Many moons ago, on the shores of the tiny twin island British colony of Trinidad & Tobago, Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe managed to find a refuge. While most other countries kept their borders closed to these refugees, in Trinidad’s entry point of Nelson Island, they were being allowed in. All they had to do was pay the required visa processing fee of TT$50. Some of the refugees – unable to access their bank accounts in Europe, due to the draconian measures of the Nazi government – had relatives, who lived abroad, wire the money directly to Trinidad. And so, until 1939, a curious wave of roughly 800 to 1000 Jews found a sunny, tropical island where they could live, work and love, while the madness that was the Nazi Jew-killing machine was an ocean away.
As a member of the Jewish community of Trinidad & Tobago, I am grateful to the authorities at the time for giving this lifeline, and for extending it as long as they could. This period of Trinidadian history is one of my country’s proudest and most selfless moments.
For decades, Mr Hans Stetcher – an Austrian-Jewish refugee, who arrived in Trinidad at the age of 13 with his mother, father and aunt – lived and prospered on the island. And, as the president of the now-defunct Jewish Society of Trinidad & Tobago, he meticulously archived all the photos, documents and family trees of this era.
When Hans passed in 2014, I was living in Tel Aviv at the time. But he had let us all know (and had stipulated in his will) that his entire vast collection of records be donated to the local University of the West Indies in Trinidad, so that these documents would be chronicled and forever remain a testament to this period of Jewish history in the country. So imagine my surprise when – after having returned to Trinidad – I contacted the university at the end of 2019, only to find that while they were aware they were supposed to receive this collection, they never actually had.
Luckily, I was able to track some of Hans’ collection; his in-laws in the southern Trinidadian city of San Fernando has received part of it, but from their descriptions to me, it wasn’t the full trove.
I realized that all of this information was lost.
But then I started thinking, there were nearly 1000 Jews who had made their way here to Israel. And of these, surely their kids and grandkids must still have photos, documents, records, and most importantly, the stories of what their parents/grandparents time in Trinidad.
And three weeks ago, my project to document these refugees and connect with their children began in earnest.
I posted on various Facebook groups I was a part of: Secret Jerusalem, Keep Olim in Israel, and the feedback was good, but when I posted in the Tracing the Tribe group, the floodgates were open, and the tide of information coming in has left me breathless, a bit overwhelmed, but so insanely thankful at the same time.
Stories of Jewish fathers who had come to Trinidad and later moved abroad but never mentioned Trinidad again. A particularly moving story about a Jewish American woman who found her half-Trinidadian sister (her father’s first child), and now the two sisters are excitedly planning to meet once the travel restrictions of Covid are over. Stories of Caribbean paintings which adorn a particular SoCal mansion – and which the children never truly understood until now. Stories from olim whose parents and grandparents remember their time in Trinidad with fondness. Stories from Israelis, who, spent their formative years in Trinidad – attending Catholic schools and bathing in Maracas Bay – and who, like me, when we speak Hebrew, we sing it in the beautiful lilt that is the Trinidadian accent. Stories of uncovered legends that Chaim Weizmann and his wife has secretly visited the community during the war to ensure that they were being treated well. And the discovery of the last two living Jews who arrived in Trinidad during the war: Mrs Dani Jeffrey (née Seper) and Mr Peter Laband, who live in the UK and United States respectively now.
Life can oftentimes be fortuitous. And I know that everything happens when it is supposed to. Last year, I was lucky to meet a Trinidadian graduate student, Ms Selleana Sankar, who recently submitted her very well-researched thesis for grading to the previously-mentioned university on the island. Ms Sankar’s thesis supervisor, Dr Telucksingh, was amazed at the depth of the Jewish history – and with his blessing (and promise of the university’s help) Ms Sankar has graciously continued to work with this project.
I think of Hans, who was like a grandfather to me, and I am buoyed that his work will not be lost: that we will recover it and I imagine him smiling down at me, happy with what we are doing.
If you – or anyone you know – is a descendant of the Jewish refugees who came to Trinidad during the war, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to having your story find its way home to Trinidad.