The exodus from Jamaica
Some 260 Jews sent to refugee camp in Jamaica during World War II spent three years in paradise while their relatives were murdered in concentration camps. One mystery remains: Are any of them still alive?
Shahar Bar couldn’t believe his eyes. On a dusty carton bag, between the shelves loaded with material on the activities of the Joint during the Holocaust, he saw one word: “Jamaica.” Unsurprisingly, his first thought was that the file ended there by mistake. “Jamaica reminds me of Bob Marley,” he says. “What does the Holocaust have to do with Jamaica?”
But a peek into the file revealed a treasure: The unknown rescue story of 260 Jews who were rescued from bleeding Europe in 1942, in the middle of World War II, and sent to a camp in Jamaica. They spent three years there, dealing with the tropical weather and kashrut problem and mainly with idleness in the faraway golden cage while their relatives were murdered in concentration camps.
At the end of the war the camp was dismantled, and its refugees were scattered all over. A rare documentation remained in the Joint archive and is revealed here for the first time. It tells the unbelievable story of the transfer from the European hell to a Caribbean country with white beaches and reddish sunsets. One mystery remains: Where did the Jews who spent three years of their life in the camp go to? And are any of them still alive?
Pictures with smiles
“Together with the Polish refugees in Lisbon, whose documents were found to be invalid and were given an ultimatum, was also Dr. Shlichter, a surgeon from Brussels who escaped the Gestapo through the skin of his teeth. He sent on behalf of all of us a telegram to Winston Churchill for his birthday and asked him for help. A day before the end of the ultimatum, the response arrived: The British government will send the refugees to a colony in Jamaica, where they’ll be able to live as free citizens!
“When the list of refugees whose request to immigrate was approved arrived, we suffered a heavy blow. My two brothers couldn’t join, as the exiled Polish government demanded that they join the Anders Army. My mother knew she would never see them again, and a year later she became ill from grief. Immediately after the war she died in New York.”
the testimony of Miriam Stanton, who arrived in Jamaica at the age of 28, is the most detailed document on the refugees’ life in the camp, which was built in the summer of 1940 on a sugar orchard outside the capital of Kingston. She shared her memoirs with the British Library as part of a project recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
Bar, a 30-year-old archivist and a history MA student in charge of categorizing the Joint’s material, encountered the story by chance, following a request from one of the families inquiring on the fate of its loved ones after 70 years.
It all began in November 1941. Some 500 Polish Jews were staying in Lisbon, Portugal – one of the only Western countries which still let Jews in. as their visas to the United States were no longer valid, they faced deportation. This meant they would return to the Nazi occupation lands and be sent to the death camps.
About 200 of them decided to ask for the help of the exiled Polish government, and a day before the deportation date they reached an agreement with the British government that would see them evacuated to the Gibraltar Camp in Jamaica, a British colony at the time.
The British government demanded in return that the Jews would fund their stay, and the Joint said it would pay for it. The 200 who were lucky enough to enter the list of the living arrived at the Lisbon port on January 24, 1942, joining some 850 Jewish refugees on a ship making its way to the US, Latin American countries and Cuba.
On February 9, the ship docked at the Kensington port, bringing 157 refugees headed to the Gibraltar Camp. They were later joined by some 100 additional refugees from Luxemburg and the Czech Republic.
“At first we were slightly shocked,” testified Stanton. “There was nothing in the rooms apart from blankets, beds, a chair and table, but it was much better than the place we came from. The camp manager introduced himself at the dining hall and said he hoped we would be comfortable. There was a hospital there with doctors and nurses.”
Later, she testified, the refugees asked for books, newspapers and a radio – and received them. “The food wasn’t bad either. There were fresh vegetables. We asked for fish and got kosher food as well. We prayed at the Sephardic synagogue established by the Joint in the camp, and we had a sense of acceptance and embrace.”
The spacious camp was built in a valley surrounded by hills with palm trees. Immediately after their arrival, the Jews received their own compound, and the photos found in the archive document their routine: A group of young Jewish girls in white dresses playing ball; a synagogue with the Holy Ark; refugees around the long dining room tables.
A stranger looking at the smiles in the pictures would think that these were vacationers at a village hotel rather than war refugees.
But the pastoral landscape and the smiles hid quite a few tensions. In order to prevent friction with the local population, the Jewish refugees were forbidden to work or live outside the boundaries of the camp.
A representative of the exiled Polish government in Cuba, who visited the camp on December 1943, was under the impression that the refugees were in good condition but that “the work prohibition sends many of them into a life of boredom and depression, and therefore they seek to immigrate as soon as possible.”
It was also reported that 20 religious refugees refused to eat meat due to the shortage of kosher meat.
In April 1944, some 55 of the camp’s Jewish refugees had yet to receive an immigration visa. Two months later, a harsh epidemic erupted.
“On the day before the invasion to Normandy we woke up sick,” said Stanton. “We woke up with a fever and a red rash and depression. People cried. There were some who said we should have stayed in Europe. The fear was of typhus and we were quarantined for six weeks. It was very boring.”
Blood tests conducted on the refugees revealed that it was Dengue fever. “The small stream at the margins of the camp was filled with mosquito, and these thousands of small and clever creatures were very fond of our European blood and passed the disease on to us.”
Looking for relatives
The camp was dismantled at the end of World War II, and the few Jews remaining there scattered all over. Testimonies and documents found later on reveal that most of them immigrated to South American and to the United States and a small number of them reached Europe. It’s unclear if any of them immigrated to Israel.
Ever since discovering the box, Bar is restless and continues to search for additional testimonies, and mainly for someone who stayed alive. Stanton died six years ago at the age of 91, but the Joint has not despaired and is trying to locate the last residents of the camp or their offspring. “We want to tell them about the lives of the parents in Jamaica and what they did for them,” says the organization’s CEO Amnon Mantver
One of the only means left to do so is one document, simple but moving: A list of 137 families which stayed in the camp. These are the names of the people looking out from the photos, only there’s no one to say who is who. Are any of them still alive? Do their grandchildren know that they spent the war years in a sunny Caribbean country which gave them life?
TAGS (Jamaica, Jewish, Exodus)