The Ashkenazi Jews of Curacao
In the 1920s and early 1930s Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe came to Curacao . Most of them started their careers as peddlers, but they knew how to get ahead and managed to attain great prosperity. They kept their Jewish identity and formed a close-knit and isolated group. In the 1980s and 1990s the group’s size diminished dramatically. Most of the first settlers died of old age and, because of political insecurity and economic decline, many Ashkenazi Jews left the island in the 1980s to settle elsewhere, especially in the United States .
Most of the Ashkenazi Jews of Curacao originate from the former Bessarabia, a border area between Romania and Russia , especially from Novoselitsa and Czernowitz in Bukovina , the main market towns for the surrounding rural areas. A few came from Poland .
From the 1880s onward large numbers of Jews fled Russia , Romania , and other Eastern European countries because of anti-Semitic government policies which were related to an increasing nationalism. Between 1880 and 1993 about four million Eastern European Jews moved westward, primarily to the United States . The Ashkenazi Jews of Curacao were a later part of this migration. Because the United States had restricted the immigration quotas in 1921, 1925 and 1927, the Ashkenazi Jews aimed for various countries in Latin America .
Very few of the Ashkenazi Jews who ended up in Curacao had ever heard of Curacao . Most of them were on their way to other destinations in Latin America . The ships on which they traveled made Curacao a port of call mostly to tank oil, and they stayed on if they learned that the country of their destination was in political turmoil. Moreover, they understood that there was plenty of opportunity in Curacao . Some left after a while, but those who remained sent for relatives. To be a “Landsman” (from the same area) was of great importance. A newcomer was helped by the group; he was either hired as an employee or he received credit.
SOCIAL AND ECONOMICAL CHALLENGES
During the first years the group consisted mainly of young men. There were no potential brides on the island. When one of the men had saved enough money to go back and visit relatives, he would sometimes be given the address of another member of the group in order to deliver presents and good wishes to this “Landsman’s” relatives. A few marriages resulted from this. But most of the wives came from Ashkenazi communities in Latin America, such as Aregentina , Colombia , and Venezuela .
The Ashkenazi Jews who came to Curacao arrived with few economic resources, some were artisans but many had some background in retailing and most – coming from Eastern European border areas – were used to dealing with ethnic groups different than themselves. At first the Ashkenazi Jews subsisted by buying goods from Sephardic wholesalers and then peddling them throughout the rural areas of Curacao . In the early years they would carry the goods on their backs, or pay a local boy to carry part of the load, and travel on foot for days. Later some transported goods by using carts – first, without a mule, then with a mule. They called themselves knockers (in Dutch kloppers) after the Yiddish word for the knock on the door when they tried to sell their wares or collect money. Finally they stopped peddling altogether, selling first out of small stores on back streets and then in lager stores on major streets.
ECONOMIC PROSPERITY AND DECLINE
With low taxes and little competition during the first two to three decades of Ashkenazi settlement, they were able to prosper – even during the economic depression of the 1930s and although the Ashkenazi Jews came from humble beginnings and started with very little, their businesses often became very profitable. They stopped relying on their Sephardic wholesaler companions and began to import goods directly. As sellers of goods and employers, Ashkenazi Jews became increasingly visible to the general Curacaoan population. As such, some were targets of the May 30th riots in 1969. Afterwards, shaken by the riots, some Ashkenazi Jews left Curacao . The Curacaoan economic recession of the early to mid-1980s that followed the devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar, led to a further exodus of Ashkenazi Jews from Curacao . Many children had not returned from college to manage businesses, and some of their older parents took the recession as an opportunity to close or sell the businesses and retire, sometimes moving to another country, usually the United States
- NWIG, New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
- BENJAMIN, ALAN F., 2002. Jews of the Dutch Caribbean Exploring ethnic identity on Curacao
- EMMANUEL, ISSAC, 1957. Precious Stones of the Jews of Curacao
- EMMANUEL, ISAAC & SUZANNE, A. EMMANUEL, 1970. History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles