More than 70 years after the end of World War II, a small South American country erected its first Holocaust memorial. Over 100 Jewish names were engraved on stone in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, in March of this year — establishing the first monument to local Holocaust victims in the Caribbean region.
“Even though they were in the northern part of South America, the impact was profound — 105 Jews got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Jacob Steinberg, a gold mine professional who was instrumental in raising the funds for the monument.
Suriname lost almost a fifth of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, according to Steinberg.
Suriname was then a Dutch colony known as Dutch Guiana, and because there were no universities there, young people often went to Holland to pursue their education or advance their careers, Steinberg explained. Unknowingly, some of them found themselves stuck in the Nazi death machine.
“Aunts, uncles, cousins — they were picked up by the Nazis, and after the war they didn’t come back,” said Evelyn Stroobach, whose grandmother, Rebecca Fernandes, was a Surinamese Jew who survived the war in hiding. “There were several Fernandeses killed at Auschwitz, they may have been relatives.”
‘Aunts, uncles, cousins — they were picked up by the Nazis, and after the war they didn’t come back’
One of the victims was Stroobach’s great uncle, Abraham Samuel Fernandes, who was born in Suriname but went to work in Holland before the war. He joined the Dutch resistance, but he was caught and sent to prison, where he was tortured and killed at age 34.
“When they found out he was Jewish, he got the worst treatment,” Stroobach said.
She said her mother and grandmother survived the war by living in a non-Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam and almost never leaving the house.
“My mother’s family refused to wear the star, they did not register, and I think that’s what saved them in the end,” Stroobach said.
For her part, Stroobach said “it’s absolutely wonderful” that a monument to Holocaust victims was finally erected in Suriname.
“Hitler said no one will remember. We have to prove Hitler wrong because we’ll always remember,” she said.
In addition to the names of the 105 Holocaust victims, the monument includes their dates of birth and death, and the names of the Nazi camps where their lives ended. Most were murdered in Auschwitz, Steinberg said.
In the course of his research, Steinberg passed on the names of 15 forgotten Surinamese Holocaust victims to the Yad Vashem museum in Israel.
The Jewish community of Suriname
Suriname’s Sephardic Jewish community dates back to the 17th century.
Portuguese and Spanish Jews moved to the area because they were allowed to own land and were given the freedom to form their own militia. They started out as planters, but later acquired sugarcane plantations and owned slaves, Steinberg said. They established communities with names like Torarica, the Jewish Savannah, and Jerusalem on the River.
“The first autonomous Jewish state, you can say, was in Suriname in the 17th century,” said Steinberg who has done extensive research on the history of the community. He said visitors to the country can still see 17th century Jewish gravestones and synagogues in the jungle.
“The Jews were the first settlers,” he said. “The Dutch farmers came to make money and go back to Holland. The Jews stayed. They came to live in a free society.”
Jews were so influential in Suriname that the country’s dialect, known as Sranan Tongo, includes words borrowed from Yiddish and Hebrew. For example, “treif” in Sranan Tongo means “bad food,” Steinberg said.
While their population numbered about 2,000 in the 18th century, Jews began to leave Suriname after the collapse of the plantation economy. Even more left after Suriname became independent from Holland in 1975, Steinberg said.
Only about 100 Jews and one synagogue remain in the country today, said Steinberg. Many are mixed and assimilated with non-Jews, he added. So much so, that a representative from the local mosque, which is right next to the synagogue, attended the dedication of the Holocaust monument.
“We have very good communication with each other,” Steinberg said. “Jews are not threatened by anyone.”
Jews from other New World countries also murdered by Nazis
Suriname was not the only Caribbean nation where the Jewish community was affected by the Holocaust.
At least 52 more Jews from the Caribbean and its extended basin were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, including 23 people from Mexico, 19 from Cuba, 15 from Curacao, two from the Dominican Republic, and one person each from Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Thomas, The Virgin Islands, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guadeloupe, according to a new book by Diana Cooper-Clark.
The Jamaican author, who is also a professor at York University in Canada, published a book this year about the Jewish community in Jamaica, entitled “Dreams of Re-Creation in Jamaica.” In it, she argues that we must not forget that Jews from the Caribbean were also affected by WWII.
“People don’t know that Caribbean Jews were murdered in the Holocaust,” Cooper-Clark said. She noted that in fact “not one” of the Holocaust experts she interviewed for her book knew that Jews from that part of the world were also killed in the concentration camps.