Rotarians honour a Calypso Jew
By ANGELA PIDDUCK Sunday, July 29 2012
Last Saturday night, 89-year-old Hans Stecher was presented with the Paul Harris Award at the 55th Handover Dinner hosted by the Rotary Club of Port-of-Spain, at Jaffa Restaurant, Queen’s Park Cricket Club, Port-of-Spain.
Stecher, who has been a member of the club from its inception in 1957, is one of a select group of Rotarians to receive this award, which is normally given to a Rotary president demitting office but is sometimes given to those who may not have held this position but have given yeoman commitment to service.
Stecher never accepted the post of president because he often travelled abroad, with his deceased wife, for many months in the year and he thought it would not have been fair to the club.
Now fully retired and writing his memoirs, the ten Stecher shops across the country still carry the name of this “Calypso Jew,” who opened his first shop in 1945, selling hi-end products from the world’s finest producers of watches, jewellery, silverware, leather goods, perfumery, china, crystals and gifts.
Now the lone remaining Jewish refugee from World War II in this country, Stecher still recalls his arrival in this country at age 15 and a half years on the 13 October, 1938. He landed here with his parents, Dr Victor Stecher, an Austrian barrister, and Sophie Stecher; his uncle Dr Wilhelm Stecher, also a barrister; and aunt Wilhelmine Baltinester, who was his mother’s sister and a much published writer in Austrian and German magazines; followed by Erich Tauscher, who had married Bertha Stecher, and their two little girls, Trudy and Alice.
The family all managed to find a safe haven in Trinidad as at that time, the world did not open its doors to refugees and “there were very few places in the world they could go to after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. The terror in Austria began when he took over in March 1938.
“The United States of America was out of the question as one had to be sponsored by an affidavit from relatives. Trinidad was one of the very few colonies in the world which had liberal immigration policies,” Stecher told Sunday Newsday.
“You did not need a visa, that is how many of the Syrians, Lebanese, Portuguese and Chinese came into this country. All you needed was to make a security deposit, either before or at the time of entry, of 50 British pounds, to ensure that the immigrant would not become a public charge, and it was refundable after one year.”
Stecher added, “We had a relative living many years before in Venezuela who made the deposit for us because we could not send money out of the country, so he made the deposit and told us about Trinidad, a small island off the South American coast. I knew where it was from stamp collecting. It was not a matter of choice, people would have gone to the waterless Sahara to get away from Hitler.”
And it got much worse, as a few years later two of his aged great aunts disappeared.
“My grandmother’s sisters most probably went to the gas chambers,” he said.
The Stechers and other Jewish refugees not only had to leave all their assets and come out with very little, but were made to pay for their own personal possessions.
“It was called a Reichsfluchtsteuer (a cynical tax for fleeing the Reich). If you had some jewellery, a camera or anything of value, we could not take it out unless we declared it first to the Nazis, whose valuators’ assessments had to be accepted and you then had to pay the value stipulated to the state.”
Arriving in Trinidad, the Austrian and German Jews did not escape oppression, however, as in September 1939 they were suddenly considered by His Majesty’s Government “enemy aliens.” At that time, because of stories of Nazi spies and fifth columnists abounding in the western world, the British government was finding it difficult to sort out genuine refugees and victims of the Nazis from those they thought could be Nazi spies hiding behind false identities as refugees.
Stecher and his family and all refugees holding German or Austrian passports were thus interned. The Stechers were among the first picked up by the police and told to get packed immediately. They were put in cells at Police Headquarters and the next day the men were sent to Nelson Island and the women and children to the island of Caledonia, in the Five Islands.
But Stecher found the stigma of being branded “enemy alien” almost intolerable, and longed for nothing more than to get to the USA or UK “to join the army and help fight the Nazi monster. It was a deep insult to us, the first and the most savaged victims of Nazism.” However, after a few months on the two islands, an internment camp, code named “Camp Rented Trinidad,” was built in the area which is now Federation Park, surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence with sentry towers and search-lights at the corners.
Very few people are also aware that the Jews maintain a well-kept section in the north eastern corner of the Mucurapo Cemetery in Port-of-Spain for Jewish burials. It was only two years ago that Stecher handed over the responsibility for the upkeep of the special Jewish burial plots to the younger Jews who still live here. Two well-known Jews are Dr Paul Faigenbaum – a dentist –, and Dr Boris Yufe, who manages a chain of fabric stores.
In April 1999, Alisa Siegel, who lives in Toronto, and whose father, Arthur, had lived in Trinidad, wrote an article in the Toronto Star headlined: “Warm Memories of Trinidad – Island haven in wartime became home to small community of Calypso Jews.” Siegel’s special article to the Star told of a group of 50 “Calypso Jews” who had recently met at a kosher Chinese restaurant in Miami Beach for a celebration of survival. They had come from Toronto, Montreal, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Venezuela and Brazil for their first ever reunion to toast the country they once called home: Trinidad and Tobago. Some had not seen each other in more than 50 years.
The reunion was scheduled in large part to toast the recent publication of a book of personal memoirs titled “Our Calypso Shtetl” (Shtetl means a Jewish village), which it would seem has never reached our local bookshelves. Siegel wrote: “The book is a testament to the wonderful memories the Jews have of the island that sheltered them during a gruesome period in history. It documents the testimonials of a significant portion of the Jews who grew up in Trinidad, now adults in their 50s, 60s and 70s. The Jewish presence in Trinidad is one of the happier stories of World War II.”