Historic Jewish Cemetery in Carribean Fades Away

by | Nov 28, 2012 | Israel & Jewish Roots, Standing With Israel

Headstones are pockmarked, their inscriptions faded. Stone slabs that have covered tombs for centuries are crumbling. White marble has turned grey, likely from the acrid smoke that spews from a nearby oil refinery.

One of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Western Hemisphere, Beth Haim on the island of Curacao, is slowly fading in the Caribbean sun.

Beth Haim was established in the 17th century and is considered an important landmark even on an island so rich in history that its downtown has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sparsely populated island of nearly 150,000 people just north of Venezuela is known today mostly as a diving destination or for its namesake blue liqueur made from citrus fruit.

With its lavish monuments and multilingual epitaphs, Curacao’s cemetery helps tell the little-known history of Jews in the Caribbean who fled Spain and Portugal to escape the Inquisition aimed at ridding the Christian nations of Jews, Muslims and others people deemed heretics. Many of the exiles first found refuge in the Netherlands, with their descendants later settling in this former Dutch colony, now a highly diverse society and a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

But the landmark is in danger. The steady erosion, likely intensified by the proximity of the antiquated refinery, is now considered unstoppable, said Rene Maduro, president of the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which owns and maintains the cemetery.

“Believe me, I wish there was something we could do to protect the cemetery,” said Maduro, whose family came to Curacao in the 1600s and has 75 to 100 ancestors buried in Beth Haim. “It is beyond the point of repair.”

The Curacao cemetery is among several at-risk burial sites that “preserve the cultural, ethnic, biographical and religious history” of Jews in the Caribbean, said Rachel Frankel, a New York architect who has studied and documented historic Jewish sites throughout the Americas, including burial grounds in Jamaica and Suriname.

The Curacao congregation is considering preserving the cemetery electronically by setting up a website with records and photos, Maduro said. The plan for a digital memorial is still in development, but a lower-tech effort has put replicas of 10 of the most ornate headstones on display at the Jewish Historical Museum in the capital of Willemstad.

Besides being sacred sites, Frankel said, the cemeteries help document the Caribbean migration of Sephardic Jews whose forefathers fled or were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition, and Ashkenazic Jews who later left central and eastern Europe to seek their fortunes in the New World. Along with Curacao and Jamaica, large populations of Jews were once found on the smaller Dutch island of St. Eustatius, as well as in St. Thomas and Barbados.

On some islands, colonial Jews numbered in the hundreds, and other locations in the thousands, said Frankel. By the mid-20th century, most of the congregations had declined, but the cemeteries that in some cases had accepted burials for more than two centuries remained.

The Jewish community in Curacao dates back to the 1650s, with the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam who had previously fled Spain and Portugal. At its peak, in the late 1700s, the Jewish community on the island numbered about 2,000.

They established the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which is billed as the oldest continually operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, as well as Beth Haim cemetery. The synagogue today has about 350 members, of which only about 200 actually live on Curacao. An orthodox synagogue in another part of Willemstad has a membership of about 60 families.

The cemetery occupies what was once plantation land on about 10 acres on the outskirts of Willemstad. The oldest confirmed inscription is from 1668 on a stone made of potter’s clay, according to records maintained by the synagogue. Congregation members have determined more than 5,000 people are buried there, but only a third of the inscriptions are legible in a mix of languages that includes Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and Hebrew. Also vanishing are some of the engravings known as sepulchral illustrations, some of which are considered artworks.

Ivan Becher, president of the Shaarek Tsedek synagogue in Willemstad, said his grandfather was among the last to be buried in Beth Haim nearly 60 years ago.

“My grandfather’s grave is pretty well kept, but with the rest of the graves, there is a lot of erosion,” he said. “It’s too bad.”

Experts who have studied the headstones say the deterioration is caused by a combination of factors, including wind, salt air and humidity, said Michael A. Newton, an architect who works with the Curacao Monuments Foundation, a preservation group.

Many on the island also blame the oil refinery that towers over the cemetery and on many days spews sooty clouds that burn the eyes of visitors to Beth Haim as well as those of residents in the poor neighborhoods of the area.

A spokesman for the refinery, which is owned by the Curacao government and operated under contract by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, did not return calls seeking comment.

The refinery’s operators have occasionally helped with the cemetery’s maintenance, which has otherwise cost the congregation “many, many thousands” of dollars over the years, Maduro said.

Congregation members have consulted with experts from the Netherlands and the United States on possible solutions to halt erosion, but the options were too expensive and considered long-shots at best.

Jewish law forbids disturbing remains so moving the cemetery to another part of Curacao that would be less threatened by refinery smoke is out of the question, Maduro said.

Frankel, the New York architect, said that preservation has also proved difficult for other historic cemeteries in the Caribbean that no longer receive burials and have dwindling populations of Jewish heirs to care for them.

“In places where pollutants are not a problem, there are other challenges,” she said. “Vegetation grows fast and furious in the subtropical climate. Goat herds — which exist even in urban centers — make their way through open cemetery gates. And as Caribbean cities become more densely populated, cemeteries sometimes become garbage dumps where public sanitation is lacking.”

But appreciation of the cemeteries as historic sites has grown over the past two decades, Frankel said, with local governments, academics and congregants are working together to document, study, and preserve them while also making them accessible to the public.

The Curacao cemetery is occasionally visited by tourists from the cruise ships stopping at downtown Willemstad.

Maduro hopes future visitors will also be able to view the cemetery virtually, on the hoped-for website.

“Not that we can preserve it, but we are trying to make it easier for people to know what’s there and who is buried there,” he said.


Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from Mexico City.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

CHARISMA NEWSLETTERS

Stay up-to-date with current issues, Christian teachings, entertainment news, videos & more.

The latest breaking Christian news you need to know about as soon as it happens.

Prophetic messages from respected leaders & news of how God is moving throughout the world. 


MORE FROM CHARISMA

How Do You Leave a Church That Becomes Toxic?

How Do You Leave a Church That Becomes Toxic?

Two weeks ago, I shared several practical guidelines on how to leave a church gracefully. I wrote this because I hear so many stories about people storming out of churches because their feelings got hurt. But one astute reader didn’t appreciate my observations because...

Prophetic Word: There Will Be a Day of Reckoning

Prophetic Word: There Will Be a Day of Reckoning

“Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and...

How You Can Plead the Blood of Jesus in the Courts of Heaven

How You Can Plead the Blood of Jesus in the Courts of Heaven

You have an enemy. His goal is to keep you from entering a covenant relationship with God. However, once you do, his goal changes. He wants to make you doubt your identity, doubt God’s ability and keep you from walking in your purpose. He changes his accusations...

Why God Will Sometimes Hesitate to Give Your Mountain

Why God Will Sometimes Hesitate to Give Your Mountain

Recently, I was having a discussion over coffee with a group of friends when one of them asked the question: “Can you believe how much the world has changed in what seems to be a very short time?” My answer was: “Yes. Yes, I have no problem believing how much the...

8 Reasons for You to Speak in Tongues

8 Reasons for You to Speak in Tongues

If a person were to ask, “Why speak in tongues?” couldn’t we also ask, “Why pray?” The Word of God shows a definite value in praying with an unknown tongue. Jesus tells us that “it is necessary always to pray” (Luke 18:1, MEV). Later, in speaking of prayer, Paul...

What ‘The Jetsons’ and Cindy Jacobs Prophetically Got Right

What ‘The Jetsons’ and Cindy Jacobs Prophetically Got Right

Just as the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons depicted a future full of video phones, robotics and Google-style office space, some modern-day prophets have prophesied about a future full of exposing corruption, fighting for individual freedom and shining a light on truth. One...

The Blueprints for Building a Powerful and Abundant Life for Jesus

The Blueprints for Building a Powerful and Abundant Life for Jesus

Have you ever seen blueprints? If not, blueprints are detailed drawings, containing specifications approved by the builder of a home. A blueprint fully outlines the quality of the materials needed to build a stable and trustworthy home. For a Christian, the Bible is...

9 Reasons Why God Never Tries to Prove His Existence

9 Reasons Why God Never Tries to Prove His Existence

God is self-authenticating. He never tries to prove His existence because it is already evident through the created order. Since He is the only objective being, all other living and nonliving objects emanate from His creative fiat word hence all reasoning (different...

RECENT ARTICLES

Dutch Sheets Prophesies: The Evil Plans of the Wicked Will Boomerang Back

The events of last week have shocked many Americans. While my responsibility and calling is not to defend individuals or political parties, it is worth pointing out that what the Left did on 8/8,...
How Prophetic Evangelism Is Impacting Change in Today’s Culture

How Prophetic Evangelism Is Impacting Change in Today’s Culture

Dr. Candice Smithyman, host of Manifest His Presence on the Charisma Podcast Network, recently interviewed apostle Stacey Campbell, founder of Shiloh Global about how prophecy can impact today’s culture. Apostle Campbell is passionate about teaching young people and...

Prophetic Vision: Three Tables Are Set

Prophetic Vision: Three Tables Are Set

Recently as I was worshipping the Lord, I went into a vision where I could see I was in a dark and very deep valley. It was nighttime, and the valley was surrounded by tall mountains. On the top of each I could see the outlines of men and instinctively knew they were...

Pin It on Pinterest

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]