History of the Jews in Haiti
In 1492, the first Jew to ever set foot in Haiti was Luis de Torres, an interpreter for Christopher Columbus. After Haiti was taken over and colonized by the French in 1633, many Dutch Jews (whom many were Marrano) emigrated from Brazil in 1634 and became employees of the French sugar slave plantations and further developed the trade. In 1683, Jews were expelled from all French colonies, including Haiti. Nevertheless, a few Jews remained as leading officials in French trading companies.
The “Black Code” of 1685, not only restricted the activities of free Africans, but forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism (it included a provision that all Africans and African Americans must be baptized and instructed in the Roman Catholic religion), and in turn ordered all the Jews out of France’s colonies. Only Jews holding special “Lettres patentes” could settle there. Most prominent were the members of the Jewish Gradis company, which had offices in Cap Francois (today’s Cap Haitien), Sain Louis, Fond de l’isle a Vache, and Leogan. With the required permission, Jews arrived from Bayonne and Bordeaux (including the distinguished Mendes France family). They were joined by Jews from Curaçao, who settled mainly in Cap Francais (where they employed a cantor and a circumciser), Jeremie, Les Cayes, and in smaller numbers in Port au Prince.
Jews also came from Jamaica and St. Thomas of the Virgin Islands. All of them were either Dutch, English, or Danish citizens. With the nomination of Jean Baptiste Charles Henry Hector Comte d’Estaing as governor of the French Windward Islands (Isles de Vent), the tolerable, semi-legal existence of the Jews in Haiti was put under the yoke of heavy taxation. Jews had to pay for the financing of infrastructure projects and for the maintenance of the army. An attempt was made to expel the Jews from Cap Francais.
In day-to-day life there was no real discrimination. Dr. Michel Lopez de Pas of Leogane was nominated as “Medecin du Roy” , others were named as judges and to other public functions.
Many Jews preferred to settle on the coastline, in port cities as many Jews were involved in commerce and trade establishing communities in major industry centers. Recently, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient synagogue of Crypto-Jews in the city of Jérémie, the only one found on the island. Several Jewish tombstones have also been found in port cities such as Cap-Haïtien and Jacmel.
In the mid-1700s, many Jews returned to Haiti, as many Jews also arrived from civil strife in Poland (with the invading Russia, Prussia and Austria). Most were later murdered or expelled during the revolt led by Toussaint Louverture in 1804.
By the end of the 19th century, approximately 30 Jewish families arrived from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. A law in France was passed during this period that gave French citizenship to minorities in the Americas; thus many Jews from the Middle East felt secure emigrating to Haiti. These Jews in particular, brought with them their many Sephardic customs and traditions.
In 1915, during the United States occupation of Haiti, roughly 200 Jews lived in Haiti. During the 20 years period of occupation, many Jews left Haiti for the United States and South America. In 1937, Haiti issued passports and visas to Jews (about 70 Jewish families (an estimated total of up to 300 lives)) escaping Nazi persecution. Some were Austrian Jews, Polish Jews, German Jews.
Professor David Bankier of the University of Jerusalem, said that after 1938, “the cost [of a visa] was outrageous: If you wanted to go to Haiti, you had to pay $5,000.” Haiti at the time, was still unfairly paying reparations on an exorbitant debt with interest fees to France after the Haitian Revolution that could have hindered their efforts to continue issuing these visas for free. Other Jews never came to Haiti at all, but from Germany they were given Haitian passports by the Haitian government that allowed them to flee Germany and into other countries.
Grateful to the Haitian government, many of these European Jews stayed in Haiti until the late 1950s in which many Haitian Jews left, so that their children could marry other Jews and not assimilate. The mid-20th century was a time where a continued departure of Jews from Haiti for the United States and Panama because of the economic conditions and civil violence in the country.
The 1960s was a time of wealth and high hopes of large future development for Haiti. At the time met many family Jewish names such as: Alvarez, Cardozo, Cohen, Dreyfus, Goldman, Hakim, Hillel, Khan, Monsanto, Pereira, Salzmann, Silveira, and Weiner, which most had forgotten their ethno-religious backgrounds. Today, the Weiners (coffee exporters) and the Salzmanns (refugees from Austria) are still relevant in trade.
The 21st century witnessed a continued departure of Jews from Haiti, for the United States and Panama because of the poor economy and civil violence. Even after so many decades of living in Haiti, Jews are still considered foreigners. Today, only 25 Jews remain in Haiti, predominately residing in Port-au-Prince.
Today, the Jewish community is led by Gilbert Bigio, a retired billionaire Haitian businessman of Syrian descent The community’s de facto leader, says that at one time, as many as 300 Jews lived in Haiti.
“Every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our house was completely full,” recalled Bigio, noting that, until recently, all religious ceremonies were at his home. But attendance for the High Holidays has gradually dwindled, along with Haiti’s Jewish population. “The last Jewish wedding here was my daughter’s, eight years ago, and the last brit mila [circumcision] was that of my son, 30 years ago.”
Bigio, 68, lives in a big, beautiful house in Petionville, one of the few upscale neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. Behind the well-guarded house is a luxurious swimming pool and a gazebo for outdoor parties.
“Haiti wasn’t always a poor country,” said Bigio. “When Haiti had three or four million people, everything was beautiful. If most of the Jews left, it’s because they were hoping to live in a developed country, where their children could marry among themselves.”
A case in point is Bigio’s wife Monique, who wasn’t born Jewish — though she converted to Judaism long ago with the help of a visiting rabbi from Miami. And while he isn’t a religious man, Bigio is especially proud of the Sefer Torah he keeps in his study — the only Torah in all of Haiti.
“My uncle came from Aleppo, Syria, in 1896, and my father 20 years later, during World War I,” he said. “They were escaping the Ottoman Empire, and at that time, there was a French law created by the Justice Ministry that would give French citizenship to the minorities in this region of the world.”
The family prospered in the export of cotton, cacao and a valuable wood known as campeche. “Most of the Jewish families in Haiti were in the textile and retail businesses,” he said. “We’re also in industry and trading. We have a small steel mill, we distribute edible oils, and we work a little in banking.”
Bigio declined to discuss politics. “Our principle, which we respect daily, is to not mix in Haitian politics,” he explained. “Even after three generations, we are considered foreigners.”
Notable Haitian Jews
Amos Radian – Israel’s Dominican Republic-based ambassador to eastern Caribbean
David Ades – political writer for Le Nouvelliste
Daniel Kedar – businessman; co-founder of Prodev
Elisabeth Silvera – President of the Fondation Haiti Solidarite (FHS)
Eric André – actor, comedian and television host
Fritz Mevs – business tycoon; founder of WIN Group
Gaston Michel – local tourism official
Gilbert Bigio – businessman billionaire of Syrian descent and Israeli honorary consul in Haiti
Kenneth Ades – financial service provider
Luis de Torres – Christopher Columbus’s interpreter
Monique Bigio – shareholder of PromoCapital
Monique Péan – jewelry designer
Reuven Bigio – founder of FAE (Fondation Appui à l’Education)
Robin Padberg – CEO of telecommunications company Voila in Haiti
Rudolph Dana – CEO of Transec SA
Sol – is a musician of Russian descent
Storm Portner – one of the first sugar cane producers in Haiti [?]