welcome that small communities gave to strangers in their midst.

    Given the unparalleled refugee crisis facing the world today, I hope their stories may bring us closer to understanding what today’s refugees and displaced people are living through.

    ‘Nearly The New World: The British West Indies and the Flight from Nazism, 1933-1945’, is published by Berghahn Books.

    Joanna Newman is Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London and Chief Executive of the Association of Commonwealth Universities