You can’t have a Caribbean Jewish history like Curacao’s Mikve Israel-Emanuel without leaving a footprint. These physical echoes not only tell us about the past, but they also can tell us about the present. That became abundantly clear to me when I visited the community’s nineteenth century, and current, cemetery in Berg-Altena. It once was divided by a wall, when Mikve Israel (Orthodox) and Emanuel (Reform) were independent from one another, though it was removed in 1961 in anticipation of their 1963 reconciliation.
Statues from Emanuel’s side are surprising as they look almost Catholic, and yet the names of the deceased are Portuguese Jewish. Amazing, nearly every name in the cemetery is Portuguese. In other words, until this day, almost all of the members of Mikve Israel-Emanuel community are ethnically Portuguese Jewish. I would say that the Sephardic community of Curacao is the most ethnically ‘pure’ Portuguese Jewish community that I’ve ever visited. While Jews left the island over the centuries, not many sephardim immigrated, and so all those that remain are remnants of the community’s original members.
The community’s original cemetery is located in Blenheim, just beyond Willemstad. It is a remarkable site. It looks as a sea of stone slabs, nearly all of which are blank. The cemetery dates back to the seventeenth century. At some point the stones were lifted off of the ground to keep them from eroding. However, fumes from the nearby oil refinery have corroded their surfaces, accomplishing what the earth couldn’t. Multiple efforts over the years to preserve the stones have failed. The refinery accounts for over 10% of the island’s GDP making it an important economic factor and therefore not easily curtailed. Luckily, some of the beautiful Biblical scenes depicted on many of the stones were preserved with imprints in the mid-twentieth century. They are displayed at the synagogue’s museum.
But of all of the experiences that I had on my trip to Curacao nothing came close to my encounter with the nearly mythical synagogue archives! They are housed in the newly built beautiful Maduro library. Whilst only seen by few, I was given the privilege to visit these historic documents in the vault located in the bowels of the building. They contain a wealth of information about early American and Spanish & Portuguese Jewish history. I look forward to the opportunity to visit them again in the context of my academic research.
I’d like to conclude this post with a public thank you to Ron Gomes Casseres. He spent two days driving me all around Willemstad, showing me everything that I’ve shared in these posts. Ron generously shared with me both his book and oral knowledge about his community’s history, and arranged for all of my special access. Thank you to Rene David Levy Maduro for making the connection for me, and I wish Rene continued health. It was such a pleasure to meet such wonderful people during my visit. More than anything, I look forward to maintaining these warm friendships for many years to come.
The most important work on this subject is now out of print and is very expensive. If someone would like to buy me a gift, here is the link :).
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