MONTREAL — In the late 1930s, Haiti, a poor country of less than three million people, offered to take in up to 50,000 Jewish refugees from Europe, but the idea was dismissed by U.S. undersecretary of state Sumner Welles at the July 1938 Evian Conference, convened by president Franklin Roosevelt to deal with the increasing number of Jews desperately trying to find sanctuary.
Haitian Consul General Pierre-Richard Casimir
Nevertheless, the little Caribbean country, founded in 1804 as the world’s first independent black state, did undertake a heroic effort to issue passports to as many Jews fleeing Nazism as it could through its diplomats, many of them volunteers, in European capitals.
Despite the obstacles, several hundred Jews were rescued by Haitian officials and received hospitably by the Haitian population before and during World War II. Having known oppression, the Haitian people were sensitive to the suffering of others.
This information is brought to light in an exhibit titled “Jews and Haitians: A Forgotten History,” on view in the lobby of Federation CJA’s Cummings House until March 21.
The exhibition, a series of 20 panels with text and archival photos and documents, was created by members of Montreal’s Haitian community in collaboration with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) and Quebec Jewish Congress (QJC) as part of Action Week Against Racism.
It was conceived long before January’s catastrophic earthquake, by Haitian-born historian and filmmaker Frantz Voltaire, founder and director of the Centre internationale de documentation et d’information haïtienne, caribéenne et afro-canadienne, and Paris-born educator and author Maurice Chalom. The two have been friends and associates in intercultural and anti-racism projects in Quebec for almost 25 years.
Last year, they decided to highlight the little-known generosity of Haiti toward the Jewish people at a time when most of the world had closed their doors to them, during the annual province-wide event to promote tolerance. It would also be an opportunity for the Jewish community to express its gratitude to the local Haitian community, which now numbers 100,000.
At the opening of the exhibition, the foyer was filled with members of both communities, who rarely have much contact, except between a few individuals such as Voltaire and Chalom.
The exhibit and the opening speeches underlined that Haitians and Jews share a past marked by persecution and the struggle to survive, but that this has not extinguished their hope.
As Haitian Consul General Pierre-Richard Casimir observed, both peoples have known slavery, deportation and attempts to exterminate them. Perhaps for that reason, he said, the Montreal Jewish community was among the first to offer its support after the earthquake.
The exhibition also touches on the Jewish presence in the Caribbean going back to the early 17th century, and notes that a Jew named Sasportas was executed in 1799 for leading a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, the French colony that predated Haiti.
Jews began to settle in Haiti in the latter half of the 19th century.
Haitian intellectuals spoke out against Nazism from its beginning and in 1938, foreign minister Léon Laleau announced the country would receive 50,000 Jews. After the United States shot down that plan, president Sténio Vincent decreed on May 29, 1939, that Haitian naturalization would be automatically granted to refugees, in absentia.
One of those refugees, Otto Salzmann from Vienna, is highlighted. He married a Haitian woman and remained in the country after the war.
Voltaire knew him as a child and was fascinated by Salzmann’s experience. Later, after immigrating to Montreal, Voltaire met an Italian Jewish woman who had obtained one of the false Haitian passports. He set about to learn more about the Holocaust.
Voltaire was assisted in his research for the exhibition by Haitian-born historian Marcel Bonaparte Auguste, who has produced 600 pages on the subject.
QJC president Adam Atlas said: “The courage and tenacity of the Haitian people who have so many times been the oppressed, have a proud history of extending their hands to help others. Their story may be untold but we, the Jewish community, have not forgotten.”
He added that, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, he feels, “in a certain sense, it’s my family you saved.”
MHMC president Susyn Borer said it is hoped many students would see the exhibition because of its lessons that a small nation, and even an individual, can have an impact when others are in trouble, and that communities working together can combat hate and prejudice.
Federation executive director Andrés Spokoiny noted that the Montreal Jewish community raised more than $380,000 for earthquake relief and, while some of that came from major donors, most of it was from the grassroots, including young children.
“But it’s not just about money. The community wanted to show solidarity,” he said. “Judaism teaches that we should not be indifferent in the face of suffering, and we tried to put that in action.”
Among those who also spoke were two Jewish General Hospital nurses, Karine Lamour and Jean Ernest Dolièpe, who volunteered after the earthquake. Their message was that the country may be devastated, but its people’s spirit has not been destroyed. Montreal executive committee member Mary Deros spoke on behalf of the city.
“Jews and Haitians: A Forgotten History” is also supported by the Alex and Ruth Dworkin Foundation and FAST (Fighting Anti-Semitism Together).