Jews and Haitians: A forgotten history

MONTREAL – The heroic efforts of the Haitian government during World War II were recognized last Wednesday night as an exhibit, Jews and Haitians: A Forgotten History, opened at the Federation CJA campus.

“Rejecting the path of cowardice and silence, Haiti offered asylum to a persecuted people. In doing so, the Haitian people did a remarkably noble deed. As history and the present moment demonstrate, Jews and Haitians, two peoples similarly downtrodden throughout history, share a common destiny: the struggle to survive,” reads one of the exhibit’s 20 panels, which delve into the efforts of Haiti to provide a safe haven for Jews attempting to escape Nazi-occupied Europe.

“The Jewish community wishes to honour a people’s generosity, and to draw attention to a forgotten page of history. Above all, it is a way to express thanks to a nation we hope shall forever remain inscribed in the Book of Life.”

Whereas most countries refused to grant visas to Jews, Haitian diplomats were able to rescue several hundred Jews before the war by providing proper documentation allowing them to escape Nazi-occupied countries. Haiti also offered to take in 50,000 Jewish refugees at the Evian Conference in July 1938, however, this request was denied by the US Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles.

Panels also explore Haiti’s roots from slavery to independence, the Jewish presence in the Caribbean and conclude with the stories of individuals who survived the Holocaust as a result of help from the Haitian government.

“Tonight shows that the Jews and Haitians have an unforgettable history,” said Haiti’s Consul General Pierre-Richard Casimir.

“I am blown away because I see how we can all gain from this by recognizing the efforts of a small nation. You don’t have to be a big super power to make a difference,” added Susan Borer, president of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre’s board of directors. This small nation intervened to protect the vulnerable, namely the Jews, as victims of hate and discrimination before and during the holocaust and that’s what we try to teach children today.”

“Tonight is a celebration of life between the Jewish and Haitian communities,” added Frantz Voltaire, director and curator of the exhibit. “This is an occasion for us not to forget about such an important time in history, especially now when Haiti is facing a very difficult time in its history.”

Although the exhibit was planned before the devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January, the recent events further prove that both communities still maintain a very close relationship. Israel immediately mobilized its rescue efforts. In Montreal, the Jewish community was one of the first to offer its support to the Haitian consulate.

“We’re shocked and traumatized today, but we’re standing and that is because of the support we received [from the community],” added Casimir. “One of the first calls I received was from members of the Jewish community [while] an Israeli plane landed within 24 hours. They came from the other side of the world, which means that the Israeli people were really affected by what happened and we are very grateful for their efforts.”

The exhibit – which is sponsored by the Quebec Jewish Congress, the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, as well as the Centre International de Documentation et d’Information Haïtienne, Caribéenne et Afro-canadienne and Images Interculturelles – runs until March 21st and can be viewed at 5151 Cote Ste Catherine Road in Montreal.

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