Written by Kat Featured Mar 7 2012
Did you know that Haiti was instrumental in saving the lives of several dozens families of Jewish descent as they fled the Nazis during World War II?
Most people, aren't aware of it, and even today only a handful of historians may know this, but Haiti was indeed responsible for saving about 70 Jewish families (an estimated total of up to 300 lives) during the horrendous Holocaust that occurred in the 1930s, in which Jewish families were hunted down in Europe and placed in concentration camps, some starved to death. Some were Austrian Jews, others were Polish Jews, still others German Jews, and a trickle of Romanian-Jew and Czech-Jewish descent.
300 lives…That number is certainly not as high as the number of Jewish families that Schindler helped saved, but a human life is a human life.
According to documents furnished to Kreyolicious.com by the Jewish dating from December 5, 1939, it was estimated that anywhere from 250-300 individuals fleeing Nazi Germany had come to Haiti. There were others other than this bunch who never came to Haiti at all, but from Germany were given Haitian passports by the Haitian government that allowed them to flee Germany to other countries.
In a then-confidential report done by Manuel Siegel to the Joint Relief Committee (this was set up from New York to help Jewish refugees in several different countries, including Haiti), it's affirmed that the first flow of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and arriving in Haiti started around March of 1938. Siegel attested in his report that he was unable to form a committee made up of Haitian Jews, writing that the estimated 10 Haitian Jewish families, some of whom had come to Haiti from Northern Africa in the 1900s, and others who had arrived before (in the 1800sin Haiti), "desired to be helpful but feared to identify themselves with the refugees in view of their relations with the government". The Jewish cause found plenty of sympathetic ears in Haiti, according to Joint Relief Committee records. One such person was Gontrand Rouzier, a Haitian lawyer and Rafael Brouard, the then-mayor of Port-au-Prince. Siegel managed to gather up several heads of the Jewish families to form a committee, and the Committee regularly sent the refugees small remittances to maintain themselves. The committee estimated that about 10% of the refugees were able to make a living as bakers, doctors, shopkeepers, photographers, among other professions.
While some of the refugee families arriving in Haiti were self-sufficient, and while others managed to make a living, some found it hard to adapt because work permits were difficult to get. At one point, a special tax was actually placed on the refugees awaiting visas to the USA ($50 every six months), a tax that the Committee tried to get abolished. Writing to the Committee, one representative wrote in a confidential letter that he suspected that an influential German chummy with the Haitian Minister of Interior was behind the sudden tax.
Subsequent correspondence does not indicate whether the tax was canceled or not. What is known however is that the majority of the families eventually received visas to leave Haiti for New York, and families like the Mohrs did. Another portion went to other countries in South America, and Central American countries like Panama and Cuba. A small portion remained. According to the report done by Manuel Siegel, dating from 1941, one of patriarchs among the Jewish refugees settled in Cap Haitian with his family, and was able to make a decent living in that city as a physician. It's indicated in the JDC records that two other families settled a few miles away from Port-au-Prince and were given remote agricultural land to settle. There were a few deaths as well, according to the JDC reports from tropical diseases.
There has been some observations made that far from wanting to save Jewish refugees, accepting Jewish families fleeing the Nazis from Germany into Haiti was purely business. For example, some of those Jewish families who were able to arrive in Haiti, and those furnished with Haitian documents to flee Germany were given those passports and official documents at $3000-5000, a huge sum for that time (heck, a huge sum for our time too; although the JDC report from 1941 says up to $3000). Misha Mitsel, an archivist with the American Jewish Distribution Committee of New York agrees that yes, indeed, while it was somewhat of a business transaction, "However, even such policy was better and human considering that more developed countries closed doors for Jewish emigrants."
Bill Mohr, who is now in his 70s, fled Germany (4 years of age at the time), and spent a year in Haiti, before his family was furnished with a visa by the American Consul in Haiti to go to New York told The Jewish Weekly in an interview in 2010:
"I do not know what would have happened if Haiti had not opened its doors to those fleeing the Holocaust My mother's mother and sister had found safe haven in Portugal, while my mother's younger sister was caught and spent the war in Auschwitz."
Mohr is putting together a Memory Project to gather the memories of people just like him who were saved from the Holocaust through passage to Haiti, or who were given Haitian documents to allow them to leave Nazi Germany. He recalls the pride he felt when Israeli medical teams landed in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake that hit Haiti. It brought back some bittersweet memories for him, and he is working hard with his wife in making sure that this aspect of Jewish Holocaust-Haitian connection is never lost.
So what do you think of all this?
Special thanks to Misha Mitsel of the JDC-NY for providing Kreyolicious.com with historical documents from the JDC files.