PORT-AU-PRINCE (JTA) — For half a century, Gilbert Bigio’s mansion was the de facto Jewish community center of Port-au-Prince.
It’s where Haiti’s only Torah scroll was kept, an Israeli flag fluttered from the rooftop and each Passover the country’s 50 or so Jews would gather for a Seder, singing, "Next year in Jerusalem."
That beautiful mansion, with its luxurious swimming pool and a gazebo for outdoor parties, is now a collapsed pile of rubble — destroyed like countless other structures in the Jan. 12 earthquake that leveled much of this city. After the quake, Bigio managed to find the Torah scroll amidst the ruins of his house. He took it to his daughter’s undamaged home nearby for safekeeping. None of Haiti’s Jews were known to have been killed in the quake.
If tracking down Haitian Jews was hard before the earthquake, which killed an estimated 230,000 and crippled the country’s fledgling economy, these days it’s next to impossible. There’s no rabbi or functioning synagogue in the country, and land phone lines are still mostly out of service.
"We don’t know how to cope with this tragedy," said Bigio, a businessman who is also Israel’s honorary consul in Port-au-Prince. "They’re already talking about the next shock, because apparently the first earthquake was not complete."
Since the quake, there are only about 15 or so Jews left in Haiti, according to Bigio, out of a total population of 9 million. And they spend most of their time in Miami or the neighboring Dominican Republic because conditions at home are so difficult.
Sharona Nathan, daughter of the late Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan, is one of them. She lived here from 1979 to 1991 to be with her mother, who managed a hotel in Port-au-Prince. Sharona Nathan eventually landed a job as an English teacher at the local Berlitz language school and married a Haitian man of Palestinian origin whose parents ran the famous Issa art gallery.
She was one of nine Israelis in the country when the earthquake struck.
"When the quake happened, there was no communication whatsoever," she recalled. "My daughter in Israel was freaking out. People around the world were traumatized, because they got the whole story, but we had no idea of the extent of the damage."
Nathan’s family eventually learned via family friends on Facebook that she was alive and unharmed.
Besides Nathan, the only other Israeli known to be living here full time is businessman Daniel Kedar, who runs the ProDev foundation now providing disaster relief to Haitian quake victims. Kedar’s wife, Maryse Penette, is a former tourism minister of Haiti.
"Until the quake, our presence here was virtually non-existent," Kedar said of Israel. "There are no Israeli products, no Israeli names, nothing. So Israel for the Haitians has only religious connotations. All of a sudden, we’ve become one of the biggest players in relief, so we’ve had an exposure totally disproportionate to the size of our mission."
Israel was one of the earliest countries to dispatch a relief and rescue team to Haiti, and the IDF set up a sophisticated field hospital after the quake that was widely hailed as the best place to get medical care in Port-au-Prince in the days after the tremor.
Between 20 and 30 Israelis are now doing relief work in Haiti, according to Kedar. Israel also has decided to build a $1.5 million vocational school to be funded by the Jewish Diaspora, Bigio said. The idea is to teach Haitians how to become plumbers, mechanics, carpenters and the like — all skills that will be much needed for a post-quake recovery.
Luis de Torres, Christopher Columbus’ interpreter, is said to have been the first Jew to set foot in Haiti, in 1492. The first Jewish immigrants to Haiti came from Brazil in the 17th century, after Haiti was conquered by the French. These crypto-Jews were all murdered or expelled along with the rest of the white population during the slave revolt of Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1804.
Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a synagogue in Jeremie, a city along Haiti’s southern peninsula that was home to many mulatto families of Jewish origin; there are also vague historical references to Jewish tombstones in the port cities of Cap Haitien and Jacmel.
By the end of the 19th century, Sephardic Jews began arriving in Haiti from Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. Bigio’s uncle came here from Aleppo, Syria, in 1896, and his father arrived 20 years later.
In 1937, Haitian officials — like their counterparts in the Dominican Republic — began issuing passports to hundreds of desperate Eastern European Jews fleeing the Nazis. Many of those grateful Ashkenazim stayed until the late 1950s.
At one time as many as 300 Jews lived in Haiti, with congregants packing Bigio’s house every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for services. But attendance dwindled along with Haiti’s Jewish population, especially after the 1986 overthrow of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and the ensuing chaos of the Aristide years.
"There has never been any anti-Semitism in this country," Bigio told JTA. "The Haitians always had admiration for Israel, and now more so than ever."