Diario Judío México - The Jewish section tucked away in the corner of Mucurapo Cemetery is normally neat and clean. But weeds and flowers spring up wildly aroud the stone markers when Hans Stecher is off the island.
Stecher, the lone caretaker, is one of Trinidad’s last Jews. From a mid-century high of 700, the community has dwindled to less than a minyan, the ten males traditionally required for Jewish prayer services.
There is no synagogue – nowhere for Stecher to go on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that begins Sunday evening.
“I’ll say my prayers at home,” he said. “That’s how it’s been now for some years.”
Like many others, the Austrian-born Stecher and his family arrived in Trinidad after fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. They spent three years in an internment camp – Trinidad was a British colony at the time – before being released.
“We were regarded as enemy aliens, although we were implacable foes of the Nazis, of course,” Stecher said. “Simply because we came out of Germany and Austria the British Empire regarded us as suspect.”
Many Jews left Trinidad in disgust. Enough stayed to form a community that held fund-raisers for Israel and had its own soccer team and a drama club that performed plays in Hebrew.
“It was a very vibrant community,” said Stecher, who owned a gift store that he sold several years ago.
But, as with most Jewish communities in the Caribbean, assimilation and migration depleted the ranks. Stecher said the black power movement of the 1970s also had an impact.
“It was very unsettling,” he said. “There were marches (and) a lot of anti-white sentiment. Having gone through racial discrimination and persecution once, one didn’t want to have to go through it again. A lot of people got fed up and wandered off, to the US and elsewhere.”
Stecher, who has no children, now spends his time pursing hobbies like photography, travelling with his wife – they just returned from four months in Europe – and, on a purely voluntary basis, tending the 60-odd Jewish graves.
“I regard Trinidad as my home, having lived here most of my life; this is where I built my business from nothing,” he said.
Stecher says many of Trinidad’s 1.3 million people are descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled here in the 16th century. They likely would have been Marranos, who converted to Catholicism under the Inquisition but secretly practiced Judaism.
Common island surnames such as De Silva, De Lima, Rivera and Nunes are evidence of that, Stecher said.
But while Jews from Spain and Portugal settled elsewhere in the Caribbean, Eli Faber, a historian at New York’s City College, disputes Stecher’s theory about Trinidad.
“There is no way to prove that,” Faber said. “To look for Jews (in Trinidad) prior to the British, during the Spanish period is, frankly, baloney.”
Even if the Jews vanish entirely from the island, there will be reminders of them for years to come: Trinidad’s police and army have adopted the Star of David as their symbol.
According to legend, a British commander who came to Trinidad from Palestine put a white star against a blue background for the local army symbol, switching the colours of what was to become the Israeli flag. A copper-rumped hummingbird was later added for local flavour.