KINGSTON, Jamaica — Dutch Jew Inez Schpektor was only 11 years old when she boarded a ship from fascist Spain toward an unknown destination somewhere in the Western Hemisphere.
It was 1942, and along with her brother and parents, she ripped off her Star of David and walked through the woods across the border to Belgium. From there, the family rode freight trains through France, narrowly avoiding capture, before finally casting off from the coast of Spain.
Eventually, their ship docked in Jamaica, which was then a British colony.
“Coming from Europe, which was war-torn, and arriving in this lush paradise where the bananas and oranges were growing along the roads and the people were so friendly — it was fabulous,” remembered Schpektor, who is now 85 years old.
This weekend, Schpektor with her son and nephew returned to Jamaica for the first reunion remembering the Polish and Dutch Jewish refugees who were given safe haven here during World War II.
The event was organized thanks to Jamaican author Diana Cooper-Clark, who wrote a book about the Gibraltar camp where the refugees were housed. The book, “Dreams of Re-Creation in Jamaica: the Holocaust, Internment, Jewish Refugees, Jamaican Jews and Sephardim,” is being printed in Jamaica this week.
“It’s like a dream,” said Schpektor, as she looked out of the window of the tour bus that drove through the streets of Kingston, the Jamaican capital.
Approximately 300 Polish Jews and 500 Dutch Jews were housed in the Gibraltar camp between 1942 and 1944.
While a few of the survivors are still living, unfortunately the others weren’t able to attend the reunion because of their age and ill health, Schpektor said.
A daughter of Polish refugees also attended. Joan Halperin, who was born after the war, is also in the process of publishing a book about her family’s experience on the island.
Conditions on Gibraltar Camp
When the Jewish refugees arrived in Jamaica, they were not just let off the ship and given the freedom to do as they liked. Instead, they were housed in the Gibraltar refugee camp.
“People had to live in the camp. They did not want Jamaicans coming in, and they didn’t want to encourage relationships. People could leave, but they had to sign out. They were supposed to come back before 10 p.m.,” explained Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown, a Jamaican researcher from the University of West Indies who wrote her PhD thesis on the Gibraltar camp.
Francis-Brown is the curator of the university’s museum and gives guided tours of the Gibraltar camp.
“There was also a commandant, the head of the camp,” she said.
But make no mistake — it was nothing like the Nazi prison camps in Europe. Families were housed together. Food was never a problem. Children attended public schools. Refugees could get passes to leave the camp for overnight trips if they asked in advance. On a few occasions, the refugees took group trips to the beach, posing together for smiling photographs in the clear waters.
“People complained that they couldn’t work. I don’t know why they wanted to work,” Schpektor said. “They never had a time like that when they didn’t have to worry about where the next meal was coming from.”
Gibraltar Camp was originally built by the British to house civilians from the island of Gibraltar. The British decided to use the colony for military purposes to protect the strategically-located isthmus from German invasion.
The camp was intended for 6,000 people, but only about 1,800 people from Gibraltar ended up arriving. When the Jewish community heard about the extra capacity in the camp, they began to lobby the British to let in the Jewish refugees from Europe.
Meanwhile, the Dutch government in exile requested that Jamaica temporarily accept the Dutch Jews who were en route to the Dutch Caribbean islands of Surinam and Curacau.
While the British let some Jews in, it was understood that this would be only for a temporary period, and not at the expense of the British Crown. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee financed the Jewish portion of the camp.
While life was comfortable enough in the camp, the Crown refused to give full self-determination to the few hundred refugees, many of whom were educated and had valuable skills.
“Unemployment was one of the issues. There were significant economic problems in the Caribbean,” Francis-Brown explained. “And I think part of it had to do with how the British perceived the ‘Jewish problem.’ It doesn’t make any sense.”
Indeed, for the Jewish refugees, the stay in Jamaica was temporary. As soon as they got visas, they moved on to other destinations — the United States, South America, and other islands in the Caribbean.
After a year in Jamaica, Schpektor and her family went to Cuba (they were refused American visas three times), and returned to Holland after the end of the war.
No one in Jamaica today can think of a single Jewish refugee who ended up staying on the island permanently.
The first English-speaking university of the Caribbean
After the war, the Gibraltar refugee camp was converted into the University of the West Indies, the first English-speaking university in the Caribbean.
Some of the camp buildings survive to this day. The social hall, where the refugees held dance parties and movie nights, became the university’s exam hall. Buildings where the refugees slept became student dormitories.
“Half the reason why the university chose this site is because they repurposed the Gibraltar camp,” Francis-Brown said.
The laundry basins with faucets next to the exam hall, where the refugees hand-washed their clothes, also stand to this day — although they no longer seem to serve a purpose. Behind them is a colorful Caribbean mural that looks to be the work of university’s students.
By the basins is a sign, put up a few years ago. It says, “WWII evacuees and refugees living at Gibraltar camp did their laundry at these and other, similar, concrete cisterns.”
Author Cooper-Clark, who is also a professor at York University in Canada, said everyone in Jamaica helped to make the once-in-a-lifetime reunion event happen.
“The hotel gave massive discounts on the rooms — one third of the normal price, which is incredible. I contacted the biggest car agency and they gave us a bus for free and a driver,” she said.
“It’s a huge historical moment and it will never happen again. People don’t know that Jamaica was heavily involved with the Holocaust,” said Cooper-Clark.