Escape to Haiti: Local man recalls how nation saved Jews from Nazis

In the devastating aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, many Jews felt a measure of pride when they turned on their televisions to see Israeli medical teams on the scene. But for some the sight evoked not only pride — it was a reminder of an important and nearly forgotten era 60 years ago.

For those Jews, Haiti was more than a troubled Caribbean nation struggling against hunger and poverty and now disaster — it was the nation that saved their lives when they found door after door closed to them as they tried to flee Nazi Europe.

“I was 4 years old when I escaped from Germany and went to live in Haiti for a year, until immigrating to New York,” said Bill Mohr of Menlo Park. “I do not know what would have happened if Haiti had not opened its doors to those fleeing the Holocaust.”

After the earthquake put Haiti in the news, Mohr was inspired to explore this intriguing part of his past. He and his wife, Harriet, wanted to know more. Not only about Bill’s family history, but also about Haiti’s almost unknown role in providing 150 to 300 Jews with a shelter from the disaster looming in Europe.

Initially the two found only minimal historical documentation of the refugee community in Haiti. However, soon they were able to start putting together a clearer picture of the tiny Jewish community, which swelled with the arrival of the European immigrants but declined as Haiti’s fate turned in the postwar years.

Bill Mohr enjoys his time on an ocean freighter at age 4.

Although Bill, now 75, spent less than a year of his life in Haiti, he has become immersed in putting together the puzzle and tracking down details about this little-known piece of Jewish history. In fact, what started with a curious interest has snowballed into a full research endeavor, keeping the couple busier than they could have imagined.

“We started working on this right after the earthquake,” said Harriet, “and now every day there’s an e-mail or related phone call. Everyone is coming out of the woodwork. It’s become a full-time and deeply meaningful project. It’s the discovery of a lost tribe, almost.”

Bill’s ties to Haiti began late in 1938, following Kristallnacht. His father, Ernst, was arrested Nov. 10 and held at Dachau until the end of December. During that harrowing time Bill’s mother, Auguste Midas Mohr, worked feverishly to get immigration papers after finding out from a friend that Haiti was a possible escape route. The family also had an affidavit that would allow them to enter the United States eventually, “but there were numbers given out [and] people could only come slowly into the United States when their number was called,” she told her daughter, Ruth, in an oral history many years later.

“I went to Hamburg on the night train all by myself and I contacted our friend, the Haitian consul-general, Mr. Fouchard,” who issued the visas that saved their lives, Auguste, now deceased, recalled in the oral history.

Auguste Midas and Ernst Mohr in Germany shortly before their departure in 1939.

Once Ernst got out of Dachau, the family continued preparations and then left, with each of the four family members allowed to take the equivalent of just a few dollars on the journey.

The family — Ernst, Auguste, 5-year-old Ruth and 3-year-old Bill  — spent 32 days on the high seas, traveling with the only company to include Port-au-Prince on its Caribbean route. Auguste recalled that “the children were very happy there and they ran up and down the ladder to the captain’s deck and the captain let them take the rudder.”

When the family arrived in the Haitian capital, Fouchard’s father had prepared a small house for them. They quickly settled into a Haitian routine. Bill and Ruth played with neighborhood children, and Auguste learned from the locals how to place orders from the market.

In their middle-class circle, appearances were maintained even at what must have seemed like the end of the world. “The men wore white suits with white shirts, and they always had to wear a tie in that terrible heat,” said Auguste. “The kids went to kindergarten and they learned French in no time.”

Because many of the Jews who had recently arrived came from Austria, Auguste recalled that any Jewish newcomers who joined the tiny community were known as “Austrians.” The Bigios, a family that immigrated to Haiti from Syria at the beginning of the century and still is influential in the country today, took charge of organizing the diverse mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi refugees.

Auguste Midas Mohr’s German passport includes a J identifying her as a Jew, a swastika-embossed cover and arrival stamps from the Haiti government.

With no work and little money, the Mohr family struggled, even in the relatively cheap Haitian economy, to make ends meet. “With no money, we were invited to the wedding of the chef du protocol,” Auguste said. “My friend and my neighbor made Ruth a little dress so she could be a flower girl. The dress was made out of one of the collars of my dresses. I wore my wedding gown that was dyed black … It was between Christmas and New Year’s Day and we were dancing there in the open air.”

Shortly after arriving in Haiti, Ernst became very involved in the suddenly blossoming Jewish community and helped to form the Joint Relief Committee of Haiti, a local branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and served as its secretary. “Many of the refugees were in dire need of financial assistance, and he worked toward the aim of lessening their burdens,” Bill said.

Ernst “was always interested [in Jewish life], and he vowed when he came out of concentration camp that he would devote himself to Jewish causes, and that is what he did,” Auguste told Ruth in the oral history.

In February 1940, the Mohrs received word they could legally enter the United States. They arrived in New York City the next month, where Ernst fulfilled a promise he had made to the tiny Haitian Jewish community. Serving as an emissary from the Port-au-Prince community, he went to plead its case for refugee aid before the JDC, seeking a subsistence stipend for the Joint Relief Committee of Haiti.

Apologizing that it could not afford more, the New York headquarters approved $50 a month for the Haitian branch — of which $47.49 of the first installment went to order and ship 300 pounds of matzah from Horowitz Brothers & Margareten for Passover.

Once in the United States, Ernst also kept his promise to devote himself to Jewish causes. He was a founding member and executive director of Temple Anshe Sholom in Kew Gardens, N.Y., 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 is doing what he can to continue his parents’ legacy.

He and Harriet established the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project (www.HaitiHolocaustSurvivors.wordpress.com) to centralize their research and provide a clearinghouse for information about the Jewish refugees of Haiti. As a result, the Mohrs have heard from a number of people who either came through the island nation sometime during the war or are descendants of Jews who were there. They are tracking down leads at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, are in touch with a documentary filmmaker in New York who may be interested in the project, and reached out to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, neither of which, according to Harriet, were aware of Haiti’s role in saving Jews.

That role was significant, she said, even if the numbers look relatively small.

“It was a profound statement [the country] made,” said Harriet, who has written books on human development and spirituality. Bill was a manager at Hewlett-Packard for 27 years; their daughter, Tara, lives in San Francisco and chairs the board of UpStart Bay Area, which supports Jewish innovators. “Haiti made the decision to take a stand, take Jews in and issue these passports. There was a sympathetic energy going on.

“Passports were the difference between life and death for at least 300 people and their children, so it turned into saving thousands.”

Days after the earthquake, the JDC described Haiti as “a legitimate source of inspiration,” noting that it “played a small yet critical role in saving Jewish lives during the darkest chapter in the Jewish story.” According to the organization’s records, starting in 1938, Jewish refugees from Central Europe immigrated, with JDC assistance, to Haiti. By the time travel was rendered impossible with the outbreak of World War II, some 150 Jewish refugees had reached Port-au-Prince. The Joint Relief Committee Haiti financially supported about one-third of them.

According to Harriet, not all Jews with Haiti passports came to the island nation. Some with Haitian documents simply leveraged them to flee to other countries. Others didn’t get the chance to use them at all. “We didn’t realize there were concentration camp prisoners with Haiti passports who got caught before they could make it out,” she said. “Some of these people perished in the camps, while others were liberated at the end of the war.”

Haiti — which in 1947 was one of three countries that changed their original positions and voted for the U.N. partition plan, giving Jews a homeland — had a Jewish population of around 200 people in 1957. But the political climate, lack of economic opportunity and longing for an active Jewish community on the part of Haitian-born Sephardis, as well as the refugees, began to take their toll. By 1970, approximately 75 percent of the Jewish population had left, mostly for the United States, Argentina and Panama. According to the World Jewish Congress’ last count, in 1997, the permanent Jewish community of Haiti numbered 25, mostly still centered in Port-au-Prince.

The Bigio family that organized the community at its peak is still active, owning Haiti’s only Torah scroll and serving as Israel’s consul to the troubled nation. With history turning again full circle, it was Gilbert Bigio who offered his land to house the Israeli field hospital in the earthquake’s aftermath.

Seeing Israelis saving Haitian lives reminded Bill of his personal connection to the country, and launched the Mohr family’s efforts to make sure Jews learn about — and remember — a time when Haiti saved Jewish lives.

For information on the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project, visit www.haitiholocaustsurvivors.wordpress.com. For donations to Haiti relief, visit www.ajws.org.