York professor gives voice to Jewish refugees and Jamaican Jews through book, reunion

When Diana Cooper-Clark began her research about Jewish refugees escaping to Jamaica during the Second World War, she knew she was embarking on a virtually unknown story within the Holocaust narrative. The York University professor focused on Jews who took refuge in Jamaica’s Gibraltar Camp after finding an article referencing the subject, written in 1994 by Paul R. Bartrop, current director, Center for Judaic, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies, Florida Gulf Coast University.

The result of her research is the book, Dreams of Re-Creation in Jamaica: The Holocaust, Internment, Jewish Refugees in Gibraltar Camp, Jamaican Jews and Sephardim, which includes the refugees’ stories and photos – most shared for the very first time. They are among the last eyewitnesses to the Shoah.

Gibraltar Camp (image by Willem Schpektor and supplied by Inez Schpektor)

During her inquiry, Cooper-Clark traced the paths of 18 of those survivors using sheer grit and perseverance. She first uncovered an unpublished memoir whose author had already passed. She then located another self-published memoir, and flew to England to interview the former refugee.

“I went to archives in London, England several times, YIVO in New York, the John Carter Brown Library, and the National Library of Jamaica,” she said. “Since I had to track down the survivors, it was in part ‘scholar-as-detective’, and I found the passenger lists for the first boat of refugees and another boat of Dutch refugees that came a year later.”

She narrowed her search to the sons of Gibraltar refugees, assuming that most of the adults during the Second World War would have passed on, and the daughters would possibly have married names. She focused on the most likely places to which they would have settled after leaving the camp: Toronto, Montreal and New York, for example.

“I started with Toronto, and I basically just got out the phonebook,” she said.

Word of her search spread, and people with information began to reach out to her. One man who came to her lecture on Gibraltar camp at a synagogue introduced himself as a Jewish refugee on the first boat.

What she recounts in her book is that Gibraltar Camp was home to roughly 1,500 Jewish refugees from 1942 to 1945. Her book contains 105 photographs, with over 90 of them given to her by the survivors and having never been published or archived.

After completion of her book, Cooper-Clark decided to organize a reunion in Kingston, Jamaica for the Gibraltar Camp survivors and their descendants. She spent a year organizing the reunion – which included tours of the Gibraltar Camp site, a former slave plantation and now current site of the University of the West Indies, among other memorable landmarks.

The Jewish refugees who were children and teenagers during the Second World War are now in their 80s and 90s. Four of the survivors in her book have already passed on, she said. And, although four of the survivors initially intended to come to the reunion, only one was able to attend. Due to the advanced age of all, health and other circumstances would not permit travel. However, several descendants of the former refugees did attend to learn about the history of their families.

The one survivor who did attend the five-day reunion was Inez Schpektor Baker, now 86 years old. She was accompanied by her two sons for the journey.

An image from Cooper-Clark’s book

Now a California resident, Schpektor Baker was 11 years old when she first arrived at Gibraltar Camp. The visit to the site of the camp was, for her, a return to her past, said Cooper-Clark. She was also taken to her old school, St. Andrews, where alumni turned out to welcome her including two of her former classmates. As part of the reunion tour, she visited the synagogue for a Remembrance Day service, and an especially moving moment was the trip to the Orange Street Jewish cemetery where some of the refugees who died of natural causes while in the camp are buried. Joan Halperin, who was born after the war and attended the reunion, had a sister (Yvonne) who died at the age of three in the camp and is buried at that site. All of the reunion participants and members of the Jamaican Jewish community held a service, and each put a stone on Yvonne’s grave.

Cooper-Clark states that Jamaican and Caribbean Jews “feel marginalized in the Holocaust narrative”.

“Not only did Caribbean countries take in refugees, but the fact that Caribbean Jews were slaughtered in European extermination camps is a ‘hidden’ history,” she said. “For example, Suriname lost one-fifth of their Jewish community, 105 people, in the camps like Auschwitz and Sobibor.”

An image from Cooper-Clark’s book

As well, she added, Jamaican Jews helped the refugees in numerous ways and worked with the Jewish rescue organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

Her book also sheds light on the Sephardim and the Jamaican Jewish population who first arrived in 1494, Columbus’s second voyage, after being expelled from Spain, and the Ashkenazi Jews who settled there in the 18th Century.

Cooper-Clark herself is Jamaican, and her commitment to Holocaust research began at the age of six after reading and viewing the photographs in her father’s book about Eichmann.

She said, “I did not have the language then, but essentially I swore to bear witness to the Holocaust for the rest of my life.”

In January 2017, documentary filmmaker Irene Angelico filmed Cooper-Clark for her forthcoming project, Reaching for Zion, about the Jamaican Jewish community and Rastafarians. Angelico has won awards in many countries for her film about the Holocaust, Dark Lullabies.