Haiti was hardly an obvious destination for Jews fleeing Europe in the late 1930s. But they went wherever they could, and Haiti deserves credit for saving the lives of approximately 300 Jews.
One of them was Ernst Mohr. He was released from the Dachau concentration camp 80 years ago this week – on December 21, 1938.
“On November 10, 1938, my father was arrested at home in his pajamas and deported to Dachau with 150 Jewish males from Furth, Germany,” his son Bill told The Jewish Press. “Realizing that my father’s release depended upon immigration, my mother worked feverishly to get the necessary documents.
“One night, in late November, she traveled alone by train to Hamburg to see the Haitian Consulate General, Mr. Max Bouchereau, a friend of my father’s. He granted her four visas – for my father, mother, sister Ruth, aged 5, and me, Ludwig Eduard (Bill), aged 3.”
A number of Jews from Germany and Austria, plus a few from Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, had immigrated to Haiti prior to the annexation of Austria and Germany on March 12, 1938. After the outbreak of World War II, immigration to Haiti was prohibited, although a few refugees subsequently arrived on the island from Europe after purchasing Haitian citizenship at the cost of $2,000-$3,000.
“In preparation to leave Germany, my mother started packing our household goods. Beside her stood an armed SS guard supervising the items she was packing. When it came to our silver utensils, the soldier instructed my mother that only one place setting of cutlery was allowed to be taken for each member of the family, plus one additional setting for a guest. The rest had to be handed to the Gestapo….
“After his release, my father traveled to Holland, Belgium, England seeking employment as a sales representative in Haiti. My mother, sister, and I departed from Hamburg on the SS Henry Horn on April 6, 1939, with other refugees who were destined for Haiti, Santa Domingo, or Jamaica.
“When the ship arrived in Antwerp to pick up more passengers and cargo, my father joined us. The voyage to Haiti took 32 days. Waiting for us at the wharf in Port-au-Prince was Mr. Bouchereau’s father.”
Upon arrival, the refugees on the U.S.-governed island had to register with the U.S. Consul, and were placed on a waiting list for a visa to America. Haiti was home to four million natives who spoke a French Creole language. Eighty percent of the population was illiterate, and the standard of living was low, with a worker’s salary averaging 10-20 cents per day. A republican government that depended upon backing from the U.S. ruled Haiti, with the economy built upon the export of bananas, sugar, sisal, cotton, and, primarily, coffee.
Most of the Jewish refugees from Europe were over 40, making them too old to engage in manual labor. To obtain a license to work in the import-export business, meanwhile, cost an hefty $200-$400 (for a native the price was just $20). A number of Jews became involved in manufacturing sisal products (sisal is used to make such items as rope, twine, bags, carpets, etc.). But after workers complained about their wages, sisal manufacturing became a government monopoly.
“In October 1939, the Joint Relief Committee (JRC) in Port-au-Prince was established to address the needs of the refugees who had arrived with little or no money. My father was elected treasurer.”
The Jewish refugees fell into three categories: 1) those with sufficient resources to live comfortably; 2) those with dwindling finances and would need to depend on the JRC; and 3) those supported by relatives in the U.S.
Monthly allocations of JRC’s funds were: $20 for a single person; $33 for a family of two; $45 for a family of three; and $50 for a family of 4. Renting a house cost $15-$20 a month. The JRC also provided loans, sponsored English and French classes, and helped refugees set up businesses, apply for work licenses, and emigrate from the Haiti.
The sharp business acumen of some of the Jewish refugees caused resentment among the locals, and native newspapers like Le Moniteur, which had the largest circulation in Port-au-Prince (3,000-4,000 copies printed daily), published anti-Semitic and anti-refugee articles.
By the end of July 1939, the Haitian minister of interior passed a law requiring all refugees over 16 to pay an annual tax of $100. Most Jews were unable to afford that levy.
On October 1, 1939, work permits were officially no longer being issued, and all existing permits were canceled. These stringent conditions caused many refugees to despair. That year, several refugees were diagnosed with tropical fever and treated by refugee doctors. After 1939, however, a new law barred refugee doctors from practicing medicine. The legislation also applied to refugee dentists.
The Jews on the island tried to adhere to certain Jewish basics:
“Shabbat services were held in the living room at the home of a home of resident and were attended regularly by my father and other refugees. One month before Passover, a request was made from the JDC for 300 lbs. of matzah for the Jews.
“My family lived in Haiti for 10 months. It was always intended to serve as a place of refuge until our quota number was called for us to move to the U.S.”
No visas to the U.S. were issued until mid-1940. The U.S. consulate informed the refugees that their arrival in the U.S. would deprive Americans of jobs. They, therefore, had to demonstrate that they could live for 3-5 years without employment. Additionally, loans from the JRC had to be repaid before they could apply to immigrate.
“To raise money for our passage and visa, my parents sold our possessions. On December 16, 1939, a visa to the United States was issued by the American Consul and in February 1940, we received notification that our number had been called.
“Prior to our departure from Haiti, my father arranged to be a sales representative of Haitian mahogany bowls in New York. We sailed on the MS Columbia from Port-au-Prince in late February 1940 and arrived in New York City on March 4, 1940.
“Almost immediately after we immigrated to NYC, my father made a plea, in person, at the JDC for assistance to refugees who remained in Haiti.
“My father gained employment with Mr. William Meyer, a wholesale distributor who initially helped my father by purchasing the bowls he had brought from Haiti. Years later my father closed this business and worked as a salesman in Mr. Meyer’s company selling small housewares and kitchen gadgets to retail stores.
“Devoting himself to Jewish causes, my father became a founding member and executive director of Temple Anshe Sholom in Kew Gardens, NY, and was active in B’nai B’rith, United Jewish Appeal, and State of Israel Bonds, which awarded him a medal of recognition in 1966.”
Bill Mohr lives in Menlo Park, California with his wife, Harriet. They have a married daughter and two grandchildren.
On November 29, 1947 Haiti voted in favor of the UN partition plan to create a Jewish state.