It took the longtime passion of a Christian, Jamaican-born York University professor to bring to light the virtually unknown history of Jamaica’s Jewry.
Diana Cooper-Clark, inspired by her close relationship with her Jewish godparents, spent years researching her book, Dreams of Re-Creation in Jamaica: The Holocaust, Internment, Jewish Refugees in Gibraltar Camp, Jamaican Jews and Sephardim.
Cooper-Clark chronicles the story of Jamaican Jews, beginning with the Sephardim, the original Jewish settlers who arrived on the sunny shores of Jamaica almost 500 years ago, escaping the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. They were followed by Ashkenazi Jews who arrived in the 18th century. Though they were often treated unfairly and were overtaxed, the Jews of Jamaica were allowed to practise their religion.
The main focus of Cooper-Clark’s book is Gibraltar Camp, originally built by the British to house Gibraltar and Maltese citizens during World War II. Those from Gibraltar arrived, but the Maltese stayed on their Mediterranean island.
Giving in to the pressure and financial support of American Jewish organizations, Britain also agreed to give clearance to some Jews originally from Poland and Holland, who had made it as far as Spain and Portugal, to leave by ship for Jamaica.
“There were 200 Polish Jews who were the first to arrive at the beginning of 1942, and later, in December, 172 Dutch Jews arrived,” Cooper-Clark says. “Jews from other countries came from 1942 to 1944. Altogether, approximately 1,500 Jews came to Gibraltar Camp during World War II.”
Life in the camp was not great, especially for the first wave of Jews from Poland. Conditions for the refugees were poorer than expected. The housing was basic, the food was not to their liking, children went to school, but parents could not work outside the camp. It has been termed by some as an internment camp, but residents seem to have had more freedom than those at other such camps during the war.
Some made friends with members of the established Jewish community and others, and they enjoyed family outings away from the camp.
Cooper-Clark decided to organize a reunion of Gibraltar Camp survivors and their families for this past Remembrance Day. Sadly, only one survivor attended, Inez Schpektor Baker, 85, who now resides in California. She was 11 when she originally arrived at the camp. Other elderly survivors just couldn’t physically make the trip. Another survivor, Toronto’s Jack Fagan, planned to make the reunion but finally wasn’t able to.
Schpektor Baker was joined by her two sons, Ron and Russ, and her late brother Herman’s son Jack, who came from London, England. For her, living in the camp was fantastic after coming from war-torn Europe, where everything was bleak. Through her youthful eyes, she saw it as a paradise.
“For the children at the camp, everything was good,” Schpektor Baker says. “For the adults, some wanted to have work and weren’t allowed. That bothered some people, but others, like my parents, loved the camp.
“I really wanted to come and bring my sons to the reunion. I wanted them to see the contrasts of where we came to and to appreciate that. This is a gift to come back here, and thanks to Diana for putting this altogether. I was so happy to be able to contribute to the research of her book. I will share this reunion with others who would have wanted to make the trip but felt that they weren’t up to it.”
Also attending the reunion was American Joan Arnay Halperin, whose parents and sister, Yvonne, lived at the camp, although she herself did not. Polish Jews living in Belgium, they were saved by Aristide de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat stationed in Bordeaux, France, during the war, who, against his government’s wishes, saved many Jews by sending them to Portugal, where they left for Jamaica.
Sadly, Arnay Halperin’s sister died at the camp at the age of four and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Kingston. All but a German Jewish doctor, Rudolph Aub, who worked at nearby Up Park Camp, the British army’s Jamaican headquarters, left Jamaica after their internment.
Cooper-Clark felt it was urgent to plan this reunion while there were still survivors alive. “They are the last eye witnesses to the Holocaust,” she says. “They should never have been interned, and this reunion gives them the welcome they should have had. Also, their relationship to the Jamaican Jewish community is very important, and the relationship of Jamaican Jews to the Holocaust is largely unknown. My book and the reunion somewhat erase the marginalization of this particular narrative of the Holocaust.”
Despite the fact that there were far fewer participants than Cooper-Clark had hoped for, she planned an extensive itinerary for those who came. Gathered at The Courtleigh Hotel & Suites, they enjoyed a lecture from Cooper-Clark and Ainsley Henriques, director of the Jewish Heritage Centre. All attended a special Remembrance Day Shabbat service at Shaare Shalom Synagogue. There was interaction with locals, including Christians who trace their roots back to the early Sephardi families.
Participants also toured Gibraltar Camp, now home to a University of the West Indies campus; the Jewish cemetery where Arnay Halperin’s sister lies; the Blue Mountains, where the refugees hiked; Papine Market, where they shopped; Hope Gardens, where they played, and Liguenea Club, where teens gathered.
They also toured the National Gallery, where the paintings of Jewish Jamaican artist Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849) hang, and Devon House, originally built by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first millionaire, whose father was a German Jew.