Sephardic Jews in the Caribbean Islands
Sephardic Jews helped build nations and islands that were discovered by Christopher Columbus and other people with Jewish backgrounds.
2015-02-23 by Marcos Antonio Ramos
Federico Mayor, who served as Director-General of UNESCO tried to answer a question that could be very important for our conversation this morning: How should the Caribbean be defined? His answer should be taken into consideration as coming from an authority: “[The Caribbean] is understood as encompassing not only the islands but also the coastal part of South America, from Colombia to the Guyanas and the riverine zones of Central America…”
We also talk about the Caribbean basin. It includes the islands of the archipelago of the West Indies and the area running from Florida westward along the Gulf coast through Central America and then eastward across the northern coast of South America. Bermuda and the Bahamas are included even though our Bahamian friends remind us that their islands are located in the Atlantic. Sometimes Miami is called “the capital of the Caribbean.” The Caribbean is sometimes referred to as the Mediterranean of America. Our late friend James Michener has something to say about that: “In a strictly geographical sense the comparison is apt: both seas are land bound, they are almost identical in size…Both have been important historically, but there the similarities between the two great seas end…” Let us leave it at that but the author of “The biography of the Caribbean”, German Arciniegas, loved to talk about “Our Mediterranean” referring to the Caribbean. Following his example I did exactly the same in my recent book: “El Caribe, Siempre el Caribe…”
One way or another there is something nobody can deny about this sea of heavenly beauty and its cluster of unmatched islands. Western civilization entered the Western Hemisphere for the first time through the islands of the Caribbean and Sephardic Jews were among the first Europeans to set foot on the soil of the Western Hemisphere, the New World discovered by Christopher Columbus.
I am among those that consider Columbus a Sephardi, that is, a Sephardic Jew. Simon Wiesenthal postulates that Columbus was careful to conceal his Judaism. Others have argued that Columbus was a “converso”, a Sephardic Jew who publicly converted to Christianity. Another word commonly used was “Marrano”, a Jew living in the Iberian Peninsula who converted or was forced to convert to Christianity, many of whom continued to practice Judaism in secret. In the Caribbean Sephardic Jews were sometimes known as “Portugals” or Portuguese because they originated there or settled in that country after the expulsion of 1492.
My favorite Spanish historian, Don Salvador de Madariaga, one of the xxth century’s most prominent Spanish statesmen and a former professor at Oxford University describes Columbus’ Jewish roots in what I consider an almost definitive biography: “Vida del Muy Magnífico Señor Don Cristóbal Colón”. The presence of a good number of “conversos” in Columbus’ ship is described by José Amador de los Rios in his “Historia Social, Política y Religiosa de los Judíos de España y Portugal”. That is also the opinion of Simon Wiesenthal in his book “Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus”. Let me quote: “By midnight August 2, 1492, all Jews must leave Spanish soil. That same night, the three sailing ships which are to carry Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery are anchored quietly in Palos harbor – and although they are not scheduled to embark until the following day, Columbus has ordered his crew to be on board by eleven, but strangely enough, not a single priest is included. The auspicious coincidence of these two events – compounded with the intense mystery which has always surrounded the identity of Columbus – has led to a complete reexamination of all previously accepted theories about the true nature of his mission.”
In the last decades of the fifteenth century, there began what came to be called “The Holy Terror”. The origins of the Inquisition of the fifteenth century have been described by many. I prefer Benzon Netanyahu’s book with that title. As we all know Jews were eventually expelled. Not one or two but hundreds of thousands. Only those claiming to be “conversos” were able to remain after 1492 but they knew their lives were not secure.
Jews settled everywhere they were permitted: North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal. Sometimes they disguised themselves as “Portuguese New Christians” as they were forced to convert during their stay in Portugal.
Going back to 1492 and their massive expulsion, observant Jews fled east to the Ottoman Empire, others converted in order to remain. A minority fled to Portugal. In 1497 Spain pressured Portugal to install its own Inquisition as a price for the union of their royal houses in marriage. But a new chapter was going to start in Jewish history. “New Christians” as conversos and their children were known at that time made it possible for a New World to be discovered. Luis de Santangel, Abraham Senior, Gabriel Sánchez, Abraham Zacuto, the Crescas family and others contributed with their influence, their money or their knowledge to Columbus voyages.
It is not possible to know exactly how many Sephardic Jews came to America with Columbus. Some names are known, among then Luis de Torres, Columbus interpreter and future tobacco planter, one of the first Europeans to walk upon the soil of the New World as Harry Ezrraty mentions in his book “500 years in the Jewish Caribbean” together with the names of Mestre Bernal and Marco, the doctor of the flotilla.
Beginning with these Jews that defied the dangers of the sea, and I consider the great Columbus to be one of them, and many others, Jews were among the first European colonists in the Caribbean. It is true that they had to hide their Jewishness and that some had really become Christians under pressure. It is also true that new names were assumed and used when traveling or in business dealings. Ezrraty mentions details like the following: “Moses Cohen might become Antonio Vaez Enriquez, or Joshua Toledo (Toledo was a common Jewish name) might become Juan de la Madrid. The legendary Amsterdam Jewish ship owner, Manuel Rodrigues, was elsewhere known as Jacob Tirado or Tyrado. He may also have assumed the names Guimes Lopez da Costa or Simon Lopez da Costa”.
It would take a long time to look at all the names and all the possibilities beginning with 1492 but there is no important event in this period and future periods in which Jews were not present as a very important part of the history of the Caribbean. The first sailors, soldiers, officers, planters, builders, teachers, even priests and friars, included an extremely high number of Jews, some of which practiced their faith in secret. In other words, when we talk about the discovery, conquest and colonization of the New World, and not only of the Caribbean, we are dealing with a chapter of Jewish history. Of course, Spanish authorities realized the high number of “New Christians” in the New World or trying to reach it. Secret Jews were discovered and tried in Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Trinidad, among other places.
As we talk about islands and historical events we are going to enter into a fascinating subject that needs more exploration. Fortunately, recent historians and researchers are now aware of the Jewishness of some of the chapters of Caribbean and American history. As we are not able to discuss all the details let us concentrate in some of them. We are not dealing with Jewish presence in Mexico, Central and South America. It would take a long, very long, talk to deal with the information that is becoming available about those areas of the Western Hemisphere. An interesting book I recommend is “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” by Edward Kritzler. His book is introduced in its cover with these words: “How a generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom – and Revenge”. There were Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican and Jews pirates, and many others without any interest in religious matters. Piracy is not exactly what we see in movies. In some parts of the world it was a regular occupation practiced or tolerated by governments and influential individuals.
Later on, we will deal in more detail with the Sephardic Jewish presence in the islands of Hispaniola (mostly with what we know call the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico. To some extent it is possible to say that Caribbean Jewish history began in those islands. Of these four islands even Jamaica was originally colonized by Spain. Trinidad is a different case. Therefore, the Sephardic participation in the beginning of European colonization took place in those islands.
Before we get there, an interesting development had to do with Spain’s failure to have a monopoly on colonization. By the middle of the 16th century other European powers like France, England, Holland and Denmark developed an interest in the Caribbean region and other areas in the New World. The wars Spain fought in Europe made it impossible to use all their resources on this Hemisphere. In fact, thy the 17th century Spain was only able to protect their interest in some of the West Indies, as the Caribbean islands were called in many European countries.
The Antilles, was another name given to the West Indies and the islands of the Caribbean and only the Greater Antilles that is, Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico were fully controlled by Spain. The other two larger islands, Jamaica and Trinidad were lost to Spain and became British colonies. Jamaica was lost by the middle of the 17 century and Trinidad at the beginning of the 18th century.
It is important to remember that even though Jews were discriminated almost everywhere and the public profession of their faith was prohibited or restricted there was a difference between Catholic and Protestant countries in their dealing with the Jewish communities. The Inquisition was not allowed in Protestant countries. In fact, Protestant pirates and corsairs like Jacques de Sores, one of the most famous among them, loved to feed sharks with members of the Inquisition that were found in Spanish and Portuguese ships. Some of their relatives and friends had suffered the tortures and executions of the Inquisition.
THE DUTCH AND RELIGIOUS TOLERATION IN THE CARIBBEAN
The Netherlands first, then England, granted religious toleration to people that identified publicly as Jews. Many Jews from Portugal with ancestors in Spain settled in the Netherlands and other Protestant countries. Despite some unpleasant incidents Jewish life became part of Dutch society and Dutch Jews became financially active in the Dutch East India Company. As former Spanish colonies became Dutch more and more Jews became active participants in business and other activities. When Recife and Bahia, cities controlled by the Dutch for a period of time in the 16th and 17th centuries, were conquered by the Portuguese a number of Jews moved to some of the small islands of the Caribbean.
They were not the only Jewish settlers of the region but in Surinam in South America and in Curacao, St. Eustatius, Saint Martin and Aruba in the Caribbean small but prosperous Jewish communities developed. Surinam is not geographically part of the Caribbean but it is culturally Caribbean to an extent. Many authors consider Surinam the oldest continuous Jewish community in the region. It was the first country in the Western Hemisphere where Jews settled openly. Crypto Jews came in 1536. In 1639 observant Jews founded a colony with the name of Torarica or “Torah rica”, “Rich Torah”. Surinam was for a while a British and then a Dutch colony. Despite minor differences in chronology it may useful to remember that Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, opened England to Jews in the middle of the 17th century and that Jews were openly practicing their faith in the Netherlands more or less at the same time. Countries ruled by Calvinists were more open to the open practice of Judaism than Catholic and Lutheran nations.
Curacao had a large Jewish community by Caribbean standards even though Cuba was going to have the largest Jewish community in the 20th century before the Castro Revolution but until the 20th century Curacao had the largest Jewish community in the region. Jews fleeing from Recife, Brazil, arrived in 1659 under the leadership of Isaac da Costa. Mikve Israel-Emmanuel is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Beside the Sephardic community there is a significant Ashkenazic community. For more than three centuries and a half Jewish worship has been conducted there. An interesting fact is that Curacao Sephardic Jews supported Simon Bolivar efforts during the South American wars for independence. The families Lobo and Maduro, originally from Curacao, are among the best known in Caribbean history.
The relationship between the Sephardic communities of the Caribbean and South America and the early Jewish communities in the Thirteen colonies is significant and historical. Among other facts, I would like to point out that in September 1654, twenty-three Jews from the Sephardic community in the Netherlands, coming from Recife Brazil, arrived in New Amsterdan (New York City). They did not find a friend in Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant but religious pluralism was already a tradition in the Netherlands and the Dutch West India Company overruled his discriminating practices against other religions.
He was a strict Dutch Reformed that wanted Lutherans and Catholics and Jews out of the colony. The Dutch government did not agree with his personal position. Fortunately, Stuyvesant failed in his efforts. Charleston, South Carolina had a Sephardic Jewish community since the 17th century. By 1816 they had the largest Jewish population of any city in North America. Many of the members of the synagogue came from the Caribbean as others in the Shearith Israel Congregation of New York, the oldest continuous congregation in the United States organized in 1687 and with their synagogue erected in 1728. The oldest surviving synagogue building in this country is the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. That Sephardic group built its temple from 1759 to 1763. Rhode Island, founded by the Reverend Roger Williams, a Baptist minister, enjoyed religious toleration since its foundation. Baptists believe in the separation of church and state. I hope they still do. Fifteen Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families from the West Indies settle there. The name of the congregation was Jeshuat Israel. Some of the names of families coming from the Caribbean were Touro, Pereira, Mendez, Morais, Lopez. The Touro synagoigue was designated a National Historic Site.
AND THE BRITISH CAME….
Not only Jews from the Dutch colonies but also from British colonies are related to the history of Sephardic Jews in the Caribbean. For instance, there was a very active community in the island of Nevis. There was a synagogue on Nevis in 1684 and the remains of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in almost all the islands serve as testimony of Jewish contributions to society. By the way, Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States received his elementary education in a small Jewish school in his native Nevins. Many important names of teachers, politicians, merchants and professional people indicate the extent of Jewish influence in the small islands of the Caribbean. American statesman Judah Philip Benjamin, one of America’s greatest lawyers was born in St. Croix. He served as a Senator from Louisiana y then as a member of the Confederate cabinet. He was the famous Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America. The Virgin Islands has had three Jewish governors. The island of St. Thomas has had a long Jewish history.
Since the 18th century there have been synagogues and Jewish communities in the Virgin Islands. These islands have been under the Danish, British and American flags. Among the treasured religious objects of the islands there is a 900 years old menorah brought from Spain.
Sephardic Jews brought their knowledge of sugar culture from their experience in Brazil. David de Mercado made Barbados become a leading producer of sugar and rum. Early Sephardic residents of Barbados came from the Recife diaspora. A synagogue was built in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1833 but many Sephardim immigrated to England, the United States or other islands because of two factors, hurricanes and the decline of sugar in the world market.
Another British former colony is Trinidad- Tobago. In Trinidad-Tobago, a Spanish colony until 1797 (Tobago) and Trinidad (1818) only some Sephardic Jews lived but Ezratty points out that the Poet Laureate of the important Sephardic community in Amsterdam, Holland, stopped in Tobago on a colonizing trip to the Guyanas.
Bahamians do not consider themselves as Caribbean people but there are historical links. Luis de Torres, Columbus interpreter made the first recorded landfall in the Western Hemisphere, October 12, 1492. Two Jewish communities exist, one in Nassau and another in Freeport but it was not until Second World II that Jews began settling there in significant numbers and included a large number of Ashkenazin.
AND NOW THE SPANISH CARIBBEAN
I should start with Hispaniola, our beloved Dominican Republic and Haiti but there is something about the brief Spanish occupation of Jamaica that has always interested me.
There is no hard evidence for Columbus’ alleged gold mine in Jamaica. There are so many legends in the Caribbean and in the rest of the world. But there is enough evidence that in his fourth voyage when he had been forced to beach his ships in Jamaica after sailing from Panama with a cache of gold objects bartered from the Indians, Columbus had to face a rebellion and his brother Bartholomew was able to defeat it with a group of fifty youngsters, many of whom were probably Sephardic Jews. Some of these Jews decided to stay in Jamaica even when Columbus was able to return to Hispaniola. When his eldest son Diego came to Hispaniola to replace Ovando as governor he recruited “Portugals from Hispaniola” to explore Jamaica and settle there. Diego appointed Juan d’Esquivel, a converse who served under Bartholomew. Esquivel was eventually appointed Governor of Jamaica and directed converts to settle in Jamaica, a Caribbean island that for a while served as a haven for Jews. Kritzler points out that “Under the protection of the island rulers, covert Jews came disguised as conversos from Portugal, their presence there known and approved by the Spanish crown.” That is not the end of the story. When British warships sailed into Jamaican waters toward Kingston harbor after having failed to conquer Santo Domingo, they were led by Campoe Sabbatha, a “Marrano” Jewish pilot. The British were welcomed by the descendants of early Sephardic settlers. Not even the Inquisition was able to reach them now. By 1735 there were about 800 Jews in Jamaica. Jews have been among the most important personalities in Jamaican history. Members of Jamaica’s Privy Council, mayor of Kingston and other cities. A prominent Jew was the first Jamaican Ambassador to the United States and the oldest and most important newspaper The Daily Gleaner was founded by the brothers Phineas and Jacob de Cordova. Some of the members of the Jewish community are not Sephardic as a good number of Polish Jews moved to the island during Second World War.
The presence of Jews in La Hispaniola has been documented and several historians have worked on the subject. Most recently Jean Ghasmann Bissainthe published “Los judíos en el destino de Quisqueya”. The list of Dominican historians that have dealt with the subject includes Frank Moya Pons, Carlos Deive and Bernardo Vega, among the leading Dominican historians of the 20th century. Most the information available is from the Dominican Republic but we need to remember that both Haiti and the Dominican Republic occupy the territory that used to be known as La Española or Santo Domingo. Haiti occupies the western third of the island and was known until the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19thth century as Saint Domingue or French Saint Dominic. The eastern two thirds have been called Santo Domingo español or the Dominican Republic, proclaimed in 1844 when the country was liberated from Haitian domination.
The early Sephardic Jews that came to Santo Domingo were Maese Bernal, Luis de Torres, Rodrigo Triana, Juan Verde De Triana, Rodrigo Sánchez, Juan del Barco, Gabriel Baraona and others. But Sephardic Jews lived in different locations on the island and not only in Santo Domingo. Some lived in what is now Haiti. This situation was not limited to the period of Spanish colonization. Through the 18th century names as De Pas, Sarzedas, Soria, Gradis and Monsanto were found in French Haiti. The slave revolt of the 1790s affected Jews and other whites that died or had to flee. Many Sephardic Jews moved to South Carolina and other areas. Charleston received Sephardic Jews from many Caribbean locations even before that. Some Jewish merchants remained in Haiti after independence and later on some Jews from Europe moved to Haiti. Very few live there today. When mentioning Haiti we should take into consideration that French Jews visited those colonies under French control and some stayed there: Guadalupe, Haiti and Martinique. The family of Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France lived in Jeremie, Haiti until they moved to Bordeaux. The Mendes are a well known Sephardic family.
In Santo Domingo many Sephardic Jews were integrated with the rest of society. Intermarriage makes difficult to identify certain situations. Marriage between “canarios” or “isleños” coming from the Canary Islands and Jews were frequent. On the other hand a great number of “canarios” that went from the Canary Islands to Santo Domingo had Sephardic ancestors. Families like Ortiz, García, Ruiz, Lara, Machado, Melo, Castro, Peynado, Sánchez, Díaz, Peña, Jiménez, Caraballo, Bernal, Báez, Lluberes, Ramos, Soto, Carvajal, Pérez, Olivas, Aybar, Fernández, Pereyra, Mejía, Rivera, Noboa, Rodríguez, Guitiérrez, Enriquez, Saviñón, Guerrero, Caraballo, Cabral, Alfonseca, Pina, De la Cruz, Lamarche Cáceres, Guzmán, Troncoso, Carvajal may indicate Sephardic ancestors. A leading politician of the Trujillo Era, Arturo Logroño Cohen is an example of Jewish roots. Other names that indicate Jewish roots are Cohén, Levi, Windt, etc. The most illustrious names include Henríquez. The Henríquez Ureña and their relatives the Henríquez Carvajal identify some of the most prominent intellectuals and politicians of the Caribbean. Pedro Henríquez Ureña is considered one of the leading Latin American scholars of the 20th century. His brother Max gave a brilliant speech as ambassador to the United Nations supporting and celebrating the admission of Israel to the world organization. Even though they were assimilated through intermarriage descendants of Sephardic Jews can claim an important role in Dominican history. A descendant of that group was Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal, who became President of the Republic in 1916.
Let me mention some facts about non Sephardic Jews that were also welcome in the Dominican Republic with its tradition of hospitality. President Gregorio Luperon sought unsuccessfully to establish Russian Jews in the country as part of an agricultural program. In the early 1920s another wave of Jewish immigrants came from Eastern Europe and engaged in commerce unmolested.
In 1938 the President of the Dominican Republic Rafael Trujillo offered his country as a sanctuary for Jews persecuted in Europe. He promised to receive 100,000. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided funds. But in 1941 the Nazis cut off Jewish emigration from the territories they occupied. About 500 Jews were able to settle in the tiny seacoast town of Sosua, then just jungle land. The Dominican government provided to each family 80 acres of land, 10 cows. a mule and a horse. The colonists focused on raising cattle and butter and cheese production. Despite their success in the middle of the limitations of a very poor country they learned to prosper while some left for the United States of Israel. There is still a small community there. We cannot call the Sosua settlement a Sephardic community because of the fact that most were Ashkenazi.
In 1992 the President of the State of Israel Chaim Herzog sent a message to Santo Domingo thanking its people for their attitude during Second World War and the Holocaust. President Herzog wrote: “The Dominican Republic occupies a seat of honor in the memory of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, of which Sosua is an unforgettable symbol”.
Puerto Rico is the second island to be colonized by the Spanish. Because of the Castro Revolution and the exile of thousands of Cuban Jews, Puerto Rico has the largest Jewish population in the Caribbean, 3,000 or more and is the only island in the region in which the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish movements are represented. Some of the early Europeans inhabiting the island were Sephardic Jews but little is known about their presence. Nevertheless some names are known: Salomon Senior, Elias de Sola, Isaac de Lima, Judah Cohen, among others. Most of them were merchants but Isaac de Lima was a well known doctor en Mayaguez. Unlike other islands there are no significant records of synagogues, cemeteries of settlements. Roman Catholicism was enforced rigorously. Beginning in 1898 Jews came to Puerto Rico in small but significant numbers but most of them were not Sephardic. Jews from the United States like Adolph Wolf, Louis Sulzbacher and Cecil Snyder, who served as Chief Justice of the island’s Supreme Court were important administrators of the American occupation. Two doctors are given great credit in ridding Puerto Rico of tropical diseases, William Hoffman and Charles Weiss. More Jews came during the World wars and more recently a good number of Cuban Jews decided to make Puerto Rico their home. In Puerto Rico the synagogues, each one of them, have a resident Rabbi.
A well documented book about Cuban Jews is “Tropical Diaspora” written by Robert Levine but there are other sources. Many Sephardic Jews lived in Cuba during the Spanish domination but it was not until 1898 when formal Jewish communities were organized. I would like to emphasize that the first Bishop of Cuba that was born in the Caribbean, Don Pedro Agustin Morell de Santa Cruz, born in Santiago de los Caballeros in the 18th century was not only Sephardic, but probably was a Crypto Jew. He was the first Cuban historian and the most prominent personality during the period (1761-1762) that Havana and Western Cuba were under British domination. He challenged British demands to such an extent that he was deported and sent to Florida. Bishop Morell wrote extensively about history and pastoral work. Cuban historian César García del Pino wrote a book explaining his belief that Bishop Morell was a Crypto Jew that survived the continuous accusations of the Inquisition.
Early Jewish Cubans were Sephardic and their last names are no different from those of their Dominican neighbors. Practically every name I included in my Dominican list are to be found in Cuba. Doctor Levine writes about the beginnings of Sephardic Jewish presence: “Historical accounts of the Jewish colony evolution on the island emphasize Jewish “connections with Cuba” by considering as Jews many people who may or may not have considered themselves members of the Jewish faith”. This includes individuals whose ancestors had converted to Catholicism and who were brought up as Catholic, and also others suspected of having been “marranos”, or New Christians, those who maintained outward signs of Christianity”. Levine and other authors coincide in believing that he Holy Inquisition was established in Havana around 1519 and that many conversos were accused of being secret Jews, although aside from one 16th century case, Escalante, it did not issue sentences until 1610. One name is Francisco López de León convicted of “Judaizing” and executed. A famous victim of the inquisition was a “marrano” sailor Captain Miranda who brought with him a Hebrew Bible from Curacao.
But beginning with the American occupation new names were added, those of Ashkenazi Jews. Even before that a Polish officer of the Cuban Independence Army had a Jewish background, General Carlos Roloff, known as Akiva Rollof, called by Spanish officers a “Ukranian Jewish adventurer” who occupied important positions both during the First American intervention. When a Cuban government was organized he became Cuba’s secretary of the Treasury. A number of Jews came to Cuba during the American occupation and some among them decided to make Cuba their home. In 1906 a synagogue was established by eleven American Jews, the United Hebrew Congregation, Yiddish-speaking Romanian-born U.S. citizens, German Jews and others from European countries.
Most of the Sephardic Jews who came to Cuba in the early 20th century were descendants of the late 15th century Jewish exiles from the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, Cuba received more emigrants from Turkey than did any other part of Latin America, and most of these were Jews. Two cities predominated: those from Silivria, near Istanbul, went to live in Camaguey and those from a city close to Edirne, moved to Oriente province. Some differences between American Reform Jews and the Mediterranean Jews in the area of liturgy led the Sephardim to form their own synagogue in 1914, the Congregación Unión Israelita Chevet Ahim. Sephardic associations were established in Ciego de Avila, Manzanillo, Camajuani, Camaguey, Guantánamo, Artemisa, Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba and my own hometown, Colón in the province of Matanzas. By 1923 most of the Jewish immigrants coming to Cuba were Ashkenazim. A fully Ashkenazic synagogue was organized in 1925. Their first rabbi was Zvi Kaplan who came in 1928. I still remember the Centro Hebreo Sefardí in Havana but the most prominent Jewish institution was the Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba. The members built an impressive building that contains a synagogue, club rooms, a library, offices and a restaurant. With a large membership of Ashkenazim and Sephardic Jews they operated a school a many other organizations. The inauguration of the building in 1955 was attended by President Fulgencio Batista and his Prime Minister, Jorge García Montes who had served as an attorney for the Comunidad. The Jewish community was highly respected. There were synagogues in several cities. By the time Fidel Castro became the leader of the government (1959) Jews had served in many important positions in the government, the courts, the health system, in most industries, and business activities. Many were attending the universities and becoming professionals. Jews attended their own schools and also public schools and private schools. The number of Jewish students was significant in the best Protestant schools of the island.
I am extremely sad every time I have to mention the terrible incident that took place in Havana in 1939. Even though many Jews found refuge in Cuba during the Nazi period in Germany and their domination of most of continental Europe, 915 Jewish refugees from Germany were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada. A quarter of the ship’s passengers died in concentration camps.
Today thousands of Jewish Cubans, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, lived in the United States, Israel and other countries. We Cubans are proud of them. There was a time when between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews lived in Cuba. The number today is 2,000 or so.
Throughout the Caribbean we find evidences of Jewish presence and Jewish contributions to the region. Sephardic Jews helped build nations and islands that were discovered by Christopher Columbus and other people with Jewish backgrounds. My last book “El Caribe, Siempre el Caribe” could have another name: “The Sephardic Jews, Always the Sephardic Jews”. I praise God for the lives and work of our Sephardic ancestors. Some of my ancestors were Sephardim. And I am proud of that. Thank you. Shalom.
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