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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Trinidad

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In this former British colony, home of calypso, steel band music, and carnival bacchanal, the policemen wear Stars of David on their uniforms and streets are named for Zionist leaders, yet one can count the Jewish population on the fingers of one hand.

Hans Stecher, owner of a flourishing chain of duty-free stores in Trinidad and Tobago, is one of that handful. Stecher and his parents arrived in Port of Spain penniless in 1938 with several hundred other Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who made Trinidad a temporary haven from Nazi tyranny during World War II.

As enemy aliens, Jews were interned in barracks erected near one of Port of Spain’s most fashionable residential areas today, but otherwise led normal lives, according to Stecher. The sudden influx led to the creation of the first Jewish congregation, the Jewish Religious Society, in 1938. By the end of the war, however, most Jews had emigrated.

A TRANSIT POINT

“Trinidad was in many ways a transit point,” explained Stecher. Few Jews who made their way here intended to settle permanently. Those who did helped set up the soon to become independent country’s first businesses in Port of Spain’s now thriving downtown commercial district.

Among these were Shimon Averboukh and his wife who arrived in 1933. The Averboukhs, active in real estate, named the streets in the housing development they built on reclaimed swampland on the outskirts of the capital after Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Gurion, and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

Why the Trinidad and Tobago Police Force adopted the Star of David as its insignia remains an enigma. According to one explanation, it is because the first chief of police was Jewish, but this story is apocryphal.

AN EVAPORATING JEWISH COMMUNITY

Until their death in the late 1970’s, the Averboukhs together with Stecher formed the vanguard of the evaporating Jewish community. In 1950, a make-shift synagogue was opened in a remodeled house in the heart of town, but by 1971 plans to erect a new synagogue were abandoned when the Jewish population virtually disappeared.

Today there are not enough Jews for a minyan, and Stecher, conscious of his role as one of the few remnants of a vanishing breed, is custodian of the 50 gravesites which occupy the Jewish section of the Mucarapo Cemetery, a short drive from the center of town.

Jewish settlement in Trinidad actually dates back to the 17th century when Sephardic merchants from the Dutch colony of Surinam moved to the island then under Spanish control. Historical records show that there was a small Jewish community when the British took over in 1797 and again in 1818.

In 1900, Trinidad’s 31 Jews were all British civil servants, including an associate justice of the Trinidad Supreme Court, or representatives of British firms. Today, the only traces of a pre-war Jewish presence are names on the windows of shops formerly owned by Jewish merchants which have long since passed into non-Jewish hands.

Notwithstanding an appreciable Lebanese and Syrian population, Trinidad maintains diplomatic relations with Israel whose Ambassador visits periodically from his base in nearby Caracas. Keeping a low profile, Israeli technical and agricultural experts also occasionally transit the island, no doubt oblivious to this country’s rich Jewish past.

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