PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Aug. 7)
The Jewish traveler abroad often finds that some countries do not list Jewish synagogues when they mention religious services. Haiti is one country that doesn’t have a synagogue, but still the. Haitian official Visitor’s Guide notes:
“Although there are no synagogues in Haiti members of the local Jewish colony observe the Holidays .” Visitors of the Jewish farm are welcome and inquiries should be made locally.”
No better explanation could be written for Haiti for often the telephone will ring in the home or office of David Bigio, a Jewish leader here. An American Jewish tourist will be calling and asking about the community and wanting information. Most hotel managers, and indeed most people in Port-au-Prince, know the Bigio family.
Before the Israel Embassy began holding religious services on its grounds, prayers were held in the home of Bigio’s late father, Charles “Shalom” Bigio who came to Haiti from Aleppo, Syria. Until recently, in fact, the bulk of the Jewish community was Sephardic. Interestingly, today, the largest single group are Jews from the U.S. who have settled in Haiti, which occupies the western third of Hispaniola, largest island in the Caribbean except Cuba.
JUDAISM STAYS ALIVE IN HAITI
How does Judaism stay alive in Haiti? First, the Israel Embassy holds services during the holidays and festivals. There also are the fund drives by Keren Hayesod, Israel Bonds and the Jewish National Fund. Many of the children attend Jewish summer comps in the U.S. and many of the adults have been to Israel. Some opened businesses there. Once, there was even a Haitian restaurant in Eilat, proudly set up by Haitians.
Within easy reach of New York City and Miami, many American Jewish tourists visit here and later keep in touch with members of the community. Of course, Haitian Jews also frequently travel to Miami, only one-and-a-half hours away.
During World War II, Jews found a safe haven here. Bigio recalled that one morning in the very early hours, his father was awakened with the information that if he wanted to save Jews who had arrived on an ocean liner, he would have to move very fast. Bigio rose, woke a Cabinet member friend, had the latter sign the papers, and took 60 Jews off the boat; Jews who would have surely been returned to the fate of the Holocaust had not Bigio taken action.
Israel Ambassador Zvi Loker reminded this writer that today nearly all the Jews live in Portau-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. But once they were spread out over the entire island. On an 18th Century map of Haiti, he discovered two names, “Anse-a-Juifs,” and “Ponte-a-Juifs” (which mean Jewish points of settlement). He was quick to note that the Jews in Haiti are in effect part of American Jewish history.
JEWISH CONTRIBUTIONS RECALLED
What is newsworthy here, too, regarding the Jewish community, is that in the last five years, Loker has opened up the once in terms of Jewish scholarship. He himself has delved into the origins of the Jews in the Caribbean and in Haiti. That is Loker’s “hobby” and “passion,” and already he has 400 actual names of Jews who have lived here.
A graduate of the Hebrew University in Jewish History, he has written major academic papers on the Jewish presence, enterprise and migration trends in the Caribbean. His paper on “Jewish Toponymes in Haiti,” was published in “Jewish Social Studies.”
Wherever this writer went, Jews told me with a sense of pride about the existence a long time ago of a synagogue in Jeremie. This is a town of poets, birthplace of Alexandre Dumas, a small port which owes its life and melancholy charm to the sea. Two centuries ago, Jews traded in this town on the northern shore of the southern peninsula in Haiti.
In Jeremie, in the town of Jacmel and in Port-au-Prince, there are Jews who have long since assimilated.
But a visitor cannot come away from this enchanting and friendly nation without thinking of the Jewish contributions to Haiti and the Caribbean, including further development of trade and commence and contributions to ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism. One awaits the results of the scholarship of men like Loker and others who will explore in great detail the Jewish heritage in Haiti, a Jewish community which is still alive and which awaits, as Bigio put it, more opportunities to welcome American Jews.