Port-au-Prince—For many people around the world, the earthquake that struck Haiti last January was a catalyst that spurred donations and an interest in learning more about the world’s “first black republic.” But for California couple Bill and Harrier Mohr, news of the earthquake stirred up more unusual feelings.
“We were watching the television and we saw an Israeli medical team setting up in Haiti.,” Harriet Mohr recalled. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Isn’t it amazing, Haiti was there for the Jews in 1930s and 40s to save them from the concentration camps and now the Israelis are arriving to save the lives of the Haitians.
“There seemed to be an incredible completing of the circle.”
The Mohrs had more than just a passing interest in the history of Jews in Haiti: Bill and his family arrived in Port-au-Prince in 1939, refugees from the Holocaust in Germany. The family stayed for just 10 months, until they acquired U.S. immigration papers, but the Mohrs are sure that Bill was saved by the generosity of the Haitian government, which let them into the country when many others around the world had closed their doors.
“The Haiti earthquake cast a spotlight on Haiti,” said Harriet Mohr. “So we began to be talking about Jews in Haiti—it all of a sudden had new meaning.”
There has been a Jewish presence in Haiti since colonial times, beginning with a few Jewish members of Christopher Columbus’ crew, and continuing to the present-day—a handful of Jewish families still live in Haiti, many of whom are prominent business owners.
This past spring, a Haitian medical student, Joseph Bernard, Jr., who has Jewish ancestors, published a history of Jews and Arabs in Haiti (“Histoire des colonies arabe et juive d’Haïti,” 2010). Bernard’s book touched briefly on the Jewish presence during World War II.
But when the Mohrs began looking more deeply into the history of Jews in Haiti during the war period, they were surprised at the lack of information available.
“We called a few people on different campuses who should have known and they said they didn’t know what we were talking about,” said Harriet Mohr. “We were always getting the same response: ‘Jews, Haiti, Shoah—we don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
According to historians, Haiti had originally offered to allow as many as 50,000 Jews to take refuge within its borders after the 1938 Evian Conference.
Historian Dr. Matthew Smith, a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, says pressure from the U.S. likely forced the Haitian government to scrap that idea. The Haitian president at the time, Elie Lescot, was heavily dependent on U.S. support. But even Dr. Smith, an expert in 20th century Haitian history, says he isn’t aware of much research about Jews in Haiti during the war.
The Mohrs have set out to make sure this aspect of Haitian and Jewish history isn’t forgotten, especially in a time of such need for Haiti.
They’ve set up a blog, the Haiti Holocaust Survivors project, to collect histories and stories from people around the world. They’ve already collected several personal histories of Jews who lived in or were helped by Haiti. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington D.C., has also helped with some of the research, and has found information about at least two Holocaust survivors who passed through Haiti.
“The main way that we helped is that we have a survivors’ registry, which is a voluntary registry, and we facilitated contact with a few survivors who were in Haiti,” said Steven Vitto, a researcher at the museum who helped the Mohrs with their research.
Vitto said he had come across references to survivors in Haiti during his research previously, on a limited scale.
According to Vitto and the Mohrs, some Holocaust refugees also escaped from Europe by being issued Haitian passports even when their owners had never been to Haiti or planned to go. The passports facilitated their passage to other countries during the war years.
“There’s an oral history project run by the Visual History Foundation, run by Steven Spielberg,” said Vitto. “They have two people who were issued those [Haitian] passports.”
A key turning point in the Mohrs’ research came a few months ago when they began talking to the Joint Relief Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization that helped refugees around the world during World War II. The Committee had records that showed it sent aid to between 100 and 300 Jews in Haiti during the war era.
“They estimate between one and three hundred,” said Harriet Mohr. “The numbers were always changing, because people were waiting for their number to be called by the United States and we’re not sure if they went to other places” such as other Latin American countries.
“Not everybody left,” Bill Mohr added. At least two families that the Mohrs know of stayed for a few decades after coming during World War II.
After just a few months of research and spreading the word, the Mohrs have already caught the attention of some professors at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which this fall plans to inaugurate a new research center, the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies. Professors there, too, are eager to learn more about an almost-forgotten angle of Holocaust history.
The new Center will host an exhibit of the Mohrs’ findings so far—an event the couple hopes will inspire even more Jews who received aid from Haiti, or their descendants, to come forward.
They also hope it will keep Haiti on the minds of people around the world as the country struggles to get back on its feet.
At least one Haitian-American leader has also taken note. Rodneyse Bichotte is a candidate for district leader in the 42nd Assembly district in Brooklyn, a heavily Haitian area that also has a significant Jewish population. Bichotte wants to use the story of Haitians and Jews helping each other to build more bridges in the local community.
“These are communities that for whatever reason see themselves as very separate,” said Boris Noble, a volunteer with Bichotte’s campaign. “This way, they can see they also have a history together.”
Building bridges and rekindling memories of Jews and Haitians alike is exactly the goal the Mohrs have been working to achieve, starting with Bill’s family but continually expanding.
“It’s a wonderful merging of the past and the present,” said Harriet Mohr.